Ask BHP: Does Bethany House Have Any Christmas Traditions?

Next in our Ask Bethany House blog series, a seasonal question! One reader wrote, “Beyond the normal Christmas office party, what holiday traditions does Bethany House have?”

Given that I am currently listening to instrumental carols and watching snow fall gently outside, it felt like the perfect time to share some favorite holiday activities from our offices in Minnesota. Maybe you’ll find a new tradition or two!

Decoration Day

Early in December, Chris from our marketing department gets together a crew to bring out the boxes and deck the halls, from the lunchroom to the stairwells to our tree. On the days when I need to stay late or come in early, it’s lovely to see the golden glow of lights in the dark Bethany House office.

Christmas Potluck

Yes, this is separate from our Christmas party, and it involves SO MUCH FOOD. Everyone brings their A-game for this potluck in particular, and you’ll come into the kitchen to find an array of Crockpots and appetizer trays crowding the counters. Someone always brings cider (the best) and eggnog (why bother?), and it always pays to scope out the dessert table early.

Hope Academy Book Project

We love the mission of Hope Academy in Minneapolis, and every year, we order two books for each child in one classroom to take home (we’re assigned to third grade this year). A lot of kids in the school don’t own many books, and they get so excited every year to unwrap them! Bethany House staff volunteer to wrap the books (not my personal strength; my wrapping jobs are always…rustic), and deliver them to the kids. There’s a fun time afterward where we read the first few chapters of one of the books with the kids in a small “buddy” group. And we always love listening to Hope Academy’s choir serenading all the volunteers with carols!

Julie Klassen’s Booksigning

Not a holiday tradition, per se, but since Julie’s books release in December and she’s one of our few local authors, several Bethany House staff members enjoy attending (and bringing treats to) her launch event and presentation at Barnes & Noble. This year, there was an interactive five-minute mystery to solve to celebrate The Bridge to Belle Island. (The plot: Who stole Julie’s rare copy of Pride and Prejudice? The scheming editor, the flustered first reader, the jealous-of-Mr.-Darcy husband or the well-intentioned assistant?) It’s fun to enjoy the event and see readers buying lots of books as Christmas presents!

The Nativity Scene

This really goes with the decorating bit, but I’m always put in charge of checking our latest titles to see which ones we should add to the office manger scene. From 2019, I decided Mary would be very interested in A Song of Joy by Lauraine Snelling, given her own joyful song, and that one of the angels needed to check out On Wings of Devotion by Roseanna M. White.

Emails About Goodies

Okay, you laugh, but often at this time of year, authors or advertisers will send small gifts to our office—usually in the form of something edible. Once the treats are set out in a common area, an email is the starting gun for a stampede of sweet-seekers. (Okay, I’m exaggerating a little bit, but you do not want to come between me and the last chocolate truffle, that’s all I’m saying.)
There are other festivities that will go on—everything from Secret Santa exchanges to mysteriously-appearing chocolates in the little stockings hanging outside marketing offices—but those are the main yearly traditions. I hope you enjoyed hearing about them!

What are your Christmas traditions, at work or otherwise?

Ask BHP: What’s It Like Being Married to an Author?

This question for our Ask Bethany House blog series might just be my favorite yet: “Any chance you can ask some of your authors’ husbands about the interesting/amusing things they’ve lived through while being married to an author? I’d love to know!”

Was this question submitted by a real reader, or a spouse of one of our novelists trying to find out if he’s the only one who finds writers’ quirks strange? We may never know. But I do know that when I asked our authors to submit a line or two from their husbands about being up close and personal to the novel-writing life, I got some great answers! Enjoy.

Dave, husband of Beverly Lewis: “Being married to a novelist means I get to enjoy the roleplaying Bev and I do for some of the protagonist’s scenes and dialogue with her love interest.”

Peter, husband of Leslie Gould: “I get to go along with Leslie on research trips and look, listen, and participate in conversations that turn into stories, from imagining an Amish girl at Gettysburg in 1863 to visiting on the porch with a contemporary Amish family in Indiana.”

Paul, husband of Elizabeth Musser: “As a writer, she guesses (correctly) the ending of every movie we watch. Spoiler alert!”

