Why is it harder to sell a long book to publishers?

Okay, so I’ve neglected the blog for the last seven months or so . My bad on that, but I’ve been so busy editing that there just hasn’t been time.

Nevertheless, today a question came up in an editing loop I’m on about why traditional publishers make a big deal about word count when increased word count doesn’t translate to that many more pages and therefore doesn’t increase physical production costs by that much per book, and I wanted to share the answer, as I see it.

tl;dr longer books are riskier for publishers because they need to sell more copies than shorter books to accomplish the same goals. Therefore they have to be better to get published.

It’s less about number of pages and more about overall costs and return on investment. The markets for long books are limited, but there’s always room for a new standout star. Long books, however, are much more expensive to produce in terms of editing, layout, and design, which are heavy drivers of cost in traditional publishing.

If you’re considering hiring a freelance editor, this should be pretty clear to you. We charge twice as much for each pass of a 200,000-word book as we do for a 100,000-word book. A publisher with in-house editors doesn’t have to pay directly for those services (though many outsource copy editing and proofreading and so do pay directly for some stages of book production in which costs scale linearly with word count), but they do have to allocate limited editor time for it. So a 200,000-word novel needs to bring in a lot more revenue in order to cover its editing costs, let alone provide an equivalent return on investment, which is something publishing executives care about deeply because that’s what shareholders hound executives of all companies over.

Publishers can charge a little more for a longer book, but not a lot more. Mass-market paperbacks and e-books pretty much have capped prices for debut authors (so do trades and hardcovers, but that’s getting more complex than I want to be today). So longer books have to sell a whole lot more copies, which means they’re a much riskier bet than shorter ones.

What the heck does all that mean, you ask? Let me give you a simplified example:

Book A is 90,000 words long. Publisher A hires me to do developmental and line edits on it at my current rates ($100 + $.02 per word for those two services together). So they spend $1,900 on those stages of editing. Let’s say they earn $4.23 per unit sold (publishers typically sell books at 60% of list price to wholesalers, and an author can reasonably expect a 7% royalty rate, so the publisher gets 53% of list. If the list price for that book is $7.99, they earn $4.23 per unit sold. In reality there are other costs that eat into that $4.23, and the numbers look different for e-books, but I’m trying to simplify here). To earn a return on investment of $1 for every $1 they spent on that editing, they need to make $3,800 ($1,900 to pay for the editing itself, and then another $1,900 on top of that). They need to sell 898 copies to do that.

Book B is 270,000 words long. Publisher B also hires me. So they spend $5,500 on editing. The book’s longer, so they can get away with charging $8.99 and thus make $4.76 per book. To earn an ROI of $1 for $1, they need to make $11,000. They need to sell 2,311 copies to do that.

In reality, the calculations are a heck of a lot more complex than that. And, importantly, publishers are looking for ROI much, much better than just $1 for $1. The ROI on their top books, the ones that sell hundreds of thousands or millions of copies, is enormous, and their shareholders, ideally, want them to come as close to that as possible with every single dollar they spend. When they publish shorter books, they have a better chance of accomplishing that.

And that’s why it’s harder to sell a long book to publishers.