21. October 2014 · Write a comment · Categories: Writing · Tags:

One of my ongoing projects is trying to write a book about patent strategy. It’s useful to have a general idea what one is aiming for, and I was curious about the “mechanical” characteristics of typical successful non-fiction books in the same general category — word count, page count, etc. So I chose 16 books, more or less at random, mostly from the Amazon best sellers in the business category, and compiled some data, as shown in the table below.

All of the books chosen had Amazon sales ranks at or below approximately 10,000 at the time that I gathered my data. Obviously, Amazon sales rank is a mysterious and constantly changing quantity, and subject to endless gaming, but the overall list is arguably a reasonable (albeit small) sample of generally successful books.

The average word count was 45,742. Word counts here are an inexact estimate; most of them I obtained by converting the book to rtf format in Calibre, stripping off the parts at the beginning and end that aren’t part of the main text, and using MS Word’s word count. Those flagged with an asterisk are estimated from Amazon’s reported page count by estimating the words per page, multiplying by the number of pages, and applying a fudge factor to account for the fact that many pages aren’t full of text.

I was surprised to find that 6 of the 16 books were quite short, around 25k words or less. By way of comparison, one survey found that the median length of all books on Amazon is about 64,000 words. As a hypothesis, I might suspect that part of what is going on is that e-book publishing has at least partially removed a constraint that was present with traditional publishing, which is that it isn’t usually economical to publish very short ‘dead trees’ books because the price that you could sell them for would be less than the fixed costs involved in printing and distribution. Anyway, it appears that e-books, at least, can be fairly successful even at word counts of 20k or so.

In one way, that’s a relief — my last (and only, so far) published book ran to almost 300,000 words, and I never, ever, want to do that again. (It was a textbook, and pretty much needed to be that long to cover the material.) However, I’m not sure that the opposite extreme is ideal either. I also made an informal survey of books specifically about patents, and as I look at the books in the shorter end of the word count spectrum — not really where I want to align myself.

Anyway, here’s my data:



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