Ivan, husband of Mary Connealy: “I was reading one of my wife’s books once (I forget which one), but Mary tends to kill off worthless husbands so the hero can come riding to the rescue. Knowing what I’ve heard about authors drawing on their own lives for their books, I couldn’t stop trying to figure out if I was the hero or the worthless husband.”

Mark, husband of Susan Sleeman: “When I come home from work I never know where your mind will be. Sometimes you’re killing people. Sometimes helping people escape from an evil villain, or worse, you’re in the mind of the villain.”

Bill, husband of Elizabeth Camden: “My wife usually has scenes with different ethnic cuisines in her books. Neither one of us are great cooks, so we go out to do ‘research’ at cool restaurants all over town. We’ve been to German beer-gardens, a Polish deli, a Japanese place, and lots of Irish pubs.”

“His Highness,” husband of Becky Wade: “I never get to figure out how a movie ends on my own. She always tells me what’s going to happen before it does.” (From Becky: “I still feel sheepish about ruining The Sixth Sense for him, poor guy!”)

Jacob, husband of Kristi Ann Hunter: “She analyzes. Everything. And I mean e-ver-y-thing.”

Mike, husband of Dani Pettrey: “The most interesting thing is probably drifting off to sleep while she talks herself through the latest way to plot and execute the demise of the victim in her next book. In the morning, my fitness tracker says I basically slept with one eye open the entire night!”

Tim, husband of Nicole Deese: I was married to my wife for over eight years before she started writing her first novel. In that time I witnessed many of the characteristics that contributed to her becoming an outstanding author. Creativity, humor, emotion, passion (and a desire to become an expert in things she was passionate about) and the ability to tell a story that would enrapture any room were on full display before she wrote word one of her first book.

But as she prepares to release her tenth book, the thing that has been the most interesting to me through this whole journey is how…unexpected it was. Hear me. I was first drawn to my wife because of many of the same qualities I just mentioned. I knew she was funny. But I didn’t know she would be able to write humor that would make me snort water out of my nose. I knew she was great at expressing emotion when she told stories, but I didn’t know I’d be sitting on a crowded airplane reading her latest book and trying to cover my man-sobs with a too-small cocktail napkin. No, I didn’t expect that.

I guess I should have seen it coming before she wrote her first book. With her tenth book in process, I definitely should know that anytime I read something she’s written I can expect to be surprised. But the interesting thing is that every time I read something new she’s written I’m totally caught off guard all over again. Maybe I’m just a slow learner. Or maybe she just keeps getting better.

Aren’t these answers heartwarming? What do you think would be an interesting aspect of being family members to a writer? (Or you can speak from personal experience if you are!)

Ask BHP: How Do You Decide on the Spiritual Content of Books?

Here’s a fun question from our Ask BHP mailbag for this month: “Why does Bethany House publish books that have very light spiritual content? I’m not being critical, just curious as to why some books are very faith-oriented and others only mention faith elements a little bit. How do you decide that as a Christian publisher?”

First of all, thanks to the person who asked this question (and ones similar to it), in a gracious way. I’m Amy Green, fiction publicist here at Bethany House, and I love talking about these sorts of issues, and I think it’s a fair question to wonder about.

As far as who decides the amount of Christian content, that’s pretty easy: the author shapes that based on the kind of story they want to tell.

Sometimes others, like beta readers or an agent, might guide them in a particular direction, and editors will as well once the manuscript enters the publishing process. For example, Bethany House editors might help authors make a certain character less “preachy” or point out an additional place a theme could be emphasized.

Because of this, each story is going to be different in faith content just as it’s different in every other way, like how often the authors intersperse humor or how they approach setting descriptions, historical detail, or chapter-ending cliffhangers.

An author who wants to write a book about the aftermath of a preacher’s fall from grace in the lives of his three children will probably have more noticeable references to faith than the author of a lighthearted comedy about a dogwatcher-turned-matchmaker or a fantasy novel set in a realm where people can turn into statues.

And here’s the thing: God can use all of those books* to reach people with powerful truths.

