By Bobbie Christmas
Q: After five years I have completed my autobiography. After submitting many query letters with the word count of 777,568 I have been informed that as a new author no one is going to take a chance and publish me, because the cost would be great. I am told the book should not be more than 90,000 words. How can you help me to condense my book, and what would the cost be?
A: The advice you received is correct, that publishers prefer most first-time authors to keep their books at or under 100,000 words. Because the length of a manuscript affects the cost to produce it as a book, publishers rarely accept manuscripts of 500,000 words or more, unless the author is already established and has a strong fan following.
You have put a great deal of work into your book, though, and deleting about 90 percent of your words could be heartbreaking, if not impossible. I feel for you and I can help, but not right away. Let me explain.
I help authors, rather than scalp them, so let me make some comments and suggestions. Because I, like most editors, charge by the word, you can save a great deal of money by reducing the word count yourself before sending the book for editing, but wait! You won’t have to cut out almost 700,000 words if you follow my advice.
First, is the book an actual autobiography? Autobiographies cover the lives of celebrities, politicians, and other well-known people. Autobiographies reveal personal information that readers want to know about the subject’s life history, how the person grew up, what drawbacks the person faced, how that person overcame adversity, and in what way the subject of the book finally triumphed. If the author is, however, simply an ordinary person who led an interesting life but is not a famous person, then it must be labeled a memoir, rather than an autobiography.
If indeed it is a memoir, we’re in luck. Memoirs give authors many ways and opportunities to break their manuscripts into several. Rather than being a straight timeline and litany of facts like an autobiography, memoirs can be separated into stories about specific incidents. For example, I’ve broken my memoirs into three books by making one strictly about my life with animals. One is about unusual or funny incidents that happened to me at work. A third one covers odd or hilarious events I’ve experienced in my dating life.
In your case, perhaps one manuscript can concentrate on interesting incidents that happened to you during your youth and teen years. A second manuscript could cover events when you were in your twenties. Other manuscripts could concentrate on your thirties, and so forth. After you’ve broken the document into five or more manuscripts, you can go through each one and decide which chapters or incidents are the weakest, least interesting, or least important and delete them.
Next you can read books such as mine, Write In Style, to learn which words and phrases you can find and delete to make the writing even tighter and stronger.
Soon you’ll find you’ve reduced the single manuscript of more than 777,000 words into five or more tightly written memoirs that may be closer to 100,000 words each. Only then is it time to send one or more of the manuscripts for editing. Be sure to request that your editor also delete any weak segments or wordy phrases and make suggestions on how to cut down the word count even more. Not all editors will make such suggestions unless you ask them to do so.
I look forward to collaborating with you, but I want to give you the best deal for your dollar. If you can cut the book into at least four books, I can help with each one much easier and more economically than trying to cut the 777,000 words down to 100,000. In the end a much larger portion of your words and message will be preserved by breaking the one manuscript into several, and I’m sure you’ll be much happier, as well.
Bobbie Christmas is a book editor, author of Write In Style: Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing, and owner of Zebra Communications. She will answer your questions too. Send them to Bobbie@zebraeditor.com or BZebra@aol.com. Read Bobbie’s Zebra Communications blog at https://www.zebraeditor.com/blog/.