When authors ask me about how many pages their book will be, I am often reminded of a scene in the classic movie Goodfellas. This is the one where Karen (Lorrain Bracco) asks her mob husband Henry (Ray Liotta) for money so she can go shopping. He asks her how much and she replies by holding up her thumb and forefinger about an inch apart to indicate the thickness of the wedge of notes she is after.
I think of this because quite often authors are very keen to pin me down on the exact size their book will be once it’s printed.
‘How thick will it be, do you reckon?’
‘What book size would you compare it to? War and Peace, or Animal Farm?’
The infuriating answer is: it depends. It depends on the thickness of the cover, the size of the paper, the page layout, margin and type size and any one of another series of variables.
Forget about thickness. The only currency that really counts when it comes to book sizing is word count. And, just to add another layer of potential confusion, the word count varies according to the genre of book in question.
In broad terms, if you are writing adult non-fiction (which includes romance, mystery, suspense, thriller or horror) you should aim for anything between 80,000 and 100,000 words, although there are novels that well exceed this count. Anything over 110,000 words is probably too long, whether or not you are aiming for an epic, or saga, manuscript. If you stray into this vast word count it is quite possible that what the novel actually requires is a really hard edit. Even if every word is honed to perfection agents and publishers might baulk at a book of that length because once the 100K word count is passed production costs go up considerably. Of course, if your name is JK Rowling, or Stephen King, you can call the shots on word count, but otherwise it is prudent to stick within safe limits.
Science fiction and fantasy are exceptions to the rule in fiction, since these categories do frequently run long. With these genres 100,000 to 115,00 is a good range. Again, I’d be wary of length for the sake of it. It must fully justify the word count. A tightly edited, well-written book is better than a long waffly one. A lot better.
‘Chick lit’ tends to be shorter and pacier. Anything around 70,000 to 75,000 is good.
The most flexible category for word count is YA (Young Adult). The range stretches from 55,000 to 80,000, although the general view is if you stray towards the upper end you need a good reason for doing so (unless it is in the sci fi or fantasy genre, see above). Again, a high word counts points toward the need for a judicious edit.
Talking of much-needed edits, the next category to mention is memoirs. Here there is a tendency for authors to want to include absolutely everything that happened during their life. Ever. Again, I would never be afraid to pick and choose to make sure the narrative is compelling and readable. A word count of 90,000 would be the absolute top end, but it is better to aim for between 70,000 to 80,000.
Anything very niche, like How to boil an egg, or Yellow Lego bricks: a guide, requires you to take a view. Needless to say, it won’t need over-writing. Just write well, show you are a master of your topic and let the length take care of itself. Similarly, children’s fiction can vary wildly in length depending on the age group it is aimed at and the number and types of illustration. The younger the readership, the shorter the word count required.
Of course, with all these guidelines, the one factor that links them all is that the content is far more important than word count. If you haven’t got a good idea it doesn’t matter how many, or how few, words you type.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule and the same goes for the length of your manuscript. These are simply the rough word counts most people aim for and if you do so, any literary agent, publisher, or indeed reader, will be engaged with the content, rather than questioning why a manuscript is so unusually long, or short. Oh, and if you really, really want to estimate the page count and thickness of your book, speak to a book designer. Tell them your word count and be prepared to answer a lot of questions about font sizes, typefaces, trim and margins.