If you’re skeptical about this, we recently hosted a survey where people could share how a Bethany House novel had an impact on their lives. (Which you can still submit to, if you like.) I’ll admit that even I was surprised at how deeply touched people were by books that fit everywhere on the spiritual content spectrum. Reading our Christian fiction has led people to work to strengthen their marriages, feel convicted about gossiping, find hope during a family member’s illness, forgive a long-time enemy, and much more.

Besides that, some books with strong faith threads speak directly to a need in the hearts of Christians, or are given to unbelievers by friends who want to show a different perspective on their beliefs, while others are so accessible that we’ll get atheists leaving reviews like, “This is a great story—and I usually hate books with ‘God talk.’” I love seeing those reviews, and often (though not always!) they show up on books with a more subtle spiritual journey.

But back to the question. Here’s the thing: I think some people may have a specific mission in mind for a novel when they think that only a strong faith thread is acceptable in Christian fiction.

And I can see why they might think that, because mission matters. For example, the purpose of a church is to worship God, spread the gospel, and train believers to be disciples of Jesus. It probably wouldn’t be able to fulfill that purpose with “light spiritual content.”

However, the purpose of a fiction book written by a Christian could be lots of different things:
• Provide hope and laughter during a hard time.
• Reach a reader who might never open a Bible or nonfiction book.
• Illustrate a Biblical truth or parable in a new way.
• Show the destructiveness of sin on the world or in one person’s life.
• Give a picture of self-sacrificing romantic love that mirrors God’s love.

To me, these and many others are all perfectly valid aims for an author. Bethany House, as a Christian publisher, focus on stories that align with our mission statement, but we know there’s a place for good, clean reads or novels reaching mainstream readers with truth.

You’re probably not going to agree with every theological nuance of all of our fiction books—certainly many people leave reviews of our nonfiction books with disagreements large and small, and it’s just as true that fiction authors will approach faith and Scripture from different perspectives and traditions. And even if you would affirm every spiritual aspect of a book…it might not be your style or in a genre you’re interested in.

Not every Christian fiction book is going to be your book—a novel that has a deep impact on you or fills a need or finds its way to your keeper shelf of favorites. But we pray that all of our books will be someone’s book and impact them in a unique way.

What do you think, readers? Do you tend to prefer more or less spiritual content…or does it depend on the story?

*As far as I know, none of those books are real, but if you want to write them, they are now in Amy’s Yard Sale of Free Ideas. (Along with lots of crazy inventions and ridiculous get-rich-quick schemes.)

Ask BHP: How Does the Cover Design Process Work?

When we put up our annual Ask BHP poll to collect reader questions about what goes on behind the scenes at a publishing company, the #1 category people asked questions about was the cover design process.

I could write blog posts about that. (I have, actually written a few, like this one or this one, in our Ask BHP archives.) But since cover design is such a visual process, we thought it might be more fun to create a series of videos, about one per month, to share details about the design process of one specific book cover. Those videos are hosted over on our Instagram account (which you should visit if you haven’t already), but I’m including one here for any blog followers who might not be on Instagram.

Enjoy! 

What cover design questions would you like us to explore in future videos?

Ask BHP: How Do Editors Work With Different Authors?

I love some of the fun questions readers had about the editorial process. Here’s our June question to answer: “How does an editor tailor their approach to a specific author’s writing and work style when making suggestions/corrections? Or, are editors and authors paired up because of similarities in their approaches to such a project?”

Of course, because I (Amy Green, fiction publicist) work in marketing, I have no idea how editors do this. That’s why I give you…interviews with the fantastic Jessica Barnes and Jen Veilluex, two of our fiction editors here at Bethany House. Even I learned as I read their answers, so I hope you enjoy them.

 

Jessica Barnes

What a great question! I work with about ten fiction authors here at Bethany House, and all of them have different writing styles. I also have a slightly different editing relationship with each of them. Editors aren’t “matched” to authors here in the way you’re asking; it’s usually more about workload and schedule than personality. But as an editor, I see it as my job to be flexible and adapt my working style to my authors’.

When it comes to staying in an author’s writing style while making changes to a manuscript, my initial reaction to the question of how I do it was, “…I just do?” This is so part and parcel of an editor’s job that I don’t even realize I’m doing it anymore. The best answer I can give is that when I’m editing a book, I’m immersed in the story, the characters, and the writing. So if I think a scene needs an extra line at the end, usually that line naturally stems from what came before it, and it fits both the story and the style. By this point I’m so familiar with how my authors construct sentences and how they tell their stories that I’m able to slip into that same voice and add little bits and bobs (or subtract them) when necessary. It’s no different than people who unconsciously take on the accent of whatever place they’re visiting.

