How Many Words in a Book?
How many words in a book? That’s a question many new authors ask. It’s important for authors to know in order to meet both market expectations and reader preferences.
The Main Principle
When it comes to word count, there is an over-riding principle. That is, you want to tell a complete story, not over-or-under tell it.
Book-length is about reader experience, not writer ambition.
Readers always know when a book is the right length. How? By the sense of satisfaction they feel when they read the last page. This principle applies to both fiction and nonfiction books.
Word Count for Novels (Fiction)
Novels are getting shorter. They are entertainment. Before movies, radio, television, and the Internet, novels were for the literate and stage plays for the less literate.
Since entertainment options were limited, people wanted long novels. As people began to have more diverse entertainment opportunities, novel word count went down. Here are some selected samples that show the trend.
- War and Peace (1869) by Russian author Leo Tolstoy is 565,146 words in the English edition.
- American author John Steinbeck used 179,148 words to craft the classic Grapes of Wrath (1939).
- The Di Vinci Code (2003) by Dan Brown is 138,380 words.
There are still long novels today, of course. Take Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace, for example. I’m not sure how many words it is, but it is 1,079 pages and it’s a tour de force.
Unfortunately, in this day of self-publishing, many writers try to mimic his genius, but they fail and their books are just long, boring and self-indulgent.
With a few exceptions, however, the trend is clear: “Shorter is better.”
Kindle Singles is one of the fastest-growing categories at Amazon, and to be accepted into that program, ebooks must be between 5,000 and 30,000 words.
Nonfiction Book Word Count
Nonfiction books have a more extensive range, from 25,000- 150,000 words. They type of nonfiction book is what makes the difference in the word count.
For example, a “how-to” or “self-help” book might have as few as 25,000 words and the reader will think they received good value for their money. On the other hand, if you’re writing history or biography, your book is likely to be in the 60,000-100,000 word category. Science books tend to have an even higher word count in many instances.
When it comes to nonfiction, it is best to explore other books in your specific genre. What is the typical length for the subject and for the target audience? You want your book to fall within established ranges.
Book Word Count Guidelines
Publishers ultimately decide what length is proper for a particular book. However, here are some guidelines you will find helpful.
- Fiction – Novel – 40,000 – 150,000
- Fiction – Novella – 18,000-40,000
- Nonfiction – 25,000 – 150,000
- Young Adult books (YA) – 25,000 – 75,000
- Children’s books – 250 – 1,000
You want to keep a certain type of book in these ranges. For example, newbies think they’re doing something earth-shaking by writing a YA book that’s 150,000 words. But to a young adult, it’s likely to be a long, boring book and not earth-shaking at all.
Profit Shrinks If You Get Too Wordy
Self-publishers don’t want to over-write for economic reasons.
The cost of production and the sales price is determined by length. To make a fair profit, longer books need to priced higher. If they are not competitive with normal length books in the same category, you’ll lose sales.
If you lower the price to be competitive, profit margins shrink to nothing.
Are Ebooks an Exception?
Books with a high word count are a bad financial bet. You might get away with a long book for a cheap price as an ebook, but you’ll fail in print. The economics are that bad.
Shorter books are better than longer books from a marketing perspective.
From a literary perspective, long books are often a sign of sloppy writing. If you have seen the movie, “Wonder Boys” (2000) starring Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire, you’ll appreciate my point. There are many valuable lessons for writers in that film, but an important one is about making choices.
If I were King of the Universe, I would require all writers to watch that great movie before being allowed to write a novel over 100,000 words. The self-published limit should be 75,000 in my view.
If you’re self-publishing a novel of more than 100,000 words, I suggest you break it down into several shorter books in a series.
That makes more sense from a reader’s view, and it’s good for book profits too.
The Difference Between Word Count and Page Count
Word count is an important metric for any writer. Professional writers set a word count target for the type of book they’re writing. But word count does not translate well into page count. There are several factors that affect page count no matter what your word count may be. The long-standing general rule is that normal page length is between 275-325 words.
Ebook Page Count Factors
You do not control the page count of an ebook. The reason is that ebook reading devices have different dimensions. The page count will be different on a 10-inch iPad than it will on a tiny Amazon Kindle screen. Importantly, these devices, and ebook-reading apps like the one offered by Amazon, allow readers to select the font, the font size, and the distance between lines. Those factors demolish the entire concept of many words should appear on a page.
There is another factor that affects authors enrolled in Amazon’s KDP Select program. Amazon pays authors by the number of pages read, not the actual number of pages in your book. Thus, they use a special way of counting pages they call Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC).
