Word limits, book contracts, and the demand to cut cut cut: any advice?

I’ve got a friend who is struggling this summer with her university press publisher’s demand that she cut 20,000 words from her 142,000 word book.  She’s doing interesting work pulling together the relevant strands of scholarship from many different fields, and as most of you humanists can probably guess, this means that her footnotes are pretty crunchy and dense.  She added a great deal more to her first draft of the manuscript to respond to the suggestions and concerns of the press reviewers, and now the press itself is demanding that she cut-cut-cut, and she’s understandably frustrated.

As a first-time author, she feels obligated to demonstrate quite clearly her scholarly debt to others, so her footnotes and bibliography comprise 36,000 of the total.  At this point, she has already cut 12,000 words from the manuscript and doesn’t think she can go further without undermining her contribution to the existing literature.

I think she might consider dropping the bibliography, because her footnotes will include full citations of her sources.  She might also shave a few thousand words out of her notes by removing all of the chit-chat and leaving only the citations.  (She’d likely have to make use of the “subtle but deadly ‘cf.’ (‘compare’),” which Anthony Grafton explained to me in his book on the footnote as a sign “at least to the expert reader, both that an alternative view appears in the cited work and that it is wrong,” (The Footnote:  A Curious History, 8).  As a first-time author, this might be read as a little presumptuous without further explanation–at least, I would have been reluctant to use “cf.” in my footnotes in my first book, but maybe I’m too nice and too deferential.  (Maybe I was also reasonably cautious because of the pushback I got from several senior and mid-career scholars about my ideas.)

Another solution I suggested is that she might cut the notes dramatically for the print edition of the book and set up a website that contains the fuller citations and bibliography on a web page hosted by the publisher’s server.  I know that people these days are using web pages not just to promote their books, but also to serve as hosts for further resources that interested readers can consult and engage with–more images, more of the scholarly apparatus, etc.  (If any of you have ideas about models for this kind of website, please drop a link in the comments!)

Have any of you set up a web page like this?  What in your view are the advantages and disadvantages of publishing an online companion to your books?  Finally, what suggestions do you have for this first-time author about either cutting words and/or communicating with her publisher about the impossibility of cutting further?

33 thoughts on “Word limits, book contracts, and the demand to cut cut cut: any advice?

  1. My sense is that most publishers – ever hopeful for the classroom market, but also insistent on clean, clear prose – want writers to focus on the historical stakes, and not the historiographical ones. Maybe the author just needs to make (or repeat) the argument that, in this case, both are equally important. And maybe there can be some small consolation that comes from knowing that everyone has had to do something like this for the first book. I had to gut my notes the first time. But I got the press to lay off when I told them directly that I needed to cover my behind, lest the book be savaged in reviews.

    146,000 is a high price point, I know. My editors tell that the difference between 100,000 and 120,000 can be enormous.


  2. Wow, I thought you were talking about me this summer, until you said “she,” and “first book,” plus the exact word counts don’t match up! Some of these suggested solutions would have to be decisions made in explicit dialog with the press, I would think, including cut the bibliography out; drop all explication from the notes and just cite the sources, etc. I don’t see any problem with the cf. mode, in terms of situating the author as either a deferential junior or an entitled senior scholar.

    As to the text itself, this reads like the diary of part of my summer, except that I’ve been overwriting since eighth grade, and so have done a lot of cutting over the years. (Remember that panel we did in Hockeytown, CA, Historiann? My 11 pp. read paper was a 26 page written one not two weeks before that day). Every sub-genre has different issues with this. I spent a month one summer cutting a c. 44 page article into a 14 pp. +/- note and document, and then the editor said something like “I was looking for maybe closer to 10 pp., or preferably just the document with your name and institution. Scram, punk, and the thing has never seen print…)

    For a long form thing like a book manuscript, I think the only thing to do is to make the project a finite part of almost every day’s work–you can’t do it for hours on end without losing perspective and probably doing self-harm to the text. And within that window, I think you can teach yourself to recognize habits by which you might tend to offer three specific examples for a lot of points you want to make when you could really get by with two, or even one. Or you might tend to use strings of adjectives when one punchy one gets you a better read. Or when the draft is for telling yourself what you’ve learned about a subject, but once that’s done the reader doesn’t really need all (or even half) of the nuance and perversity that the past offers to the researcher. But how you cut really depends on how you write, and I’m highlighting my own problematic proclivities, not ones that another author might have. A more-than-formulaic talk with the editor might help, to find out what issues they *really* have with the particular manuscript, rather than some generic shop preferences for certain sized books.