As a side note, here’s something that I hadn’t thought of in years that this question made me remember: My freshman year of college, my writing professor started the semester by giving us short passages from famous writers—Hemingway is the one I most clearly remember—and having us rewrite the passage by changing the subject and content, but exactly copying all the sentence structure. In this way, we learned how it felt to construct sentences and paragraphs in that writer’s rhythm and style. Perhaps that has turned out to be more helpful than I could imagine at age 18?

When it comes to matching an author’s work style, this is more straightforward. Some of my authors are extremely collaborative, and I will spend a couple hours on the phone with them at revisions, brainstorming ideas and solutions to trouble spots. Some of my authors work better alone, and they disappear with their edits for two months and then reemerge with a shiny new manuscript, ready for more feedback. For the most part, I let the author lead the way in how involved they want me in their writing and revision process. So far, it seems to be working!

 

Jen Veilleux

Our editing assignments come from our managing editor, who works with our acquisitions editors to determine which editor has the most availability. Most of our authors are contracted to write a series of books, which means that an editor is going to be working with a particular author for years! So while editor or author preference or experience are sometimes taken into consideration, mostly it’s timing.

When I first started at Bethany House, I made it my mission to read the books of as many of our authors as I could. Reading widely across all genres, I began to get a sense of different authors’ voices and styles, which helped me immensely when I became a line editor and began working directly with the authors. The authors I work with vary from biblical to contemporary, from Gilded Age to Regency, and from fantasy to Amish!

Above all, good editors are working with the author. There is a lot of back-and-forth between the author and the editor throughout the process: rewrites, discussions, e-mails, phone calls, drafts, questions, second opinions, fact-checking, more rewrites. You get to know authors over time, like what method of communication they prefer, what characters they’re attached to or will be important in the next book, what phrases they like to use, and how they like to incorporate faith and God into their writings.

As an editor, I am doing my best to support the author’s vision of his or her book, but I’m also advocating for the reader. While authors’ genres and voices may differ, the basics of a story do not: Does the plot make sense? Are the characters well developed? Should this chapter be cut or moved? If I get hung up on a plot point or a strange POV shift, readers might as well. But at the end of the day, it’s not my name on the book. It’s the author’s.

I am grateful for the relationships that I have developed with my authors over the last several years, and I am so humbled and proud to work alongside them. Sure, it’s great when books sell well, but oftentimes I’m just so proud that these books exist. An author had a dream and did the hard work of writing, rewriting, and rewriting some more, and then, with a little help from me and with a lot of help from so many others at BHP (copy editors, proofreaders, art and design, and on and on), it became something tangible, something you can hold in your hands or scroll with your finger on an e-reader. Editors are kind of like midwives—helping, encouraging, gently correcting—but it’s the authors who do a lot of the hard work. And when we’ve laid the newly created being in the hands of its creator, we quietly pack up our tools and slip off into the night to help bring the next one into existence.

Let’s hear it for editors! Readers, what do you think would be the most interesting part of working in the editorial department at a publishing house?

Ask BHP: Why Do Some Translations Have a Different Cover?

This month’s Ask BHP question is about the hidden world of translated editions: “I’m always confused when foreign language books have a different cover. Can you tell us why?”


The answer to this one is actually pretty simple. Bethany House currently does most of its translations by licensing translation rights to a foreign publisher. That way, we don’t have to have in-house translators—and the publishers in other countries often know what will work best in their market. For fiction, sometimes very United-States-specific stories, like Amish fiction, won’t work as well in some countries as something more universal, like biblical fiction.

This also answers the question some readers submitted about how we decide which books are translated. Sometimes we’ll pitch a particular author for a translation we think will do well, but ultimately it’s up to their team what projects they’d like to take on.

As the foreign publisher works out the contract with our Rights department, they can specify if they’d like to be able to use the current cover art or create their own That’s why you’ll sometimes see different versions. One publisher might decide that for their market, a different image would be better, or they just prefer contracts without cover art rights.