How many words on a Kindle page? It changes as Amazon manipulates how much they want to pay authors, but lore has it that it is about 180-200 words per page. Those in the KDP Select program know they are going to get less than about one-half of a cent (.0045) for each page read, so KENPC is only relevant to them.
Print Book Page Count Factors
The way your book is formatted makes a difference in the page count no matter how many words it may have. Many new authors have a low word count but want a high page count. They solve that problem by using a large body copy font (11 points or larger) and lots of white space in margins and between headings.
Adding this kind of bloat marks you and your book designer as an amateur. Sadly, it has become common in the self-publishing era, but just because people advice and repeat bad book design and composition does not make it right. Readers will see your book is filled with fluff soon enough and you’ll pay the price in bad reviews and low book sales.
How can you get the professional look you want and readers deserve? Use standard professional conventions for layout. Hire an experienced professional to design the interior of your book. Don’t use someone who is working cheap and is following the herd which engages in unhelpful subjective design choices. Such people don’t understand why conventions are important. They ape something they have seen elsewhere rather than taking the time and effort to present your writing in the best possible visual way.
Here are some universal standards and you cannot go wrong using them
- Front Matter. This is the cover page, copyright page and all else that comes before the first chapter. The cover page should use the same typological conventions as the cover, but without reproducing it exactly. The rest of the front matter is sized proportionally using the same font as the body text.
- Chapter Titles. This is the one place you can use a distinctive font. It may be the same as the title page or you can select another distinctive font for all chapter names and numbers.
- Headers. Nonfiction books typically have header levels. Fiction books seldom have them. Generally, you want to use a font that that is in contrast to the body text. You can’t go wrong by using a simple semi-bold san serif font like Arial or Helvetica. No need to get fancy, you want to set off various sections and sub-sections for readers to identify. Keep all headers consistently and evenly spaced. If you’re using an 18 point font, for example, 24-point spacing top and bottom is probably just about right. Regardless of the software being used to “typeset” the book, you set headings using the Styles section of all such software.
- Body Text. Which body copy text has the best readability? Times Roman has stood the test of time. It is well-proportioned (not too flat or tall) is well accepted stylistically by readers. Some complain that it is boring since it is used so often. If you want to spread your wings, find a font that much like Times Roman yet is stylistically different. Fonts like Bookman, Georgia, and Merriweather fall into that category. What is the ideal font size? Somewhere between 9.5 and 10.5. To me, 10.5 is the absolute maximum for most modern fiction and nonfiction. If you have written a children’s book or one for the visually impaired, then use 10.5 or higher. Personally, I stick to 9.5 Merriweather in all of my own books these days. You want the space between lines should not be too close together, and they should not be too far apart either. Never use a sans-serif font for body text. Some authors think it looks cool, but readers usually hate it for long content.
- Back Matter. Back matter usually includes disclaimers, author information, endnotes, and other elements at the end of the book. Typically, I use the same layout as chapters, although I often reduce the body text by 1 point.
Why so much detail about book formatting when we are discussing word count? Because both the technical and artistic elements dictate the page count. A 60,000-word book can be as few as 133 pages or as much as 300 pages or more if you use a big font and too much white space. However, following best practices, the sweet spot for a 60,000-word book is about 200-220 pages. Why a range like that? It depends on the number of headings and subheadings.
Write for the Market
You want to identify the word count range for the type of book you’re writing in the Word Count Guidelines above. After you have written, get formatting skills from a competent professional. There is a relationship between word count, interior design, and the saleability of your book.
For example, these days I write and publish how-to and self-help books. I know my readers, so I write to that market. In my case, I use a 6 x 9 trade paperback format, and it’s my goal to have at least 130 pages. That’s the minimum for a book to have text on the spine when you publish a paperback through Amazon. What is my minimum word count to reach that goal? With the professional font sizes and spacing I use, I write 32,000 words. That makes a great read in those nonfiction genres and competitively priced at $2.99-$3.99 for the ebook edition and $7.99-$12.99 for the paperback edition.
Word count is important. You must set a word count goal that fits your genre before you start writing. Word count is not only important when you start, but it is also important when it comes to packaging your book for sale. Few people today compress font, line spacing and margins like the old pulp fiction, but they tend to go to the other extreme and use large fonts, spacing, and margins to bloat the size of their books.
When you write for the market, you are writing for real people. They have expectations about word count, page count, and pricing, and authors do themselves a favor when they make every effort to meet reader expectations. The story belongs to the author. The packaging belongs to the reader.