How Long Is Too Long?
By Evan Braun
It’s a frequently asked question among new writers: “How long should my book be?” And predictably, it’s a difficult question to answer… because of course every book is different and an ideal length for one book is probably very different than the ideal length for another.
For this question—which is, rest assured, a very good question—it should be kept in mind that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all answer.
So let’s start by talking in generalities.
First of all, pay attention to the average length of books in the style and genre you are writing in. Are you writing a personal memoir? A fantasy epic? A Bible study on the book of Job? This is an important consideration.
Let’s use the personal memoir as an example.
Personal memoirs tend to be on the short side, unless the subject of the memoir has lived an unusually interesting life. The memoir of a former U.S. president is bound to be long and winding whereas the typical family history memoir probably doesn’t need to cover nearly as much ground.
The underlying principle could perhaps be stated like this: the length of your manuscript should be directly proportional to your target reader’s interest in it.
Please don’t take any offence at that. The content of any author’s book is intensely interesting to them personally, and yet it is necessary to take a step back at some point and consider the target reader’s perspective.
If your personal or family history runs 150,000 words, you’ve probably gone too long and should look for opportunities to cut back—or hire an editor who can help you identify opportunities to cut back.
The opposite scenario can be true as well. If you’ve written a 50,000-word fantasy epic, chances are you’re too short. The average fantasy epic is bound to be approximately twice that long, and many are three or four times longer.
The best thing you can do is engage in some market research. Look up the publishers you would like to approach with your finished manuscript. Do they publish the type of book you’re writing? What is the typical length of the books they publish?
Outside of this, another consideration to keep in mind is that a long manuscript places a greater demand on the reader than a short manuscript—and it’s always in the best interest of the writer to place the lowest amount of demand on the reader as possible.
Finally, let’s talk dollars and cents. There’s simply no avoiding it.
From the publisher’s point of view, a long manuscript is going to cost a lot more to produce than a short one. The length of the book, and its cost to produce, isn’t likely to be the publisher’s main consideration, but it will be an important one. If they’re considering a book of 200,000 words, you can bet that they’ll think very, very hard about that decision compared to a book that’s only a quarter the length. After all, it’s a business decision. If a book costs more to produce, there will have to be more sales to offset the cost.
And this isn’t necessarily just something for the publisher to consider. If you’re going to be self-publishing, or shouldering some of the costs yourself, you need to make the same calculations.
As an editor, I’m always encouraging writers to think carefully about how they can say more with fewer words—to think carefully about how they can write more economically, and thus more effectively.
This same advice pertains to the bigger question of how long your book should be. Have you written efficiently? Is there some dead weight that could be removed to make the book shorter, more palatable, and easier to read and enjoy?
Always keep your target reader—or target publisher—in mind.
Did you enjoy this post? For more on this topic, check out, Let’s Talk About Endings.
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. Braun is an experienced professional editor, and has worked with Word Alive Press authors since 2006. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.