You may occasionally see authors posting about their new translations from all over the world. This is the behind-the-scene process that goes into it! Here are some fun recent examples for you to enjoy.

This one is interesting…the publishers bought the rights to the cover for the novella collection Hearts Entwined and wanted to use that cover for More Than Meets the Eye (it fit better with their other Karen Witemeyer books).

Ask BHP: Is It Hard Not to Over-Analyze Books?

Our Ask BHP question this week dips into the personal reading habits of Bethany House staff: “As a publishing employee, can you turn off the analytical side of your brain when reading for fun, or are you always critiquing the story in your head?”

As someone who works in our marketing department, the main time I’m reading in Analysis Mode is when I’m reviewing a manuscript that we’ll be considering at our Publication Board, where representatives from marketing, editorial, sales, and rights discuss potential contracts with authors. For new fiction authors, we usually get the full manuscript weeks ahead of time, giving me a chance to read it so I can come prepared to discuss its strengths and weaknesses. Here are some of the questions I ask myself as I do so:

  • Does this seem to be a good match for our target audience? (Interests, spiritual/theological background, etc.)
  • Is this different enough to stand out without being so unique that it won’t appeal to readers?
  • How would this fit with other books we’re publishing?
  • Are the characters well-developed?
  • Is the middle of the story interesting enough to carry readers through?
  • After I read the first three chapters, what, if anything, makes me want to read more?

When I’m reading a book for fun outside of work, I obviously don’t feel the same kind of responsibility to go through a checklist like that. It helps that I also read in several genres outside of the Christian fiction I immerse myself in at work (nonfiction of all sorts, ABA mysteries and fantasy, middle grade fiction, literary classics…let’s be honest, basically anything with pages).

This might also be a chicken-egg conundrum: I’ve spoken with several editors who said they went into editing because they already had a natural bent toward analyzing and critiquing a story’s structure, characters, and plot. Working in publishing probably strengthened those skills, but it didn’t create them in the first place.

I think most of us would say that while we can’t exactly “turn off” the part of our brain trained by working in publishing—deciding if the cover makes the genre clear, admiring the author’s voice, predicting what might happen next—the better a book is, the easier it gets to set the technical questions aside and just enjoy reading. After all, if I’m not making a marketing plan for the author or evaluating the manuscript for our publication board, I don’t really need to be thinking about all of those things. All I really have to decide is whether I like it or not.

I probably am somewhat more critical, or at least aware, of the choices the author is making because I’ve spent the past five years in publishing, but “off the clock,” I’m a reader just like any other.

Then again, all readers are on some level, asking questions like “Does this opening chapter grab me?” “Is the plot too predictable?” and “Do I care about these characters, or do I kind of hope they fail because they’re so annoying?” Maybe you wouldn’t actually describe your reading process that way, but we’re all analyzing the story at some level. Hopefully not to the point where we can enjoy ourselves or get lost in a great story, but in a way that helps us appreciate what we love about our favorite authors.

Your turn, readers! What is it about a good book that makes it easy for you to turn off your analytical side and just enjoy the story?

Ask Bethany House: What Annoys Authors Most?

This month’s Ask Bethany House question caught my eye because of its focus on readers: “Most of the time, I think it’s great that readers like me can connect with authors easily on social media, through their website, etc. But sometimes I hear stories that make me wonder if there are things that readers say that bother or annoy authors. What would some of those be? (So I can avoid them, ha!)”

First of all, super interesting question! I agree that for the most part, easy access to authors is one of the amazing things about the Internet. Almost all authors love being able to hear from readers and know their books are making a difference.

That said, there are some questions or comments that are harder for authors to know how to respond to. Sometimes they’ll ask me if I have any ideas for good responses, which is how I know which reader comments are more likely to be problematic.

Take these with a grain of salt—there are contexts where saying these things may be totally fine, and if you’ve said one of these in the past, it’s not a big deal. These are just etiquette tips from what I’ve observed working in publishing. (And yes, most authors have gotten all of these in different forms.)

Each individual author’s preferences will vary…but I don’t know of a single author who doesn’t appreciate a spontaneous kind word from a reader. That’s something you can always count on! Continue reading

Ask BHP: How Has Bethany House Changed Over the Years?

