PDA

View Full Version : How Long Should a Manuscript Be?



ExposingCorruption
02-15-2008, 12:20 AM
I received a reply from an agent who mentioned the length of my nonfiction manuscript (180,000 words) as one reason why he would pass on it, but he did say that it had "possibilities."

Someone on the forum (I think it was Victoria) stated that agents might immediately take a pass on a manuscript that is 180,000 words long.

What is the ideal length (possibly a range) for a nonfiction manuscript? All opinions would be appreciated.

Toothpaste
02-15-2008, 12:42 AM
Isn't 120 000 typically considered the top end? But to be honest EC, I know fiction better than non. Will be interested to see what others say.

ORION
02-15-2008, 12:45 AM
Generally (AND THIS IS A GROSS GENERALIZATION HERE) debut novels are in the 70-90,000 range but there are certain genres that are shorter (some romance & YA) or longer (some fantasy).
Go to the book store and take a look at the non-fiction shelf. You will see that these books can run even shorter - Many business and political science books are only 40-50,000.
As in EVERYTHING there are exceptions.
Mitch Abloms and Nickolas sparks (and don't correct my spelling here) are really short.
Stephanie meyers (Twilight) is really long.
Listen to this agent's feedback. 180,000 is REALLY LONG.
Is this a way to shorten it? Do you have 2 books in one? These are valid questions you have to ask yourself.
Your book very well might be brilliant. But if an agent can't get past the length you have a problem.

johnrobison
02-15-2008, 12:45 AM
I'd suggest cutting it in half, 90,000 words or so.

victoriastrauss
02-15-2008, 12:50 AM
This question was originally posted in the Ask the Agent forum. As it's not an agent-specific question--since agents' concerns about length derive from publishers' concerns about length--I've moved it to the Nonfiction forum, where it may get more varied input.


Someone on the forum (I think it was Victoria) stated that agents might immediately take a pass on a manuscript that is 180,000 words long.
Yup, that was me.

- Victoria

IceCreamEmpress
02-15-2008, 01:08 AM
120,000 words is really the top end for non-fiction, unless it's a biography of an extraordinarily famous person who lived a long time and did a lot of stuff during that time. Except for books about World War II and the American Civil War.

ExposingCorruption
02-15-2008, 01:14 AM
Listen to this agent's feedback. 180,000 is REALLY LONG.
Is this a way to shorten it? Do you have 2 books in one? These are valid questions you have to ask yourself.
Your book very well might be brilliant. But if an agent can't get past the length you have a problem.

Thanks, Patricia. I'm aware of the problem and I am currently shortening the manuscript. I just need to know what length (range) it should be.

IceCreamEmpress
02-15-2008, 01:24 AM
Thanks, Patricia. I'm aware of the problem and I am currently shortening the manuscript. I just need to know what length (range) it should be.

Between 85,000 words and 100,000 words is optimal.

KansasWriter
02-15-2008, 08:40 AM
How long was Atlas Shrugged? It's pretty good and seemed quite long. Lemme see if the internet has the info...<searching>...OH MAN!

Really - please believe me - I wasn't joking when I used that as an example! I just really love that book (it's on my bookshelf right next to me) and thought it was pretty long so I'd check it out.

From Wikipedia: "...at approximately 645,000 words, Atlas Shrugged is one of the longest novels ever written in any European language."

So EC it can be done, but you'd be comparing yourself with Ayn Rand.

Then again, why not compare yourself with the best?!

KW

KansasWriter
02-15-2008, 08:40 AM
Ummm, don't know why that posted four times. I will speak to the mod!

Oh...now it's fine. Sorry.

KW

Ian.Fraser
02-15-2008, 05:47 PM
I asked my partner, whose a published two-book-deal author at work on her second novel, this question - she was saying 'around 200 pages' equals an average book length. That said - your story lasts as long as your story lasts. It should be about the quality of writing and story, rather than just technical things like 'length' or 'numbers of words'. If your concept and execution rocks, then that's all that matters - whether you're turning in a Pynchon tome, or a slim Anne Rice 'interview with the vampire'.
Its all about the story (or the 'theme' - if its short stories/essays)

sgunelius
02-15-2008, 06:35 PM
The length depends on what the publisher thinks they can sell (price to produce, cost to consumers = how many copies they can sell to earn a profit). Ultimately, your publisher will probably tell you the specific number of words they want when they accept your proposal. 180,000 is definitely hard to sell because it costs so much to produce and the price has to be so high to turn a profit. I have two different publishers and they asked me to turn my books into no more than 60,000 words and no more than 70,000 words. I agree with the other posters. Try to get it to no more than 90,000 in order to get an agent and publisher to consider looking at it.

You might want to follow the previous suggestions to break it into two books. You can sell the first to an agent/publisher and let them know you already have a second/follow-up book ready showing your committed to the success of the book and your career.

IceCreamEmpress
02-15-2008, 09:09 PM
I asked my partner, whose a published two-book-deal author at work on her second novel, this question - she was saying 'around 200 pages' equals an average book length.

That's not accurate in the US, at least. The average non-fiction book in the US is between 300 and 400 pages; the average novel in the US is between 275 and 350 pages. Heck, a Harlequin novel is more than 200 pages.

victoriastrauss
02-15-2008, 09:43 PM
How long was Atlas Shrugged? It's pretty good and seemed quite long. Lemme see if the internet has the info...<searching>...OH MAN!

Really - please believe me - I wasn't joking when I used that as an example! I just really love that book (it's on my bookshelf right next to me) and thought it was pretty long so I'd check it out.

From Wikipedia: "...at approximately 645,000 words, Atlas Shrugged is one of the longest novels ever written in any European language."