    I could say more, I think, but seeing this many words has already got me nervous about the afternoon session with the gleaming scimitar. When you have begun to cut, I think it gets easier. Sometimes going through the whole manuscript and trying to slice off only the stuff you can easily see gone exposes surface area elsewhere in the paragraph that can come out (or maybe really has to come out) now that you’ve dropped the first part. So maybe several sequential runs through the manuscript seeking layers of words to fire…

    cf, by the way, the piece in the NYT yesterday about discussions between the AHA and the rest of the industry over the ability to “embargo” dissertations from web access for up to six years during the revision process. This issue strikes me as somehow intersecting with the supplementary web page question.


  3. p.s. Second Lance on the historiography point. Every editor I’ve ever talked with says leave the historiographical dramaturgy back in the graduate seminar, or in commissioned historiographical pieces, and just say what you want to say. This is easier advice to offer than to take, though.


  4. This sounds familiar to me, to! In addition to the above on multiple examples, modifiers (axe all adverbs, helpful-reader colleagues said!), and historiography, my editor suggested a couple of practical, quick-and-dirty measures to cut words fast: drop publisher names from the footnotes and just use (Place, year) for the pub info, and drop the secondary bibliography. If the press’s style mavens will allow them, these two things eliminated a surprising number of words. Losing the secondary bibliography was sad, but less sad for me than losing half a chapter. I’d agree 100% with Lance and Indyanna on the historiography, too—the author’s research will be much more interesting and significant to readers.

    If your correspondent is interested in the new media route, David Bell has made good use of the web to post a full bibliography and additional reference/research appendices not included in print editions of his books: http://www.davidavrombell.com/book-appendices/

    His site is great, but there is the downside of the need to maintain it. Unless the author’s university library can offer permanent hosting, this material will only be available as long as the author is willing/able to keep the site operational and accessible.


  5. I agree about cutting the bibliography. I always have felt that if the citations are complete, a bibliography is redundant. It will solve her problem completely, and possibly even give her back a few thousand words!


  6. Cut the bibliography (sad, but necessary). Trim the discursive footnotes. In terms of the historiographical footnotes some might be more significant for the project than others. The “for information on x see y…” footnotes that are not directly related to the argument could be dropped. I’ve been noticing monographs becoming slimmer and slimmer, which is not always a great thing. And I do think historiography is an important piece of our work. It’s worth fighting for if it is central to the argument(s).


  7. I’ve read the ms. a few times, and I can assure you all that the text of her book is focused on her evidence and arguments & not on the intricacies of historiography. But I believe that it’s necessary for her to cite and credit the bodies of literature that she’s bringing together and which are crucial for her argument.

    This is what’s so discouraging: presumably the press wants to publish really smart and influential books, but they can’t do that AND demand that the books all clock in at 120,000 words or fewer.

    Any schmuck can write an 80,000 or 100,000 word book that addresses a set of questions all within just one subfield, and unfortunately, we’ve all read books like that. But don’t we want junior scholars to do innovative stuff? In my view, that usually means crossing at least 3, 4, or 5 existing subfields to come up with something new.

    I don’t think most of us want to read books by most first-time authors that have more than 300 pages, but 250-300 seems reasonable to me if someone’s trying to do something substantially new.


  8. p.s. Ellie, thanks for the link to the David Bell webpage. It’s not fancy, but for our purposes, clean and easy to maintain & load is more important than fancy. It seems like the publisher could add a link to a webpage that it hosts that would do the same for their authors.

    (It makes more sense to me for publishers to host these pages than for authors or their universities to do this. People change jobs, and it’s really in the publishers’ interests that the full documentation be made available to interested scholars & students, who are after all the potential audience/market for these books.)


  9. I’ll echo an early commenter and say that it’s probably not about length per se, but about production costs and price point. Each additional signature a book runs can really affect costs.

    But it sounds like your friend has done a tremendous job of cutting already (cutting 12,000 words is heroic!), and the suggestion to cut the biblio ought to do the rest.

    And/or can she negotiate with her press at all — tell them that she can cut 15,000, but any further would be destroying muscle and not fat?


