Why Do So Many Books Seem to Be 100 Pages Too Long?

Many business and self-help books introduce helpful ideas and then seem to just repeat the ideas over and over throughout the book. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

A stack of books
Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash

The biggest complaint I hear about business books is that they are way too long. I don’t mean that the reader isn’t willing to commit to reading them, but that the books are full of fluff. For many books the signal to noise ratio is low. There are some good ideas introduced in the first chapter or two, some deeper exploration in the next few and then a bunch of filler chapters. In other books with a similar problem there may be a good idea every ten pages or so and the rest of them are excessive examples or other thoughts which don’t add much additional value. Why is that?

The answer is simple: marketing. Traditionally, books have been shelved. From bookstores to libraries the spine is what’s visible to the consumer most of the time. The width needs to be big enough that the book’s title, in whatever font and with whatever other design elements go with it, are visible to someone looking at a row of books on a shelf.

Lulu’s blog offers the following formula for calculating spine width: Spine width = (# of Interior Pages / 444) + 0.06 in.  Books smaller than about 1 cm in length start to get a bit too thin to see on a bookshelf. 1cm = .394 inches. Plugging that into the formula above we get 148 pages. Note that we’re looking at standard trade books which are printed on 50# or 60# paper. Books with lots of color images, children's books, pocket guides, and specialty books use a different stock and are sold differently.

Don’t just take my word for it, go to your local bookstore and try to find a trade publication less than 150 pages. You’ll find few, if any. This is why books often feel padded, because that good idea expressed in 50 pages needed another 100 pages of filler to get it on the shelf. This may be part of the reason many people don’t finish reading a book, the value per unit time decreases the further they go into the book.

that good idea expressed in 50 pages needed another 100 pages of filler to get it on the shelf

But today books are sold differently. The majority of the books in the US are purchased online, and most don’t ever make it into a library. In these cases, the spine width doesn’t matter. Traditional publishers will still aim for 150+ pages because they still count on (or at least hope for) bookstore distribution in the US and overseas, as well as library purchases. But as more people move away from traditional publishing, and more importantly, traditional distribution, we can start to move away from the 150-page minimum and have books that are just as long as they need to be, and no more.

There are some maximums, too. Books that are too wide are also not liked. This is because fewer of them can fit on the shelf, and because people are less likely to lug a huge tome with them to the beach. There are some exceptions such as college books; it doesn’t matter how big or expensive it is, the professor is telling you need it if you want to pass the class so you’re getting it. Bestselling authors are also exceptions. While the first three Harry Potter books ranged from a standard 223-317 pages, the last four came at between 607 and 766 pages. It didn’t matter, by that point it was a huge bestseller and people were going to buy it no matter what the size.

On a related note, it’s not just books where antiquated limits are fading away. TV shows generally fit into multiples of 30 minutes (including the opening, commercials, and credits) because that’s how people thought about TV: 30-minute sitcoms, 60-minute documentaries, 120-minute made for TV movies. Shows needed to sometimes add a filler scene or extend a scene a bit to fit appropriately. With DVR and streaming people are no longer so constrained. We see that especially with online streaming services where shows are of variable length–33 minutes, 47 minutes, 66 minutes–even in the same series.

While book lengths have been constrained by the needs of physical distribution channels those restrictions are becoming less important. As books continue to evolve, historical norms will change. It may start with book length, but I suspect we’ll see changes as well in overall book structure, and even the very concept of a combined set of pages as a book. So yes, you’ve been right in thinking your books were full of fluff, but hopefully those practices, along with bloodletting and bed warmers, will be relegated to history.