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Three Steps to Estimating Your Word Count

Today, we diverge from our regularly scheduled program to bring you a math lesson.

Groan. I know.

But if you’ve spent any time working on a book proposal, you know that one piece of information prospective agents and publishers want to know requires you to do some futuristic math.

Even though you haven’t written the book yet, they want to know how many words your manuscript is going to be.

We at KN Literary boast a host of psychically talented clients. (Our specialties are self-help and spirituality, after all.) But we also know that you may not be one of them. So how are you supposed to know—during the book proposal phase of your writing journey—how long you want that book to be?

The answer is—you can’t know. Each book is unique, and most books will tell you how long they want to be and not the other way around.

That said, there are some quick rules and tricks that will help you make an educated guess for book proposal purposes. Just follow these three simple steps to determine what word count to aim for.

Step One: Find Books Similar to Yours

Different genres tend to come with typical word counts. I laid out some word count estimates by genre in an earlier post.

But if you’re a visual learner like me, it can be helpful to see, feel and hold another book as you envision the length of your own. If this sounds like you, I suggest you take a field trip. Scoot on over to your local bookstore—or even just as far as your own book shelf—and pick out a few books that are:

  • In the same genre you want to be writing in (“genre” = category your book will fit into at the store—be it fiction, self-help, business or young adult)
  • Roughly the length/size you would like for your own book


Step Two: Determine the Page Count(s)

Books are traditionally bound in “signatures”—stacks of paper that are folded in half and then bound together with other stacks to create a book. The least number of pages folded for a signature is usually 2, which creates four sheets and 8 book pages.

Why am I boring you with math here, when you’re clearly a word person? Because I want you to understand that your finished book page count will generally be a multiple of 8, 16 or 32.

A typical page count for a nonfiction adult trade book is 256 pages (eight 32-page signatures) and a typical length for such a book is 70,000 words.

In other words, roughly 275-300 words per book page.

Now look at the book(s) you’ve chosen as models for your own, and determine their page counts. Note that not all pages in the book will have a page number! Front matter (all those pages that come before chapter one) will generally be numbered with roman numerals. Back matter—including things like the appendices, acknowledgments and index—is generally left unnumbered.

Don’t forget your rule of thumb: a book’s page count is almost always a multiple of 8, 16 or 32. Take the highest numbered page and then add the number of pages in front and in back to determine the book’s actual page count.


Step Three: Translate the Page Count into Word Count

 Now you have everything you need to estimate a word count for your manuscript. Just take the page count from your “model” book and compare it to the chart below:

Typical Page Count Typical Word Count
192 50,000
224 60,000
256 70,000
288 80,000
320 90,000
352 100,000

Note that there can be as much as a 5,000 difference in word count, in either direction, depending on the specs of the book. Specs include “trim size” (shape of the book) and interior design choices (fonts, margins and design elements, to name a few).

The production editors I’ve worked with over the years would say you cannot estimate a page count based on a word count. All of these other factors simply make too much of a difference. And you know what? They’re right.

But sometimes you just need to fill in that “word count” blank. Agents want it. Editors want it. So it’s your job to provide.

Hopefully, the information I’ve given you here will help you do that—without having to consult your local psychic. Leave a comment and let us know how your word count journey is coming along!