  10. Series editor chiming in here: The question of price is important, but more than 120,000 words also cuts sales, I’m afraid (and in this day and age of Kindle pricing could be a greater factor.) Even Richard White’s Middle Ground, which is a luminous book in my view,is a hard sell to get even the finest undergraduates to read. And what graduate students, the most compulsive book buyers of all, are going to buy a tome like that? They will use the library copy and walk away.

    My experience is twofold: one is that every author thinks that everything she has written matters, and few have the perspective to know what should be cut. And although I don’t know your friend, or the quality of the work, I am a bit skeptical about the value of all those lengthy footnotes. Is every nuance of your argument truly necessary? Is this not as much anxiety as anything else? Needing to make sure that there is absolutely no doubt about the quality of your thought strikes me as perhaps an unnecessary lack of confidence.

    The bad part about publishing nowadays is that your friend should have an editor making suggestions for cuts, and she apparently doesn’t. My former dissertation adviser helped me cut my first book by thousands of words; Renee Romano and I do the same thing for authors who can be pretty whacked after finishing a manuscript. In fact, I have been known to gently snatch a book at the copyedit and proofreading stage, since it is not uncommon (as a prior commenter says) for an author to start harming the book rather than helping it.

    Your friend needs outside eyes — and yes, almost no one has a bibliography any more. That’s an easy one. Prune the footnotes first, and then get the rest of it out of the text itself.


  11. Obviously everyone has their own style, but one prose suggestion to consider: avoid chapter conclusions that review the chapter and instead use conclusions as culminations/transitions. True, some grad students reading for prelims might be annoyed that it’s harder to plow through quickly, but a lot of monographs waste a lot of words on repetition, and a strong argument doesn’t need to constantly repeat itself. (This may not be an issue at all, but in case it is, it’s one way to cut that can also strengthen the narrative and argument.)


  12. I deeply mourn the loss of bibliography — plowing back through the footnotes can be a real pain (of course, true footnotes are also almost extinct, alas). Be cautious about trusting a publisher to maintain a footnotes page for your book; if you can get your institution to host such a page that you maintain, that would cost you some time but be a safer option. A major book in my field was published a few years ago by a major press that said all the footnotes were on the press’s webpage. That never happened, and recently another website of oral histories related to the book has also disappeared.


  13. I’m with Northern Barbarian on this. Bibliographies and the occasional conversational footnote are key aspects of a book’s contribution; and they help to connect the one with the many. Stripping these away only adds to the myth that we do this all alone, that we are not in conversation with many others. Hosting notes or bibs on a website subject to the whims of our vastly underfunded universities and colleges and rapidly changing technology is not a realistic option. These dimunitions to the full meaning and contribution of the monograph are just plan sad.


  14. As another series editor, I agree with TR, as well as with the suggestions to cut the bibliography. If your friend wants ever to see a penny in royalties, too, I suggest she not try to negotiate with the press about their request/demand. The price for a 140,000 page book is ridiculous.

    Many (well, maybe some) university presses are willing to host bibliography and extended notes on their website. She might put in the notes for the book only those for things actually cited in the text. Then the notes that are “For more on the question of X, see Y” can be somewhere else. There is a nice example from my field of how this can be done: http://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/history/european-history-1000-1450/law-marriage-and-society-later-middle-ages-arguments-about-marriage-five-courts. If you click on “resources” it takes you to a document called “texts and commentary,” in which he gives extended notes, and also the full text of many of the Latin sources he cites in the text. The URL for this page (or a shorter version, maybe–I don’t have the book in front of me) is given in the book so the reader knows of its existence.


  15. Oh, and a p.s., referring to what TR said about length being even more of a factor for Kindle pricing: If this is the case (and I don’t know–the books I write/edit are not candidates for Kindle) it is clearly a matter of what the traffic will bear. It does cost a publisher proportionally more to produce a longer book, in terms of paying the copy editor, typesetter, printer, shipper etc. But bytes are cheap.


  16. For my first (and so far only) book, I had a contract for 125,000 words and my original MS was 175,000. My editor and I agreed on 150,000; in addition, I agreed to a lower royalty on hardcover sales. I included a complete bibliography, but to save space in the notes, I used an abbreviated format: the first reference to each source gave author’s full name, short title, and date, while subsequent references were just author’s last name and short title. That saved a significant number of words, and it still allowed readers unfamiliar with the source to know the author’s full name and the date of publication without having to flip to the bibliography.


