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Expert Editorial Tips for Writers

Ask a Book Editor: “Is It a Book or a Magazine Article?”

To increase the odds of getting a book offer, it’s essential to think like an acquiring editor.

For nonfiction submissions, often the first question asked by editors—and the larger acquisition board they report to—will be “Is it a book or a ‘magazine article’?” The debate is particularly relevant for prescriptive nonfiction (including how-to and self-help) and some narrative nonfiction. By “magazine article” I don’t mean literally but rather in scope. A viable book needs a topic with room to expand—something with enough oomph to explore and sustain long-form interest and a necessary price point. It’s the difference between a hypothetical sidebar that reads “Papayas Are Good for You” and a groundbreaking The Papaya Diet plan with engaging studies, detailed menus to incorporate the surprising wonder fruit, unique recipes, and irresistible testimonies.

Sometimes a magazine article or an essay can inspire a book, but they alone aren’t a book—even if they were a lengthy magazine feature. One reports; the other explores. In the same way, a real-life human interest story can inspire fiction. For instance, it’s the difference between a news article about a good Samaritan rescuing someone who had fallen onto the subway tracks and a what-if exploration of how the events and decisions of that day affect both lives going forward. That’s a potential novel.  

While this applies largely to nonfiction, there’s a more obvious fiction correlation: short story versus a novel. Per length alone, it’s rarely a question as to which category one falls. (Of course, some aimless or bloated novels would perhaps make better short stories, but that’s a conversation for another day.) A more apt fiction counterpart would be “Is it a novel or a novella?”  

Here’s a useful test.

Can your book proposal or manuscript support an Introduction that states the reader’s need for the book and the topic to come without tipping your entire hand? Does it successfully answer the critical Why should I care? Is there a specific audience in mind?

Is it a topic that can build on a central thesis and unfold organically with related material and dynamic examples? Is there room to explore the why, the what if, and the what next? Is there enough content for someone to take notes? Would a fan recommend others read the book or is its takeaway shareable in a simple sentence?  

At heart, does the topic warrant chapters or a checklist?    

Length (aka word count).

While there’s more inherent flexibility with ebooks (as very few traditionally printed books could be priced at $0.99, pageviews depend on font size, and a virtual “pamphlet” assumes the same marketplace shelf space as a tome), a reader-satisfying printed book should be at least 45,000 words length. That’s a rough estimate. Keep in mind I’m talking about an adult book of primarily text. And I’m pointedly discussing words, not pages, because with font size, varying cover specs, and creative margins, you can considerably stretch a book’s page count. Different categories of books can support different lengths (e.g., few self-help readers wish to wade through 100,000 words for answers), but even 45,000 words is a relatively slim book.

Another smart indicator would be how long it takes an average reader to finish. There’s nothing wrong with someone excitedly reading an entire self-help book over a single cross-country flight. That’s going to score you some enthusiastic word of mouth. But if they can read it in a single trip to the bathroom, you might want to reconsider.