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.
Lissa McGrath says
Personally, I would never write a non-fiction book unless I was going to self-publish first and sell it as an eBook or something similar. Every publisher has a different house style and author manuals can be ridiculously long and very specific. You want the publisher to see (from your TOC and sample) that it can fit into their series. If you write the book first, you’re risking it not fitting into their style. If so, you’re likely to get rejected. Better to save yourself the time and effort. A proposal can fit into almost any house-style with a bit of tweaking, but you’re limiting yourself if you’ve already written it.
Also, in the four non-fiction books I’ve had traditionally published, I’ve never once been given a word count. They have always given me “manuscript pages.” Plus you have to take figures and tables into consideration with your word count or manuscript page count. I had over 80 in one of my non-fiction books. You have to figure each to take 1/3 to 1/2 of a book page (not manuscript page). Your development editor can help you keep on track. Otherwise you may find yourself far over page-count and cutting a lot of text you worked very hard on when you get to Author Review and beyond.
Two items could be added to this great article.
First, most proposals need to list the competing titles including extent and retail price. Often this can give a clue as to the relative manuscript length to propose.
Second, and this really goes to length, a sure-fire proposal often angles to fit in one of three categories, namely, the first (a new or forgotten subject), the most comprehensive, and the most concise.
I’ve put a link to this article (and the others) in my free resource section: http://www.myliterarycoach.com/nonfiction-resources/
Chris Van says
Great post. Great comments. I’m ghostwriting a memoir/self-help book right now with a client that plans to sell books after speaking engagements.
We’ve been going back and forth on the idea of pitching to publishers. But after reading this I think we’ll lean toward self publishing.