How to Target the Right Size for Your Book, and Why You Should

Perhaps you want to write a book or to have one written for you. And when it comes to size, you think about the number of pages. Non-professional writers often do. But you should not focus on page count.

I’ll explain.

Writing clients often tell me they want their book to be ‘XXX’ hundred pages… 200, 400, etc. Usually a round number. Sometimes they’ll give an example. Something like this: “My story’s a bit like ‘Outlander,’ time travel and romance. Fictional but based on actual events in a different country and a much different setting. From the present to two centuries ago and back to the present. So, maybe my book should be about the same size.” But the number of pages is not what you should use as your guide to honing the plan for a book. Instead, use a word count target. It takes experience to judge the right length for a story and professional writers use the market to gauge the parameters. I’ll get into that further, but first, some context.

Book One in the fiction series Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is 850 pages, 255,781 words (format: 6.11-inch width x 1.42 spine x 9.23 length). To give you a nonfiction example: ‘Who Moved My Cheese’ by Spencer Johnson is 25,504 words, 96 pages in 5 x 6.75 format. And ‘If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood’ by Gregg Olsen is 115,391 words, 431 pages in 5.5 x 8.25 paperback format.

One of my current projects is a Historical Fiction series and averages over 161,000 words per book. In a 6-inch by 9-inch format, Book One is 151,059 words, 422 pages. Book Two is 155,207 words, 436 pages. Book Three is 166,407 words, 478 pages. Book 4, currently in work and the largest, will be approximately 175,000 words. So, it will probably be a little over 500 pages.

As with any published book, the page count includes all parts (not just the narrative) of the book. Front matter consists of Title Page, Copyright Notice, Table of Contents, and often an opening statement by the author or an epigraph (to set the story’s tone to come). It can also contain other information the author—and story—might require to help the reader. The series project I’m working on includes 6-8 maps per book, a historical setting preface, a recap of events in the preceding books, a Dramatis Personae (a guide to the cast of characters), and a book specific opening epigraph. In the back (the back matter), the last page is the author/client’s bio. With some variation, all published books have front and back material that adds to the page count of the actual narrative. So—and this is not uncommon—I often have to walk clients through how the page count of a print book is affected by its format. A 50,000-word book in a 5×8 Trade Paperback format will have more pages than the same number of words in a 6×9 book. The publisher or the self-publisher will determine what book size/format they want to produce the book.

When discussing writing/co-writing/ghostwriting projects, I focus on word—not page—count. I can then set precise writing goals using a target word count and establish the work’s time frame. When working with a client, those goals become a milestone schedule of deliverables for their project. It includes the Planning & Development Stage (the story outline, initial scene/chapter list, and writing plan) and the Writing (number of words delivered each month based on the duration set for the project).

If you want to write a book, I recommend you set a word count target and use it to plan for story development and the actual writing (your word count goals per month). Following below are average word count or word count ranges for types of fiction and nonfiction. These are important because a book intended to be sold commercially is a product, and there are market expectations. A professional writer or ghostwriter will know that market if you plan to have your book written for you. Still, you need to know the market too.

Suppose the book you want to plan is complex, with multiple characters and story arcs, various settings, and locations. (See what I mentioned above about the word count size of Outlander and the series I’m working on for a client.) In that case, it will probably require planning for a higher word count than the averages that follow.

Fiction

Based on analysis of the top sellers in the respective categories at Amazon:

  • Fantasy: 109,000
  • Historical: 102,000
  • Horror: 102,000
  • Literary: 98,000
  • Science Fiction: 98,000
  • Action/Adventure: 96,000
  • Contemporary: 96,000
  • Women’s Lit: 94,000
  • Mystery/Thriller/Suspense: 91,000
  • Romance: 91,000
  • Crime: 89,000
  • Religious: 75,000
  • Erotica: 58,000

Nonfiction

  • How-to / Self-Help & Career Education: 40,000–50,000 words
  • Standard Nonfiction: 70,000 to 80,000 words
  • Creative Nonfiction: 80,000 to 100,000 words
  • Memoir: 80,000 to 100,000 words
  • Biography: 80,000 to 200,000 words

Stories can and should find their natural length. Achieving that comes from professionally proofreading/developmentally editing drafts that follow the first. (The first draft should be used to work out the basic story, character arcs, action, and events.) Refining—as needed—all story elements further, assessing, sometimes addressing, the flow and pace of the story, and marking up for another round of editing/rewriting. You can make the above process more efficient. Use the average word count for your book type as a guide. Working without a benchmark can lead to overwriting, an issue common with inexperienced writers. A bloated manuscript creates more work. Make the optimal size of your book an early consideration in the planning process. It matters to your story development.