The Size at Conception

If you have never written a book before, you may be surprised by how many words they eat up. An industry standard for number of words on a double-spaced manuscript page is 250. Simple math then tells you that in order to write a scant 200 pages, you need 50,000 words. You also have to figure that a double-spaced manuscript page will shrink when it is transformed into a book page. You can assume a ratio of manuscript to book pages as 3:2 for long manuscripts, and 4:3 for slim ones. Now let’s stop and apply that to 200 pages. That means your book is going to be 150 pages. That’s a skinny book: its spine will be barely wide enough for the title to be seen on a book shelf. 

You may object that in this day of Kindle Shorts, the spine width of a physical book doesn’t matter. I am a fan of ebooks, so don’t get me wrong, but you have to ask yourself: is all I ever wanted from my dream an electronic book? Every author I have worked with has expressed a desire to eventually see the book come out in physical form. 

Nonfiction is the realm in which length is usually the problem. Publishers and most readers are aware of a phenomenon known informally as the “big magazine article.” We’ve all experienced books that really needed to be only 50 pages long, and we end up reading later chapters filled with rewording of the same points over and over. Those are the ones where I personally stop reading each word by Chapter 5 or so, and then skim the later chapters to see if there actually is anything new. You’d be surprised, incidentally, by how many academic books suffer from this same problem of filler. 

This problem can be addressed at the conception. You can judge how long each chapter will be by writing a paragraph outline for each topic within the chapter. Let’s say you believe each chapter can be 20 pages long. So you need a minimum of 10 chapters. If you had 15 chapters, though, you’d have a 300-page book. Or, if you increased the length of each chapter to 25 pages, you’d have 250 pages. The numbers don’t lie, so be honest with yourself and ask: Do I need to add more topics?

Exercise: Let’s say you have a program for the best way to exercise. You deliver an opening pitch to potential clients that wows them every time. You have to realize, however, that the pitch may only amount to 30-40 pages of text. You better start thinking about the other components in the program. Could you recruit the physical therapist to include the exercises she uses with athletes? That’s a chapter. With aging baby boomers? That’s a chapter. Do you have a diet regimen for overweight clients putting too much pressure on their joints? That’s a chapter...and so on.

“Books are never finished. They are merely abandoned.” —Oscar Wilde

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