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The Art of Story Writing : CHAPTER XXIV The Number of Words in a Book

by Nathaniel C. Fowler, JR   

CHAPTER XXIV The Number of Words in a Book

THERE is no standard rule controlling the number of words in a book, because books may be of any size, and any size of type may be used, if it is not larger than what is known as Twelve Point, nor smaller than what is called Six Point.

The average novel, or work of fiction, contains rather more than fifty thousand words, although some of them are of not exceeding forty thousand words, while others require as much as seventy-five thousand, or even more, words, for the proper working out of the plot.

Comparatively few book publishers, however, will publish a story or novel containing much less than fifty thousand words, because few novels are sold for less than a dollar, and most of them are priced at a dollar and twenty-five cents or a dollar and a half, and it is commercially necessary to publish a book containing as many as three hundred pages, which would not be possible with much less than fifty thousand words, unless unusually large type was used.

The author should bear in mind that quantity as well as quality must be considered. The public demands both. It is sometimes difficult to sell a book, even though it be unusually meritorious, if it does not contain at least three hundred pages, unless it is to be retailed for less than one dollar. Intrinsic quality, while the first requisite, is not independent of the appearance of quantity.

The whole world, including the reader, is conventional, and will not accept anything out of the ordinary unless it is extraordinary. If it pays a dollar for a book, it demands the appearance of a dollar's worth of paper and printed matter.

Stories for children, however, are usually set in Twelve Point type, and sometimes in one or two sizes larger, and they may contain as few as ten or fifteen thousand words. Textbooks vary from forty to one hundred thousand words, exclusive of illustrations, charts, maps, or diagrams.

The paper-covered editions seldom contain less than fifty thousand words, and from that up to a hundred thousand.

If the finished manuscript contains too few, or too many, words, the author had better bring it up or down to an acceptable size; but he may, if he chooses, submit the manuscript to the publisher, accompanying it with a letter stating that he would be pleased to add to it, or to condense it, if the publisher desires.

If all of the pages of a manuscript contain approximately the same number of words, it is easy for the author to size up his work, so to speak, as he goes along. While the number of words per page will vary somewhat, the average page of manuscript will contain not less than two hundred nor more than three hundred words, if typewritten. I have spoken of this in another chapter.

CHAPTER XXV - How a Manuscript is Received and Handled By a Book Publisher

THE book publisher maintains an editorial department in charge of an editor-in-chief and his assistants, and with one or more literary advisers.

Further, most book publishers employ what are known as "Readers," who receive a stated salary or fees. These readers are usually literary men or women, many of them being retired ministers, lawyers, or other professionals, and they read at their homes the manuscripts submitted to them. Unless the editor, or one of his assistants, by a casual glance at the manuscript, feels that it is not available, he sends it to one of his readers. The reader is supposed to read every word of the manuscript, and he may do so, unless a casual perusal of it shows that it is worthless or not available.

After reading, he returns the manuscript to the publisher, with his recommendations, and he probably turns down, with short comment, nine out of every ten manuscripts he receives. The others he recommends the publication of, either positively or states that they are worthy of further consideration.

Unless the author is well-known, the chances are that his manuscript would not get beyond the first reader, if this reader condemns it. If its publication is recommended, or if the reader feels that it merits further consideration, it may be read by the editor-in-chief or by one of his assistants, or by the literary adviser; but the chances are it will be sent to another reader. If his report is favorable, it will go to the editorial department for final decision. If one reader recommends it, and another condemns it, it will probably be sent to a third reader.

It has been said, and with much truth, that it is well-nigh impossible to diagnose the real or selling value of a manuscript with more than a moderate degree of accuracy. Thousands of manuscripts, which have been rejected by both readers and editors, have become successful, other publishing houses considering them favorably. Rejection by one publisher, or even by several, need not, therefore, be considered prima facie evidence that the manuscript is unworthy of publication.

I recall one manuscript in particular, written by an author comparatively unknown, which was rejected by more than a dozen publishers, and yet became an unqualified success, more than one hundred thousand copies being sold.

It is obvious that individual judgment is often faulty, and that many a good thing is rejected. I would not, however, advise the author to submit his manuscript to more than a dozen publishers, without rewriting it; because I think it is fair to presume that if that number of reputable publishers refuse it, the manuscript contains too many faults to be successfully put upon the market.

Because human nature, and even expertness, cannot always be depended upon, rejection is the rule, not the exception.

Comparatively few new writers succeed in placing their manuscripts, even if they are meritorious, with the first two or three publishers to whom they are submitted. Many a reader will allow his indigestion or personal feelings to warp his judgment. If he is suffering from a bilious attack, he may reject a manuscript which he would recommend if he were feeling well.

All literary men, and particularly readers, are more or less biased, and allow their personal likes, and dislikes to interfere with their judgment. This condition cannot be avoided, and the author must meet it.

Then, even with the recommendation of one or more readers, the editor or publisher may refuse to accept the manuscript, either because his judgment does not coincide with that of the reader's or the literary adviser's, or because the plot or character of the story is opposed to his policy. For example, the first-class story of adventure may be rejected by some publishers, not because it is not Śwell written and worthy of publication, but because the publisher does not carry books of its class. Another publisher would gladly accept it. Then, most book publishers limit the number of books they will publish in a year. Their list may be full, and they will not consider the publication of any manuscript unless it is of unusual quality. But the manuscript, rejected by them, may be acceptable to the one who is looking for a new manuscript.

There may be other reasons for rejecting a manuscript, irrespective of its literary quality. It is obvious that the book publisher is in business for profit, and that he will not publish a manuscript at his own expense, unless there appears to be good reason to believe that it is a money-maker. In another chapter, I have discussed the publication of book manuscripts at the expense of the author. While the final decision may be left to the editor-in-chief, many publishers have the final word, unless the editor is a member of the firm.

If the manuscript is accepted, the author is notified, and a contract is made with him. In another chapter I have spoken of contracts.

The author may be requested to condense his manuscript, or to enlarge it, or to make changes mutually agreeable to both the publisher and himself. Certain parts may have to be omitted, some chapters rewritten, and descriptions lengthened; but these conditions do not interfere materially with the acceptance of the manuscript. If the story, as a whole, pleases the publisher, and he believes he can publish it to advantage, he will accept the manuscript, subject to changes which may be agreed upon.

The author is notified, and if living nearby, he is invited to call. If not, negotiations are made by mail.

He is given a written contract, in which terms are specified.

The manuscript then goes to the manufacturing department, which, with or without consulting the author, will arrange for the typesetting, and specify the size of page, and the illustrations, if any. In another chapter, I have covered illustrations. In the course of time, galley proofs are sent the author. Galley proofs are proofs taken on long strips of paper, about two feet in length, and represent the width, but not the length, of the page. These the author will read, correct, and return to the publisher. I have spoken of proofs in another1 chapter. After the proofs have been read and corrected, the book is printed and bound, brass dies usually being made for the cover.

The table of contents and index are set last. Usually the author includes in his manuscript a table of contents, and an index, if one is necessary.

It is obvious, however, that the table of contents and index should not be set until the boot is in type and paged, as the page numbers cannot be given until this is done.

The book is then placed upon the market, usually; with advertising. The publisher issues a special announcement of it, if it be a work of importance, and mention is made in his catalogue, or list of books. Copies are usually sent to literary papers, newspapers, and magazines, for review. Announcements are sent to the trade, or to bookstores, and the book is then fairly launched, to swim or to sink on the stormy sea of literature.