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What is a reasonable estimate for the minimum length, in word count, for a non-fiction book? I'd guesstimate that non-fiction books "generally" (yes, this is very rough) run perhaps 150-450 pages, and at about 350 wd/page that works out to something like 50-150k words. (Correct me if I am off here).

However, occasionally very short books are published, such as Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit, at 67 small pages with very wide margins (about 110 wds/page) count I saw was the whole book was only 3,000 words, as it was just a book version of a short essay. (It spent 27 weeks on the NY Times Bestseller list). This is obviously an extreme case.

But what of a book at perhaps 15-20k words? At, e.g., 300 wds/page that could be 50-67 pages. Aside from the Frankfurt book, is there any kind of market for something too long to be an article but too short to be a "normal" 250 pager? Other examples would be helpful. And what else should one know about that market?

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3 Answers 3

The easy answer to this is "it depends". The length of your book should be determined by the content, whether it is a work of fiction or non-fiction. If you have provided all the information that you feel is needed or is relevant, then you are done. The length ultimately doesn't matter.

As far as word count goes, there was another question posted that pertained to that, and the answer I gave for that question should give you a guideline for the different types of books. Even if you don't have enough words to qualify as a "novel", it will ultimately fall into one of the other categorizations.

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Thanks. I am trying to approach this rather pragmatically, with a view to getting published, so I'd prefer to modify the project to fit the needs of publishers--in that regard at least, I feel the length probably does matter. The word counts you gave is helpful, but this is a non-fiction book, and I wonder if there might be a similar list for those? –  Chelonian Sep 16 '11 at 20:59

A non-fiction book attractive to publishers of best-sellers starts at around 75,000 words. Ideal target is probably closer to 100,000. BUT, most non-fiction publishers want to be sold the concept, and therefore be able to discuss the direction of the project, before you write the book.

Know your content, know your mainline pitch (and some possible permutations), create a high-level outline, write a compelling chapter and sell that. Don't worry about word count.

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I think your numbers are on the high side. –  JSBձոգչ Sep 19 '11 at 12:43

I just popped into my office and pulled a few books off the shelf. It's easy to estimate:

  1. Count up the total number of words on 10 random (full) lines from different places and divide by 10 to get the average words-per-line.
  2. Count the number of lines on each page to get the lines-per-page.
  3. Check that the book actually starts on page 1 - sometimes the stuff before it starts is counted - then go to the last page (before any bibliography, acknowledgements, appendices, etc.) and the page number (minus where the book starts) is the number-of-pages.
  4. Optional: Flick through to see if there are lots of short chapters (creating lots of half-pages) and if there are big empty pages for PART 1, PART 2, or lots of sub-headings within chapters that use up 2-3 lines. Estimate a small reduction for the lines-per-page and the number-of-pages values. This reduction will be very small, like maybe 1-2 lines less per page, and 5-10 pages less for the book.
  5. Multiply the three values together: words-per-line x lines-per-page x number-of-pages to get a pretty good estimate of the total word count.

Some examples:

  • River out of Eden, Richard Dawkins. I consider this to be very short, in fact it's just a dumbed down version of his previous works, it annoyed me but might be good as a starter for a 12-15 year-old. 50k words.

  • The Extended Phenotype, Richard Dawkins. This is quite long and comprehensive. Probably too long for a first book, only go this long if you've got a best-seller under your belt already. 125k words.

  • Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman. Very comprehensive epic! The bible for this field. Daunting to start, but easy to keep reading. 130k words.

  • How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie. Easy-going, fairly light, user-friendly, non-fiction book for the masses. 100k words.

  • Eden, Tim Smit. Personal reflections and memoirs of a big project. 90k words.

So, do this for some books in your field, find one that matches the same depth and detail that you want to attain for your book, and give yourself an estimate based on that. If you're well-known, or have achieved something lots of people are interested in, or have a previous well-selling book, go for 90-120k. If however it's your first and the content alone will be the draw for your readers, keep it lighter and more approachable, 70-90k.

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