  17. I cut 20,000 from the MS for my first book and it was painful but I think it made for a cleaner read. Things I thought were a waste of time was cutting the publisher from my notes. Over the whole MS I only saved 300 or so words, which didn’t feel worth the effort. I went for a ‘select bibliography’, rather than a full one (halving the word count). I also cut a lot of the contextual description of well-known debates – so for example, I reduced my summary of the Laqueurian debate about the move from one to two sex model to two sentences, referring the reader elsewhere. It was important to indicate my position on that debate, but not to rehearse a well-known and accessible argument. (Cutting historiographical summaries is actually a big part of what makes my monograph different from my PhD).

    I tend to agree that she should cut the biblio and extraneous footnotes. And, yes, it’s a first book and she wants to show her working, but it’s not a PhD, so she should also feel able to exert her own authority without a huge amount of backing from the historiography. If she can get away with a review article that summarises the field and get rid of a huge amount of footnotes, do that. It shows awareness of the field without having to put in all the notes. I also think it’s perfectly legitimate in each (historiographical) footnote to pick the 2-3 top authors (or those that represent the main positions in the debate etc) and go with them, and get rid of the rest (once you’ve made this decision, it’s also psychologically liberating!).

    The modern reader should be aware that footnotes are no longer allowed to be endless and will not be expeting otherwise. Think of the notes as things that will allow the reader to access the literature/debate and enable them to start their own research, not as things that do all that research for them. I recently edited an article that was meant to be 8000 words incl notes, and came in at 8,000 words, not incl notes, and 11,000 words in total. Because I was slightly pissed off (it was late; I had deadlines etc), I cut the notes myself and sent them to the author for approval (which he did). But importantly, I got the whole word length down to 8,800 words and it in no way took away from the complexity of the piece or the debate. It just wasn’t necessary to have such long notes. So, why not get somebody who isn’t so invested in the debate to have a go at cutting.

    Another key thing when needing to cut a large number of words, is just to cut chapters or sections of chapters – after a certain point this is so much easier that trying to delete adverbs or rephrase sentences. So, which part would make a nice article, and could be removed from your book without compromising the argument. This feels really hard to do, but often once that text is removed, you get over it pretty fast in my experience. In terms of speed, it’s also a much quicker way to edit.


  18. Extremely few documents are complete, concise and fantastically written. If one assumes that a document is not complete then it makes it easier to argue that there is a shorter document that is almost as complete as the original one.

    I cannot say the publisher’s cut is justified. I can, however, say that cutting 15,000 words if done right will not damage the original,


  19. I needed to cut a lot of words from my first book, and I got a lot of them by switching from full citations to short citations. I had considered eliminating the bibliography instead, but I found short citations saved me more words. It must depend on how many references are to works only cited once. It feels strange to cite something for the first time as “Joan Scott, *Gender*, 27-31,” but it meant readers still had the full bibliography.


  20. I find books without bibliographies really frustrating, because I might not be interested in a book in the footnotes in the first instance but long about page 120 there is something great that I want to pursue and a footnote that says Smith, 38 is supper unhelpful and finding the first instance of Smith is often impossible. Also if she working in many different fields, then a bibliography in one place is a helpful thing for others who want to read outside their usual baliwik. I’d vote for trimming the notes to the bone of its comments and asides. I also overwrite, so I always assume my prose can be improved by trimming, but that is just me. One perhaps radical idea is to cut a chapter and publish it as an article–that of course doesn’t always work, but sometimes one only needs one case study, not two. She has my sympathies, but one wants people to read the book, and sadly in our current publishing world size matters, but not in the usual ways.


  21. Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts and shared experiences on this. You are a tough crowd! The information from the series editors like TR and Ruth is especially helpful, and the intel about the 120,000 word issue w/r/t electronic books is useful info too.

    And although I’m sure my friend will still find the cuts she’s been asked to make daunting, your voices of experience will *I hope* be understood by her as mostly encouraging.


  22. Sometimes less is more. My most recent book came in under 100,000 words and I think it’s my best work yet. The publisher was able to set a price low enough that it can be assigned in courses. Sales have been robust. I guess that makes me a schmuck!


