How Long Should Your Nonfiction Book Be?

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A while ago I was playing “dueling authors” with a guy who claimed to have written 16 books (meaning he won the game!) and said he had two that he wanted to give me as gifts. Initially embarrassed that I couldn’t return the favor, I was stunned to receive a couple of – well, let’s be kind and call them “pamphlets.” This is the same term The New Republic used recently to describe the TED Book Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization, which at least has 79 pages. The ones I was given were closer to 30!

It’s hard to know what constitutes a “book” these days, given that some folks believe that anything over a couple of dozen pages fits the description. And I guess it’s wise not to be too snobbish about this issue, since many famous works of fiction have been short and sweet, such as Samuel Johnson’s Rasselus, Prince of Abyssinia (97 pages) or Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (96 pages). In the realm of nonfiction, Deepak Chopra captured The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success in a mere 117 pages. And one of my favorite nonfiction books, Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, runs to just 159.

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I had cause to think about quantity, not just quality, after completing #THOUGHT LEADERSHIP tweet: 140 Prompts For Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign with co-author Craig Badings. We ended up with the same page count at Madson’s book (159 pages) for a word count of approximately 7,500 words. Which would take the average person, what – less than an hour to read?Except that this isn’t a book that’s meant to be read cover to cover in a single sitting.

Here’s where the issue of how long a book needs to be needs to take into account how the book is to be used, as well as what content it contains.

What we did with this book was to compile all the questions that aspiring thought leaders should ask themselves before embarking on a thought leadership campaign. Within the seven sections (each containing a short introduction followed by a series of relevant tweet-sized prompts then a couple of pages of examples under the heading ‘Putting Into Practice’), we provoke readers to consider: What it means to be a “thought leader”; What impact they want their campaign to achieve; How to measure its effectiveness; How best to discover their thought leadership point of view…and much more. We then close the book with a short Blueprint to guide readers’ actions and provide additional case studies and examples.

Would this have been a better book if we’d rambled on for page after page giving extensive details about each of these issues?

We didn’t think so. In fact, to come up with the right questions to ask in 140 characters or less takes a lot of thought and relentless editing. In this case, less is definitely more – but it’s not necessarily easier!

As former President Woodrow Wilson is reputed to have told a cabinet member who asked him how long he took to prepare a speech:

It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.

When new writers ask me how long their books should be, my answer is always: As long as it needs to be and no more, which I accept isn’t all that helpful until you actually knuckle down and start to write. (Yet it’s amazing to me how many aspiring authors want to know exactly how many words they’ve got to write, as if this were the sole measure of a good book.)

Having experienced writing #THOUGHT LEADERSHIP tweet, I would add a further caveat:

Think about how you want the reader to use your book.

Is it to be read by a single individual, cover to cover? Will it be of most value if they dip in and out as the need requires? Or, as in the case of our book, is it meant to provoke conversations among a team of people tasked with implementing a specific initiative? In our case, Craig and I considered the comprehensive yet concise nature of our material – not least the highly focused questions – to be what offers the greatest value for readers, not all the fluff we could have wrapped around them.

What are your thoughts about shorter books?

Do you think books are often longer than they need to be? To what extent might this be due to the pressure authors and publishers feel to create books that appear (at least in terms of the quantity of paper they use up) worth their cover price? Please contribute your thoughts.

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4 Comments

  1. I am delighted to be mentioned favorably in this discussion. I feel very strongly that an author has a moral right not to waste the precious time of his reader. I had an editor who reminded me “to say it once well.” As a teacher I was prone to repeating the same idea with three different examples or metaphors. On careful thought I discovered that those extra words actually got in the way of making a point cleanly, and (hopeful) memorably. Readers have thanked me for the size of my book. I’m proud of it and grateful that you count it among those you found useful.
    I wish publishers were on this page. I recently mentioned to an agent that I was considering writing a “small book” and she was quick to reply: “Not too small . . . no one will want to publish it.”
    Increasingly there is competition for everyone’s time. Write what you need to write, of course, but consider the convenience of your readers.

    Thank you for including IMPROV WISDOM in this conversation.

  2. I am quite certain that your book of 159 pages did NOT have “a word count of approximately 7,500 words.” There must have been far more words than this, which would amount to an average of less than 50 words per page–barely a short paragraph. Very confusing and frustrating since I liked how your article was going up to that point..

    • Thanks for your comment, Andres — but that word count is accurate. If you look at our Amazon book page, you’ll see that the book is largely made up of a series of tweet-sized (140 character) “prompts”. Our rationale for doing this was that most people do not ask themselves the right questions — or look at this topic strategically — before embarking on a thought leadership campaign. So, other than some preliminary explanation and a few pages outlining our thought leadership model, it’s a book of questions.

      Hope that clarifies things for you.
      Best wishes
      Liz

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