E2A 056: How Long Should a Nonfiction Book Be? 

 June 6, 2023

By  Scott A. MacMillan

If you were to Google how long a non-fiction book should be, you’d get an array of conflicting answers. Why? Because – it depends.

In this episode of The Entrepreneur to Author Podcast, your host Scott MacMillan breaks down book length, from number of chapters and parts, to chapter length and overall word count.



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Episode Transcript

Please note: The transcript is produced by a third-party company from an audio recording and may include transcription errors.

Scott MacMillan:

You're listening to the Entrepreneur to Author podcast.


Welcome to the Entrepreneur to Author podcast, the podcast that brings you practical strategies for building authority and growing your business. And now, here's your host, Scott MacMillan.

Scott MacMillan:

I was recently speaking with a ghostwriting client about his book and how long the manuscript should ultimately be. My editor had suggested 30,000 words while the client had 45,000 to 50,000 words in mind. That’s more than a 50% difference and we all know bestselling books that are much longer than that.

So, what’s the right answer? How long SHOULD an expertise-based nonfiction book be? That’s exactly what we’re going to uncover in this episode.

As you might imagine, there’s no one answer to this question…as always…it depends. Don’t you hate that answer? It depends…

As a former management consultant, it’s my go-to answer…not only because it buys time to formulate a response…but more importantly, because it’s almost always true. But without further elaboration, it’s not terribly helpful, is it?

So…let’s elaborate, shall we?

The theoretically right answer to the question, “How long should a book be?” is that it needs to be long enough to answer the central question that your reader has about your topic…and no longer.

Having said that, we all know that we can answer a question in small, medium, and large versions. You see, I can speak to you on the same topic in a 30 second elevator conversation, a 5-minute YouTube video, or a 45 minute keynote address.

Are we back to square one on this business of book length? Well…here it is again…it depends.

In my view, as with most things…you need to start with your reader and what their expectations are of a book on your topic. Most of the authors we work with are writing to a general business audience. And a general business audience typically wants results on a topic reasonably quickly, but with enough detail that the outcomes are meaningful…not trite.

In most instances, that suggests a book of around 180 to 220 pages and a manuscript of between 30,000 and 45,000 words. So while the technically “right” way to proceed is to write as long as you need to to cover your topic, the more practical approach is to contain your scope to a topic you can fully cover  in 30,000 to 45,000 words.

What do I mean by that? Well, a central question like “How do I succeed in business?” is broad and non-specific. And thus, a book of 30,000 to 45,000 words on this topic is going to feel superficial…and it probably will be. But let’s narrow the scope a bit. How about, “How do I successfully launch a business?” Well now, that’s a bit easier to contain in our target word count, isn’t it. But it still feels pretty broad. Let’s continue down this path:

  • “How to launch a successful landscaping business?” …alright, now we’re getting somewhere
  • Or “How to launch a successful lawn maintenance business?”
  • Or “How to launch a successful lawn maintenance business using cold email outreach?”

Do you see how that works?

Now, one thing I want you to notice, is that as you narrow your scope, you’re eventually reach a point where you may now STRUGGLE to write enough content to fill 30,000 to 45,000 words. Writing on too NARROW of a topic results in authors adding too much filler content, resulting in books that drag and fail to engage readers. Readers come away from these books feeling as let down as they do from the ones with too WIDE a scope.

So, you see what I mean when I say, “It depends”?

Okay, so overall book length of 30,000 to 45,000 words on a topic that’s not too broad and not too narrow. That’s a good guideline to work toward.

How let’s dive into a couple of other details that are related to your overall book length.

Here are a couple of length-related questions I get all the time from authors:

  • How long should each chapter be?
  • How many chapters do I need?

You can see how the answers to these questions ladder up to your overall manuscript length, right?

Now, remember…there is no single answer to these questions…only guidelines. But guidelines serve a purpose…to guide you and make sure that if you stray from the norm, that you do so for a very good reason.

So, let’s deal with these questions, one by one.

How long should each chapter be?

My standard guidance on this is that chapters should usually be between 2,500 and 5,500 words. That’s a good length that allows you to cover most topics in sufficient detail without getting bogged down.

If a chapter is much longer than that, you should consider splitting it into two chapters. If it’s much shorter than that, you either should beef it up or combine it with another topic.

But even more important that the absolute length of a chapter is that all chapters in your book feel balanced in terms of their length. That’s another reason why this range is helpful. You see, if all your chapters fall within this range, your book should feel pretty balanced. But by contrast, if you have some chapters that are 8,000 words and others that are 1,500 words, your readers are going to feel short changed in some topics and overwhelmed with others. 

Now, some books work with much shorter chapters if all the chapters are shorter. This even works in fiction – just check out any Dan Brown book and see that he has lots of short chapters, which gives his novels a faster pace than if there were fewer longer ones.

And that  brings up our next question…

How many chapters should I have in my book?

Unsurprisingly, this too is malleable. But with our previous questions answered, we can usually back into the answer to this question. Let’s say we’re targeting a book that’s around 40,000 words and our chapters are going to fall into our standard range of 2,500 to 5,500 words (which gives an average length of 4,000 words per chapter), that means we’re going to end up with about 10 chapters (40,000 divided by 4,000). One of these chapters is going to be an Introduction and another is going to be your Conclusion; so we’re left with 8 or so main chapters book ended by your intro and conclusion.

Simple as that.

The only thing I’d say here is that once you get over 7 main chapters, you might consider grouping them into sections…or what we call Parts. That’s really only to help your readers better navigate your book’s structure. And try to keep those Parts balanced too in terms of the number of chapters and the word count in each.

There you have it…that’s how I think about book length. Hopefully it gives you a helpful frame as you develop the structure of YOUR book.

And as you do…remember this.

Now is the time. Time to write, time to publish, and time to grow.

I’m Scott MacMillan…until next time.

Scott A. MacMillan

Scott A. MacMillan is a speaker, international best-selling author, entrepreneur, and the President and Executive Publisher at Grammar Factory Publishing. He and his team help expert entrepreneurs write and publish books that build their authority and grow their business.

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