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Ask the Book Doctor

By Bobbie Christmas

Ask the Book Doctor: About word counts, freelance terminology and self publishing

Q: I have read that the word count generated by my computer is not accurate from a publisher’s viewpoint. How do I calculate an acceptable word count for my story?

A: I have heard the same rumor from writers, but I have never heard it from a publisher. In my opinion an electronic word count is accurate enough to give a good estimate, which is all a publisher needs.

Another way to estimate word count is to be sure the manuscript is in standard manuscript format, which it should be, anyway. When a manuscript is in correct format, it averages about 250 words a page, so you can multiply the number of pages by 250. Again, it’s an estimate, but it will tell you and your publisher whether the count is within acceptable guidelines.

For a report on standard manuscript format, e-mail me and ask for Report # 104, which not only gives you the rules for format but is also written in standard manuscript format.

Q: I am new to submitting freelance articles and encountered a few instructions I hope you can clarify.

  1. What does it mean when a magazine says "No serial commas, except to avoid confusion." What are serial commas?
  2. Is the common practice to italicize the titles of books, movies, articles, etc., and underline comments the author intends to be italicized?

A: Looks like you need to buy an Associated Press Stylebook. It explains style and other things that most periodicals use and answers many of your questions. I’ll do my best, in the meantime.

  1. A serial comma is a comma that appears before "and" in a series, such as the second comma in "red, white, and blue." Book publishers use Chicago Style, which calls for the serial comma, but periodical publishers usually use AP Style, which does not, so the punctuation would be "red, white and blue."
  2. Look at the periodical you want to submit work to, to see how titles are handled. If they are italicized in the periodical, underline them with your computer or, if the publisher is going to use your electronic file, italicize them. Chances are they are not italicized, though. The rule probably still applies as it appears in my very old version of the AP Stylebook, which says the following about composition titles: Put quotation marks around the names of [book titles, movie titles, song titles, television program titles and titles of lectures, speeches and works of art] except the Bible and books that are primarily catalogs of reference material.

As far as underlining comments the author intends to italicize, be careful in any use of italics for emphasis. Try to make the wording strong enough so that the use of italics, underlines, all caps and exclamation points are not necessary.

Q: Is there a time when self-publishing is a good idea?

A: Yes, but the answer isn’t simple. I give an entire seminar on traditional publishing versus self-publishing, and I also have a report you can order for free that gives the pros and cons of each. The subject gets complicated, because within each category you have more choices and pros and cons, such as whether to use print-on-demand or traditional printing. For the free report, e-mail me at and ask for Report #110, Self Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing.

Self-publishing makes sense if you write nonfiction and are willing to turn yourself into a publisher, distributor, salesperson and collection agency. Self-publishing makes sense if you have a built-in audience of buyers that you reach regularly. For example, I self-published a collection questions and answers from my columns in Ask the Book Doctor: How to Beat the Competition and Sell Your Writing, and I sell it as an e-book, which I may soon print, as well. I also self-published a desk reference book I wrote for other book doctors. I sell those books through my Web site and wherever I speak or give seminars.

Although I make more per book on the ones I self publish, the sales figures for my self-published books are much lower my traditionally published book (Write In Style), because the traditionally published book is available in every bookstore in America and Australia. I make less per book on the traditionally published book, because my publisher took the risk and made the investment, but because of the wide distribution, the traditionally published book sells better than the self-published ones. As you can see, sometimes it's a tossup in deciding which method is best, so it depends on your total goals, not just your financial ones.

—Do you have questions for the book doctor or want to order free reports? E-mail Bobbie Christmas at or see her Web site at



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