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  24. Not at all, Knitting Clio: I think that makes you remarkably productive! Said friend is working in a field in which saying something new means being very inventive as well as acknowledging several longstanding historiographies, which means that her notes are always going to be pretty extensive.

    I’ve just been counting up my word totals myself, out of curiosity, and I believe that my first book clocked in at 110,000 words. My next book will likely not reach even 90K, which I suppose will make publishers love me?


  25. Late to the party here, but when I “finished” my first book ms, I decided to try to cut by 10%: not because of the publisher, but as an exercise. Later my editor commented on how well it read, and I told her what I’d done, and she was most impressed. I now do this with everything I write, and it always improves it. Both my books are routinely used in teaching, and length is a key part of it.


  26. I’d like to echo Yusifu on the citation vs bibliography front. Short citations save so much and point towards the bibliography, all nicely collected in one place in the book. Long citations sans bibliography leads one to flip back and forth, trying to figure out citations.

    Leaving grad school and talking to publishers, I was told 90K by the press I wanted to work with. One summer, I turned 45,000 words into 18,000 words. Another summer, I cut a 25,000 word chapter and turned it into a 2000-word intro for the next chapter. My book clocks in at 89,000 words or so and feels much better than than the original 120,000 word behemoth. But these two editing and rewriting processes were the hardest acts of composition I have experienced, and I empathize with your friend as she faces this challenge.


  27. I wouldn’t trust a publisher to house my ancillaries. Publishers, even university presses, cut personnel and commitments. Pages disappear. Heck, even your book can disappear from a publisher’s website when they go through a massive reorganization. I know from bitter experience. Hosting your own domain can be cheap and simple or, as someone else said, taking advantage of a university library’s interest in hosting open access elements of your research? Excellent alternative.

    Good luck to your friend: I’m sure that her book will be awesome when it does come out in print and ebook versions!


  28. I think we all can empathize with how hard it is to murder one’s darlings or even cinch up footnotes. But I just have a hard time believing that a first book, no matter how creative and path-breaking it is, needs to be that long.

    And given that your friend’s contract probably specified 100,000 words (rare to get more than that for a first book), these cuts should hardly come as a surprise. It seems unfair to suggest that this is something that the publisher or editor has suddenly sprung on her, when more likely the author egregiously overran the agreed-upon word count a LOT and has been hoping for some sort of special treatment or allowance.

    I’ve found editors are happy to be advocate for their authors as long as they are willing to meet them somewhere in the middle and trust their expertise. No doubt the editor has seen far more books hit the market than the author and his or her advice should be heeded. Also, a 140,000 word book could likely go for well over $50 in hardcover. A good editor wants people to READ the thing and BUY it. (UPs are not charities; they do aim to break even.) Unless she is writing for a press that always automatically gets its books in libraries, she could seriously hurt her book’s impact by insisting that it remains so long.


  29. re: Ruth. This is off the subject, but I’d urge you not to dismiss the possibility of Kindle publication too easily. As someone who majored in history but retired from the bureaucracy, I’m not about to pay $50-80 for a university press book, no matter how interested in the subject I am. At $30 I’m more interested, but at $21 for a Kindle version I’ll almost certainly end up buying (case in point http://www.amazon.com/Dispossession-Discrimination-against-African-American/dp/1469602016/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pd_S_nC?ie=UTF8&colid=2XDWS9S2U8LW0&coliid=IPEP658NEQY8S) So Kindle represents a way to expand your potential audience, and one which can last, given the Kindle version is likely to remain available for a long time.


  30. Nothing to add on the cutting question (except that I’m sure it will be an issue when I finally write a book), but I agree with those who find footnotes only, with no bibliography to key to, very annoying. Maybe electronic text would partly solve that problem (one can search for the first mention), but still, there’s a lot to be said for bibliographies.

    On the idea of publishing auxiliary material on the web: it sounds like the answer to most of the problems people have mentioned is redundancy, which should be possible with open access/a creative commons license. Get the publisher to put it up, because that makes sense, but also make use of a university repository and/or a self-maintained professional web page. And then make sure that as many of those records as possible are recorded on the internet archive/wayback machine. With a belt-and-suspenders approach, it seems likely that at least one copy of the auxiliary material will be available for some time.


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  32. If it’s true that “any schmuck” can write an 80,000 word book, as Historiann said on July 30, why do we even concern ourselves about getting published? Are we all schmucks? Including Historiann?


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