Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How long is a good academic book?

I'm trying to work this question out as I develop my manuscript.  I had figured that the book shouldn't be any longer than a standard dissertation — although of course not laid out like one!  More or less, my diss is about 10,000 words per chapter, and there are five chapters.  Pretty simple math, right?

On a subtler note, I have heard from more advanced colleagues – i.e., those who have already published a book – that they worried, before or after the fact, about the length of their books.  One of them, who wrote a book so good (I've read it, so I know) that it's still winning awards years after it hit the stores, worries that the book's exposure has been limited by its length, which is a little over 400 pages.  According to hir, this is a bit longer than seems standard to hir, and zi wonders in particular if this longer-than-usual text scared professors away from assigning it to classes.  My colleague is a very astute person, so I assume that this concern is less about missed revenue opportunities – since only The Great Ones can even fantasize about earning serious royalty revenue from an academic publication – than about getting the work out into the world.  Then again, perhaps zi was also concerned with proving to hir press that the book was a worthwhile investment on the editorial board's part.  I dunno.

More recently, though, another colleague, who also wrote a noteworthy book, dismissed this worry of mine about book length as groundless.  (Although hir book was just under 300 pages, which is more of an industry standard, it seems.)  Zi thought less in terms of pages than word count, and suggested I work toward a goal of 100,000 words.  That is fully twice the goal I had already set for myself.  (See my sad little word counter down there on this blog.)

How the blazes do people calculate such matters, anyway?  Obviously, one page of an electronic word processor document, single-spaced or double-spaced, just doesn't lay out like a page of a codex.  With that in mind, perhaps word count really is the more reasonable metric to go by.  And how much does this matter, from the point of view of publishing houses or potential customers?

For that matter, since when do social scientists actually give a shit about concise, elegant prose?  The few pseudologists who write elegantly on a consistent basis seem almost to be fast-tracked to fame just for that.  Our monographs tend to be stuffed with a ton of material that very few of our colleagues actually care about reading, and which most colleagues will simply skim as fast as they can manage while sipping their caffeinated beverage of choice.  Not that I'm planning to write a crap book, but I recognize that whatever skill I have at crafting prose is largely a cherry on top within my field.  But now that I'm daily making my teeth grind by trying to finish the book prospectus, I should probably thresh out my own perspective and goals for this process.


  1. For what it's worth, university presses typically have guidelines about length listed on their "here's what you need to submit" page of their websites.... I'm not in your field, so maybe shorter is reasonable in your field? But my sense is that 80K-100K words is pretty typical. I seem to recall that when I was doing my book that ended up being around 300 pages of typed, double-spaced text for around 200 pages for the published book.

  2. Oddly enough, the press I'm aiming for with this prospectus says nothing about length of manuscript in any way. Prospectus length, sure, but nothing about the manuscript itself. It may well be that I seriously underestimated how many words go into a typical monograph.

  3. You know, you could send a query to the editor. That's a totally reasonable question, and when it comes to stuff like that, I feel like asking is much better than the alternative (and much less anxiety producing).

  4. blogged about this very subject today while looking for a progress tracker (yours is prettier than the one I found). I'm aiming for 80-100K words. I hit on this number by looking at the length of recent books they've published on similar topics. Still the idea of something shorter being more marketable is SUPER appealing.