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Q&A: You’ve reached your maximum number of textbook pages, but lack content. Now what?

Q: “I am writing a book under contract and my chapters have been running so long I have already written the maximum number of pages negotiated with my publisher, yet have only fulfilled half the overall content promised. How should I approach this with the publisher? Should I renegotiate the overall content covered in the book or engage in some major editing?”

A: Mary Ellen Lepionka, author of Writing & Developing Your College Textbook:

“I suggest first clarifying if the publisher’s contract is referring to book pages or manuscript pages. You can usually figure 2.5 double- spaced manuscript pages per book page for a book with around 500 words per page, which is standard for an 8 X 10 trim size, which is standard for a textbook. For a 14- to 16-chapter textbook, no chapter should exceed 40 book pages in length.

Second, book length and the table of contents are marketing decisions. Your book should be around the same length as directly competing textbooks for the same course from which the publisher is hoping to take market share. Also, your contents should be no more detailed than what is expected or wanted by instructors teaching the course at the level of instruction for which you are writing. Consider that you can move details to your instructor’s manual or support web site.

Another consideration is the budget for your book, for which the publisher has already bought the paper. Also, the pricing has also already been set based on that cost. If your book is a signature over-length (32 pages longer than planned), multiply that by the number of books to be printed and you will get a sense of the magnitude of the problem from a business perspective. This has further ramifications; e.g., a book that does not break even or is not profitable is not revised, however good it is (and a lot of good books have disappeared this way, believe me).

It’s probably better to bite the bullet and cut, and plan a more realistic length estimate for when you next revise. Suggest ask your publisher for help with length if you can’t do it without sacrificing schedule. It’s really hard to cut what you create objectively. Following is an excerpt regarding length control from a chapter on length and schedule in my book on textbook writing (Lepionka, M. E., Writing and Developing Your College Textbook, Atlantic Path Publishing, 2008). fyi:

‘Disaster Control Guidelines for Length. Following Hippocrates, the following solutions for correcting length problems are ordered in terms of the principle of least intervention. In addition, following the principle of the conservation of energy and matter, solutions aim to preserve content in some form while cutting length.

Scenario A: Your chapter is too long and there is simply no way you can cut it without destroying its brilliance and integrity.

Solution 1: Scour for wordiness and tighten your prose (see Chapter 6). Especially look for strings of unnecessary prepositional phrases, unnecessary qualifying remarks and disclaimers, and any gratuitous- seeming or jargony elaborations. Change every sentence to active voice.

Solution 2: Search for paragraphs you can drop. Especially drop a paragraph whose source citation is more than ten years out of date, unless this source is an essential classic. Also, ruthlessly drop paragraphs that are in any way tangential or digressionary, however amusing or clever. Then consider dropping extra examples and applications, shortening them, or substituting more economical ones.

Solution 3: Check that you have the prescribed number of pedagogical features and chapter elements. Choose the best ones and then combine, condense, move, or drop any extras, however good they are. Consider repurposing the best of them for use in your ancillaries or supplements.

Solution 4: Where possible, condense and convert portions of narrative to a figure or table. For example, the formula for estimating length took only 12 lines of type but essentially replaces 54 lines of manuscript preceding it.

Solution 5: Where possible, depending on your evaluation of their importance for your purposes, drop long figures or tables and preserve the content in condensed or summarized narrative form. For example, ‘Research clearly shows that sleep deprivation has a negative effect on productivity in the workplace (Smith, 2002)’ might easily replace a graph occupying one -third of a book page.

Solution 6: Ask your editor for suggestions or assistance in reducing the length of the chapter. It is important to identify and discuss any dropping of whole topics or headings and sections. Your editor might have reason to believe that some of your proposed cuts will compromise meeting customer needs. Avoid cutting any elements that are part of the publisher’s book plan, because this is the plan for marketing, advertising, promoting, and selling your book, which are already underway….”