In the book world, words are king

Sept. 23, 2016 | by Ken Walker

A would-be author contacted me recently to ask if I would edit her manuscript. One of the first questions I asked was, “How many words do you have?” She had no idea, although she did want a book similar in size to one I had edited for a friend.

I suggested she send me the first chapter so I could look it over. When I finished my sample edit, I pointed out that if the nine chapters she said she had were similar in length to the first, she would only have about 14,500 words. The one she mentioned had about 40,000 words. So, I suggested she think about at least doubling the length and offered a few ideas on how to go about that.

Needless to say, she has more work to do before she will have a book to offer to audiences when she goes out to speaking engagements.

Likewise, many first-time authors have no idea how many words are in their manuscript, or how many they hope to have. Many say, “I’ve got about 100 pages,” but page count is no indicator of length. Is that single-spaced or double? Words matter more than the number pages.

Issues of size & cost

Two other questions authors often pose are: 1) how many pages a manuscript will yield, and 2) how much a book will cost to produce. The answer both times: it depends.

For example, the first two books I co-authored were about 50,000 words, and yielded books with 176 numbered pages (although, because publishers count every piece of paper in a book, they were listed as 192 pages).

However, when I wrote about 50,000 words for the third book I worked on, the publisher used a lot of artistic design elements, creative layouts, white space and a smaller trim size. The result was a 240-page (or, with all those other leaves, 256) book.

As for expense, there are such factors as cover design, paper quality, layout and typeface. I still remember the self-published author who must have been trying to save money by using the smallest one he could find. It almost hurt my eyes to read it, and I was a lot younger then.

Sensitivity to length

One reason I’ve become so sensitive to word counts is because publishers expect a certain number. Of course, for a children’s book or small gift book, the rules are much different. But I still remember the time a co-author wanted to write a short book that people could read in one setting. The end result was a 25,000-word book. Although it served his purposes, I felt it might have done better in the market if we had aimed for 35,000 and had a more substantial book that developed the material in more detail.

I also remember the year a co-author received a note from the publisher who had released his first book, telling him how much they liked his follow-up. Then came this addendum: “And we want 48,000 words, not 36,000. And we would like it the first week of January.”

Since it was early December, we scrambled to write three new chapters. We made it, but it also meant a hectic holiday season.

So, if you’re working on any kind of material, be sure to use the simple word-counting function that comes with most word processing programs. Check it as you go so you don’t wind up like the author who asked me to look at his first chapter. It numbered 13,000 words; I told him he had three chapters, not one. A sensitivity to word count would have avoided this unwieldy result.


Topics: Leadership, Ministry, Teaching Resources



Ken Walker

An experienced freelance writer, co-author and book editor, Ken Walker edits blogs for several contributors to Church Central and has coached various bloggers for the site. A member of the Christian PEN (Proofreaders and Editors Network), he has co-authored, edited or contributed to more than 50 books. You can see samples of his work or ask about his services as a writing coach by going to http://www.KenWalkerWriter.com or by e-mailing kenwalker33@gmail.com.

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