I had an excellent English teacher in ninth grade, Mr. Lynch. Actually, I was lucky enough to have many excellent teachers but there are a few whose voices still ring in my head. Mr. Lynch is one of those voices.
He would assign a paper and invariably, someone would ask, “How long should it be?” (That was usually Jimmy Perilli, the class bad boy – literally tall, dark, handsome, smart as a whip and bored out of his mind.)
Mr. Lynch (and looking back, I realize he was probably bored out of his mind, too) had a stock reply. In his nasal New England tones he’d say: “Abraham Lincoln, when asked how long a man’s legs should be, replied long enough to reach the ground.”
Your book should be long enough to do your subject matter justice. I’ve seen books as short as 10,000 or 12,000 words. I’ve waded through 140,000 word tomes. Manuals, with enough charts, graphs, and worksheets, can transform a slight 20,000 words into a 120 page, 8-1/2” by 11” book. By comparison, a typical paperback nonfiction, 6” x 9” trim size at 60,000 words works out to about 200 pages.
Parable books, like The Richest Man in Babylon and Who Moved My Cheese, are generally short, between 20,000 and 30,000 words. They are meant to be quick reads. Buy The Richest Man in Babylon – it’s worth re-reading on a regular basis. Take ten minutes and read Who Moved My Cheese at the bookstore. Then take the money you saved on that piece of gossamer and buy yourself a glass of wine. Have some cheese with it if you want. There. You moved your own damn cheese.
Books in general are trending shorter. People have shorter attention spans and they want the information they are seeking immediately. Most of the ebooks that marketers slap up on Kindle are under 15,000 words. They’re not well thought out and they don’t begin to cover a topic. They are an accurate reflection of a superficial knowledge of the topic. It’s difficult to get a page count on ebooks (and most of the marketers don’t want to offer up the information), but it’s very obvious when there’s no there there.
Hard Copy Shenanigans
But ebooks aren’t the only culprits. I bought a hard copy book by an author who had earlier published a well-written and well-received business book. He had a reputation as someone who knew his stuff. However, this new book left me feeling ripped off. It was barely over 100 pages, filled with trite platitudes trying very hard to be profound. The type face varied page to page, perhaps in an effort to be quirky. Mostly it was to make the book longer. In fact, there were six pages in a row with one word (in very large font) on each page. I’m sure readers thought he was trying to make a deep impression with that six word sentence. It made a deep impression on me. He was trying to make the book long enough to reach the magical thickness necessary to print on the spine. (Your book needs to be at least 100 pages or so to make it thick enough to put the title and author’s name on the spine.)
In fact, everything about the book made it obvious that both the author and the publisher were stretching very thin material. The book was an odd trim size, maybe 4” x 5” instead of the typical 6” x 9”. The paper stock was thicker than the norm. The font was larger. In addition to the one word pages, there were many that had only one or two sentences.
Worse (to me), it had those wonderful blurbs on the back cover raving about what a great book it was. (It’s good to have friends and the money to pay for big-name blurbs.) Meanwhile, I’m sitting there thinking ‘The emperor has no clothes.’
Tailor Your Book Length to Your Audience and Subject Matter
So, all of this is a roundabout way of saying book length varies. My recommendation, if you want to be taken seriously, is the book should be a minimum of 40,000 to 50,000 words. Really in-depth coverage of a topic, unless it is incredibly narrow, could easily double that amount. Parable books should be shorter because they’re meant to be quick reads.
Book length depends on many factors, including the type of book you’re writing and your target audience (busy solopreneurs versus tenured academics, for example). But the most important factor of book length is the content itself. Did you cover the topic and give the reader the answers he was seeking? Will reading your book be a good use of people’s time? Have you broken new ground, uncovered a truth or a lie?
Within a few months, Mr. Lynch had taught us a lifelong lesson. He’d assign a paper and Jimmy’s hand would snake up. Mr. Lynch would call on him with a dramatic sigh. We’d all start smiling. Jimmy would ask his question with a cat who-ate-the-canary grin on his face. Then the whole class would shout the answer in unison: “LONG ENOUGH TO REACH THE GROUND.”