How long should a business book be?

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I laughed out loud when I read Michael Wade’s post about the “Modern Business Book Formula.” The first chapter of the book will be strong and interesting. After that things get worse. Michael uses the word “gruel” several times.

One reason I laughed was that I’d just been told that a client’s memoir should be at least twice as long as the 120 page manuscript. This was puzzling to me, because the person giving the advice hadn’t read the book. She just knew that a business book should be a certain length.

Really?

A look at the business book landscape

For most of the time I’ve been reading business books, most of them have had between two hundred and three hundred pages. But that was a publishing convention. No research came up with that page count. It was just the way the publishing business did things. It became an unquestioned standard.

Of course not every business book fit that page count. My edition of Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive has 178 pages, including the index. Max DePree’s excellent Leadership is an Art has 136 pages and an awful lot of white space. Jan Carlzon’s Moments of Truth is 160 pages.

The story goes that Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson noticed that most business book buyers only read the first chapter. So they set out to write a “one-chapter” book. The result was the classic One Minute Manager, in print for more than thirty years. Now there’s a “New” One Minute Manager.

The problem with “has to be” page count

If you “know” that a “real” business book has to have a certain number of pages, you turn in the direction of the kind of books that Michael Wade is making fun of. And, if you’re the publisher, you start to require page count at all costs.

Consider the best-seller, Drive. The paperback page count is 288, but only about a hundred and fifty pages are the content of the book. The rest is filler, probably demanded by the publisher, since the basic book makes Daniel Pink’s case very well. The filler includes:

  • A glossary,
  • A recap of Drive,
  • Twenty conversation starters (useful at cocktail parties),
  • A reading list,
  • A fitness plan

That’s forty percent of the book. And none of it helps you put what you’ve read to work.

What does that mean for you?

If a mainline publisher will publish your book, the “correct” length is whatever the publisher tells you. That’s now it is in life and business. The one who writes the checks makes the choices.

If you’re publishing your own book, you have more options. You can set the length based on what you think will deliver the most value. So you can include exercises and helpful checklists in the book, or you can make them available online to people who purchase the book.

Wally Bock’s Rule for Book Length

Length alone doesn’t determine value. Peter Drucker’s Effective Executive delivered a lot of value and so did his Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, and Practices at almost four times the length. The question isn’t “how long is your book?” the question is: “Does every part of the book deliver value?”

My rule is simple. Your business book should be as long as necessary to deliver the message and not a word longer.

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