Today’s Ask Bethany House will take us back to the past: “Who has worked for Bethany House the longest? What are their favorite things they have learned since working there? What kind of change have they seen?”

I love this question because it doubles as an answer to another question we received: “What do you think is an aspect of publishing that most people don’t know about?”

With that in mind…meet Randy Benbow!

 

If you count years at Bethany House itself, Jim Parrish, our executive VP, has been here longer, but Randy worked in the pre-press department of the print shop that created books and other materials for the missions organization that started Bethany House, back in the 1970s.

His job in the production department of Bethany House started in 1993. What does that mean? Basically, Randy’s job involves all of the unseen technical details that get a book into your hands and keep us running: printing “proof” covers to make sure they’ll look great on the final books, backing up and archiving our files and covers, sending the printers what they need to roll out books and deliver them to bookstores and libraries all over the world, and more.

I asked him a few questions to learn about his job (and had to find definitions for some terms, meaning even I don’t know all of what Randy does). Enjoy!

Amy: Tell us a little bit about how your job has changed over twenty-five years.

Randy: One of my favorite things working at Bethany House is actually looking back…and marveling at how computer hardware and software has improved over the past twenty-five years. When I started working here November 1993 our typesetting system was totally code-driven. My workstation also had an Apple Macintosh Classic II with a teeny-weeny little screen tethered to a larger 22” black-and-white monitor to create…

(Can you guess what task might have been so important to be automated that it was done on one of four computers at Bethany House?)

Barcodes! I still create all our barcodes, but it’s a much easier and faster process now (with a bigger screen).

Back in those days, we only had three other Mac computers. Dan Thornberg was designing book covers on one in the then Art Department (after he hand-painted his illustrations!), while his sister Sheryl designed ads and promo pieces on one in the Marketing dept. Peter Glöege was also designing book covers on a Mac at the time. Those persevering designers pioneered the beginnings of digitally-designing book covers, ads, marketing and promotional pieces…and we still have the files from those first few book covers designed in 1993!

Another task I took on we found we needed was on-site Mac tech support as well as managing a stack of 3-4 hard drives cabled together for our primitive beginnings of a file server—running software utilities (sometimes before they arrived in the mornings, or after the designers left in the evenings), managing backups and archiving our Mac files. Ah yes, those were the days—slow, expensive, inconsistently stable Macs.

Amy: Wow, I can’t imagine doing any production or design work without computers. I’ve seen some of Dan’s original cover paintings around the office. It’s amazing how much work he put into them, although I can see how it would also be much harder to make tweaks and changes like we can now in Photoshop.

What was the most involved process that now no longer takes a lot of time because of technology?

Randy: Typesetting—formatting files for the interior of a book so it can be printed—is very different than it was when I started out. Covers and ads used to involve processing film, while paper for book text involved being pasted in a layout, then photographed. Since I’d had quite a few years’ experience maintaining a film processor for Bethany’s Graphic Arts camera, I processed the film and paper outputs, monitoring and maintaining its chemicals, cleaning as needed.

Now typesetting is done on large screened Macs in Grand Rapids to digital files; no light-sensitive film, no chemicals. Instead of transferring files via “SneakerNet” (by walking or mailing), floppy disks, or larger capacity disks and drives, files are transferred to and from designers, coworkers, foreign or domestic Subsidiary Rights vendors, and book printers via email (if they’re small enough), or Dropbox-like links or other transfer systems if they’re larger.

Amy: I can’t imagine walking files around and the extra time that would take.

What’s a recent experience you’ve really appreciated about your job?

Last February 2018 I was blessed to have the opportunity to visit our parent company Baker Publishing Group’s home office in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I got to meet and personally talk to the people I’d been emailing for fifteen years! They were so hospitable, gracious, warm and kind! While conversing with them, seeing their facilities, faces, and workstations, I found we had many things in common at work as well as in our personal lives, which gave me more satisfaction in my job knowing who I work with “on the other side of the pond.” It was great—I loved it!

Anything else you want to share with readers?

