Word Count, Book Layout, and Page Count Tricks

on October 23, 2013 in Books

Some folks have commented that Stonewall Goes West is a short novel, and it is a little on the short side, but not for the reason those people think.

Word Count Is the Way
In publishing, the length of a work is determined by its word count, not its page length. That is because page length can, and usually is, manipulated. When I do a freelance article, the size of the project is mandated by word count, not by the number of pages. So it is with books.

Stonewall Goes West is about 84,600 words. The oft-quoted length of the average novel is about 90,000 words, so in word count terms the novel is a little on the short side, by a margin equal to two magazine feature articles. However, the typical murder mystery is usually quoted at 60,000 words, the typical romance novel is 75,000 words, and the typical sci-fi or fantasy work is around 100,000 words. So, “short” depends on the standard, and generally speaking a story is done when a story is done, word count or no.

To put that in perspective, Brave New World has 64,531 words, and a Publisher’s Weekly put it exactly in the middle of their study of classic novels by word countMoby Dick is 209,117 words, and War and Peace is almost 550,000!

Manipulating Size Through Layout
Stonewall Goes West seems shorter than it really is because it has a page count of 256, and most readers expect novels to be 300 pages or longer. I’m here to tell you that if we had wanted to make my book 300 pages long, we could have, and without adding a single word. Instead, we went the other way, making the page count a bit shorter so as to lower the printing cost, and without subtracting a single word.

The page layout and formatting process offers all sorts of tricks to increase the page count of a book. Some of the more obvious tricks are to always start chapters on an odd-numbered page, because doing so inserts blank pages into the text. Some wrongly think this is a professional standard, but it’s not, and the practice is routinely abandoned by anyone looking to trim page count. Half the books on my shelves have chapters that start on even-numbered pages.

Another obvious trick is to format the chapter page so half the page is blank except for the chapter number and title. Many books use less space for this and look just fine.

Less obvious is to tinker with the margins and the font size. Raising the font size from 11 to 11.5, for example, doesn’t make the text noticeably bigger, but it adds up over the course of tens of thousands of words. Likewise, widening the margins of the page in small, unnoticeable ways have a cumulative effect. The gutter of a book (the white space in the middle, leading to the spine) in particular can be widened considerably without laymen noticing.

To cite a working example, I’m very fond of the John Maddox Roberts SPQR series of Roman murder mysteries. Even so, those books have big margins, the chapters start on odd-numbered pages and have big chapter headers, all of which increases the page count of an otherwise short novel. If the same had been done with Stonewall Goes West, it would have added at least 30 pages to the printed version.

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