So EC it can be done, but you'd be comparing yourself with Ayn Rand.
Reasons why this is not a useful example:

- Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957. The publishing business has changed a lot (I mean a lot) since then.

- Atlas Shrugged is fiction. Fiction and nonfiction are, and always have been, very different markets.

- Atlas Shrugged was not Ayn Rand's first book. She had achieved significant success as a novelist and screenwriter before she wrote it. Once you become successful, length restrictions largely cease to apply--look at the last four Harry Potter books. As an unknown, however, you need to make an effort to match publishers' length expectations, or you risk rejection out of hand.

Do first-time authors sell extremely long books? Sure. Do those books have to be pretty damn special to have a chance? Yup. How do you know you're one of those special people? You don't. So all in all, it's better to get your ms. to a manageable length than to convince yourself that publishers (and agents) will entranced enough by your genius to overlook your bloated word count.

- Victoria

IceCreamEmpress
02-15-2008, 09:46 PM
In my opinion, Victoria, you left out the most important reason Atlas Shrugged is a bad example: it would have been a better book if it had been edited more rigorously. But of course that didn't happen, because Ayn Rand was already a celebrity with a loyal following.

Sunnyside
02-15-2008, 10:27 PM
If you're writing a well-researched work of non-fiction -- one that requires endnotes, for example -- remember to include the endnotes in your word count! That was a mistake I made early on, until my editor gently reminded me that endnotes take up page space, too.

With endnotes, my final manuscript came in at about 160,000 words (about 450 pages, total, with notes).

KansasWriter
02-16-2008, 12:23 AM
I agree with you Victoria and I would suggest that anyone who really wants to sell a long book try, but keep their expectations realistic.

But I wasn't even thinking about the fiction/non-fiction point. Lots of egg on my face. A few omelets even.

KW

W. Lane Rogers
03-01-2008, 09:18 PM
120,000 words is really the top end for non-fiction, unless it's a biography of an extraordinarily famous person who lived a long time and did a lot of stuff during that time. Except for books about World War II and the American Civil War.

I disagree. Historical works offer countless examples of books that exceed 120,000 words.

IceCreamEmpress
03-01-2008, 09:23 PM
I disagree. Historical works offer countless examples of books that exceed 120,000 words.

Yes, absolutely. But not by first-time writers.

And this particular book is not a history, in any case. Other recent books on similar topics by multi-published writers seem to come in between 100,000 and 140,000 words.

I guess that's probably another useful benchmark--find other recent books on similar topics, multiply the hardback edition's page length by 250, and see where you are. A first-timer should generally discount by at least 10% the word length that's accepted from multi-published writers, though. Especially ones with outstanding records or platforms: Bob Woodward or John McPhee get a lot more leeway than we mere mortals because they've got a built-in fanbase.

ColoradoGuy
03-01-2008, 09:35 PM
Both my contracts of health-related nonfiction books called for 85,000 words.

ExposingCorruption
03-02-2008, 10:43 AM
And this particular book is not a history, in any case. Other recent books on similar topics by multi-published writers seem to come in between 100,000 and 140,000 words.

Actually, ICE, my book is most definitely historical in its nature. As I state in my query letter, "Politically oriented and historical in its nature, it quotes extensively from official sources and details my firsthand knowledge of the corruption."

The query explains about KGB infiltration of the CIA that was exposed in 1984 but never made public, and it continues: "The KGB officers that were exposed had been exercising some degree of control in the White House during every Presidential administration from Eisenhower through Reagan. They had been corrupting Congress and the CIA for more than thirty years. Bipartisan corruption in Congress was entrenched by 1984 and the CIA hierarchy was very corrupted. Renegade CIA officers, who had Carte Blanche to do as they please, picked up where the KGB officers left off in trying to control the Presidency."

As I stated, it is most definitely historical in its nature. If you want to know more about it all, you'll have to read the book. Several people that I talked to at the San Francisco Writers' Conference said that they wanted to read it, including agents who said that they don't handle that type of non-fiction.

I've got it down from 180,000 words to about 130,000. I'm not sure how much more I can reduce it, but it's looking much better with the reduced word count.

K1P1
03-03-2008, 10:37 PM
The craft reference books I write are about 75,000 words, but most craft books are shorter. Since mine are reference books, the extra length allows them to be comprehensive. Of course, craft books have lots more pictures than some other types of non-fiction.

And take heart about your revision. I just edited a 2500-word article down to the 1500 words it was supposed to be, by removing elegantly worded introductory clauses, restatements and clarifications, and just plain tightening up the prose. You can do it too, I'm sure.

Another approach (since you've already made one pass), you might want to sit down and outline the book to see if there are any sections that are not as important to the whole, and that could potentially be removed. Note these, with an estimated word count for each, and then resubmit, indicating that the work has now been cut to 130,000 words, but that you hesitate to cut more at this point because the editor may not agree on what sections should be cut, and then provide a list of what might be trimmed, with an estimated resulting word count. This indicates that you are amendable to cutting if necessary to meet the publication budget, and that you would welcome advice on the cuts. It's possible that the agent and the editor will both see that it should be left uncut, or will see clearly what sections could be trimmed a bit.

IceCreamEmpress
03-04-2008, 02:11 AM
Actually, ICE, my book is most definitely historical in its nature.

Yes, of course. I was thinking more of a general chronological history of a nation or an era, which is a category that can run longer, than an historical look at a particular topic or organization.


I've got it down from 180,000 words to about 130,000. I'm not sure how much more I can reduce it, but it's looking much better with the reduced word count.

Fantastic! That seems much more competitive with other books in the same subject area. Good work. I'm glad you're getting so much good feedback on the book so far.