Just a favorite joke of mine…do you know why there are RUSH jobs in the printing industry? Back in the day when Gutenberg invented the first printing press with moveable type, his first customer kept the proof over the weekend… <sigh> and they’ve been behind ever since.

Thanks, Randy! How about you, readers? What’s one technological advancement in the past twenty-five years that has changed your life for the better? (Mine would definitely be GPS…)

Ask BHP: How Do You Determine Book Lengths?

First of all, thanks so much to everyone who participated in our Ask BHP survey! (You can still add your questions, but the giveaway winner has already been picked.)

There have been so many intriguing questions submitted already, including several I’m especially excited to investigate…because I have no idea what the answer might be!

This month, we’re pulling out a technical question, one that you may have wondered if you’ve noticed the difference in spine widths along your bookshelf: “Who decides how long a book gets to be? I know some books are longer than others, so who decides, and how do they decide on the length?”

When an author creates a book proposal, they often give the approximate word count of their novel. Debut authors—authors who have never published a novel before—almost always have a complete manuscript, so even if some editing might be needed, the word count is pretty easy to figure out. Authors who have published before, however, sometimes only have a few sample chapters and an outline…which they may or may not follow closely, so their word counts are more hypothetical. You can think of the estimated word count as the general goal the author is aiming for. It’s usually phrased something like: “90,000 words plus or minus 15%,” so it’s not a strict amount.

As far as why the number is chosen, the average length of one of our novels is in the 80,000-100,000-word range. There are some slight preferences—contemporary romance tends to be closer to the 80,000-word mark, some historicals will be more likely to creep toward 100,000 or beyond—but that’s a good general estimate to keep in mind.

One major exception is epic fantasy, which tends to be much longer…after all, the authors have to build an entire world and then introduce a threat that could end the entire world. According to our editors, the conclusion to Jill Williamson’s Kinsman Chronicles, King’s War, set a new fiction length record: 656 pages and 222,000 words total, more than double our typical novel size!

Bethany House doesn’t currently publish children’s books, but of course every target age group within that industry has a different ideal word count, and even sentence length, based on reading level. (Along with those few Harry-Potter-like exceptions that defy length norms.) Mass market fiction and novellas have conventions as well.

As far as getting to that word count, some authors will “write long”—let their first draft go wild with subplots, long descriptions, backstory dumps, and other words that will be eliminated the second time they go through their manuscript. A few authors purposefully write scenes that they know will need to be cut or at least shortened later to keep the momentum of the story flowing, while others only decide in the editing process what might need to be trimmed. This gets them back down to the word count they’re aiming for.

The other camp is made up of those who “write short”—telling the basics of the story to get it out on paper, then going back and adding fun character details, smoother transitions, and additional tension-building scenes after they have a draft. The most minimalist will basically create a detailed, fifty-page outline for their first draft, but others will only be a few thousand words short that they then sprinkle throughout to make the story more vivid. This gets them up to the word count they’re aiming for.

There are always exceptions to word count goals, where authors start writing and realize they just can’t tell the story they’re trying to tell in the word count they decided on in earlier. (This seems to happen more commonly than authors who decide their book needs to be much shorter than they’d planned.) At that point, they talk with their editor to create a new word count estimate. If an editor reads a 120,000 word manuscript and decides, “A lot of these scenes don’t advance the plot,” they’ll suggest edits to get the word count down to the target amount.

But sometimes an editor reads a 127,000 word manuscript and decides that nearly everything is essential…which is what happened with A Refuge Assured by Jocelyn Green. Jocelyn explained it this way: “My first draft is usually between 100,000 and 110,000 words. But then, as we flesh out character development and subplot threads, I always end up adding more to the novel. I do delete entire chapters that weren’t necessary during that process, but what I add to the book always outweighs what I strike out. Dave and Jessica [Jocelyn’s editors] say that as long as the book doesn’t lag, and as long as every scene is necessary, they don’t mind the length. What we don’t want is an underdeveloped storyline or an abrupt ending, just to squeeze in the last chapter before hitting a certain word count.”

So there you have it! Word counts aren’t magical, but neither are they an exact science. Authors and publishers both want to make sure there’s enough space to tell a good story…without giving too much space for meandering.

What’s the longest book you can remember reading? How about a book you wish could be longer because you love the characters so much?