A very common question among aspiring writers is related to how much they actually need to write before their nonfiction manuscript can be considered complete. In other words, how long should a nonfiction book be?
Unfortunately, there is not a simple answer to that question. However, the reason is simple — the publisher usually determines the word count that they want for a nonfiction book.
The publisher determines this number by weighing production costs against projected sales numbers. The publisher also reviews the competitive market to see what else is already available and how those books are selling. In other words, there are a lot of factors that publishers use to choose a word count for a nonfiction book. The vast majority of nonfiction authors do not choose their word count. Instead, they write for the word count dictated by the publisher in the writer’s contract.
So what’s an aspiring nonfiction writer with dreams of snagging a contract with a traditional commercial publisher to do?
As you learned in a previous Book Writing and Publishing FAQ article, it is not often necessary to write a nonfiction book before you submit your proposal to literary agents and publishers that accept direct submissions. You can read more about that by following the link to “Do I Need to Write My Book First?” However, you do need a few sample chapters and a detailed, annotated table of contents to either accompany your proposal or be provided to agents and publishers upon request.
If you do want to write your nonfiction book before you solicit agents and publishers, be prepared to have to make major changes to it once the publisher offers you a contract. Unless you have a very solid platform (meaning you’re famous or a corporate executive or other well-known figure), you’ll probably be asked to work with an editor to make the table of contents and the content you’ve already written match the publisher’s expectations. If you still want to write your nonfiction book before you retain an agent or publisher, word count can vary greatly, but a good target for a business nonfiction book is 70,000-80,000 words. That should give you about 200-250 pages in a final manuscript.
Of course, depending on the publisher, book sizes, font choices, and so on can vary, which means word count can vary, too. Furthermore, if your book includes images, they have to be factored into the word count. In other words, each of those images take up space and should be included as part of your word count (not added on top of your word count).
Again, there is no rule for nonfiction manuscript length, but the word count given above can give you an idea of how long a nonfiction book might be. Think of it this way — the longer the book is, the more it costs to print. Therefore, the price tag has to go up. Publishers have to try to predict the sweet spot between length and price to maximize sales.