It’s Not About Pages, It’s About Word Count

I joined fandom back in the early days of the internet. Things were gradually moving off of personal websites on webrings and out of mailing lists to the exciting and new fanfiction.net. Back in these very early days, the only way to put your story on fanfiction.net was with a text file. In the very early days, these text files didn’t word wrap and you had to hit enter at the edge of the screen yourself. And if you wanted anything bolded or italicized you had to put in the basic html tags. So, for a long while until text files were word wrapped automatically, you could actually type directly into fanfiction.net and later upload word files (a huge deal), reading fanfiction was a bit of a crap shoot. Not only due to content because even back then Sturgeon’s Law applied, and also for formatting. Many stories had paragraphs that were single lines stretching so far you had to scroll across the screen. Back buttoning due to formatting issues was just as big of a deal as back buttoning due to story issues. Things have gotten better since then. There are still issues. But overall, there are more archives. More choices on where to post. And thankfully, a lot less formatting issues.

One of the things that hasn’t changed no matter what the archive is that there are no “pages” on the internet. Websites don’t format things to fit on paper, but on the screen. Page counts don’t matter. Word count does. Even in the early stages of fanfiction.net, there was the word count feature in the descriptions. You could look at the story, see the title, a summary, a genre, a rating and a word count. You knew if it was 100 words or 100,000 words. But even in fandom circles we talk about how many “pages” we write versus how many words. This is a trap.

Pages are really wishy washy things. Your pages and my pages might not be the same. You might have half inch margins and use size 11 Calibri font and I have one inch margins and use 12 Times New Roman font. You may double space your document and use indents. I may use a space between my paragraphs and single space mine. That will make a difference on how many pages you type. The words will remain the same. There will still be the same number of them, but the length of the “pages” will. Formatting changes everything.

Publishing knows this. Publishing has known this for a long time. That’s why when you write query letters you don’t put down how many pages it is. You put in the word count. They want to know what you have word wise. That is how they make their decisions. That’s why when looking at a book knowing the page count doesn’t help you know how long it really is unless you’re aware of industry standards for printing hard covers, mass market paperback and trade paperback. Even then it will depend on margins and font size.

There tend to be two thicknesses of books in mass paperback. One that is say, about ¾ of an inch wide and is about 300 pages long. These are the types of books that publishers like to put out. They are lower in cost to produce and contain about 80,000 to 100,000 words. The other is an inch and ¼ in size or so, and is about 500 pages long and contain about 150,000 to 165,000 words. These books are obviously higher in cost to produce and are seen as more of a risk as the publisher might not get the return on the print run. (Books used for this example are Blood Bound by Patricia Briggs and Written in Red by Anne Bishop, mainly because they sat near to each other on my shelf. Both have different margins on the pages.)

Which makes it odd to me that say, Amazon and ebook readers still insist on using “pages” instead of word count. Agents asks for pages when you query them as well. When I was querying the Lone Prospect, I found that the first 5 pages was around 1200 words when formatted in “industry format” (Double space, 12 pt Courier New, 1 inch margins) and that 10 pages was around 2500 words. And I wondered why the agent couldn’t ask for the word count rather than the page count. Or was this a test to see how well the writer “filled” up those pages. (There may be bench marks for that sort of thing, I don’t know. I’ve never had a chance to ask.) Whatever it was, the pages would have been significantly different if formatted differently.

When I first uploaded my book into Kindle, my Word document was 500 pages. Kindle changed it to over 700 pages. That’s a huge amount of pages added. Their formatting added 200 pages to my book that don’t exist. I also had spaces between my paragraphs. I decided to take them out to see how it would affect the length of the book. Halfway through the book, I had removed 69 pages of blank space. 69 pages without removing a single word! By three quarters, I’d removed 100 pages. When I was finished, it turned into 138 pages removed. (I’ll be honest, I don’t like that style of formatting. I do okay with it in printed pages, but on screen I really do prefer the spaces between paragraphs. I removed the spaces to see what would happen and if such a high “page count” was deterring readers.) After changing MOST of the font to size 11 it knocked the book down to 314 pages. Remember the book started out at about 500. I managed to cut 185 pages through formatting ALONE. When I uploaded it to Kindle, Amazon then stated that in print form it’d be 558 pages. Wow, what a difference!

So now when I look at a story on AO3 or fanfiction.net and can see the word count. I have a new appreciation for it. Oh, 2500 words, they wrote about ten “professional” pages. That’s not bad. Oh, they were kind to my eyes and put spaces between the paragraphs because this is an electronic format. Thank you, caring author. These were lessons I didn’t appreciate back when I was first in fandom because I didn’t know I was learning them.

Now, if only Amazon and other e-book retailers would get on board. Word count is much more important to readership than page count. Page count can be padded by blank space or changed through formatting changes such as font size. Word count can’t be faked. (Though scammers will start adding files with lots words instead of blank spaces to try and fool the algorithms.)

Yes, I’ll still probably talk to my editor (Becca) and about how many pages I’ve written, though more and more I’m more interested each day in how many words I’ve typed than how many pages. Sometimes it’s more important that I’ve written anything at all!

Just remember, page count means nothing. Word count means everything. You judge a book by its words, not its cover or how many pages it has.

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