How to Calculate an Accurate Castoff: Book Pages, Signatures, and More (Part I)

Written by on December 14, 2012 in How To - Leave a Comment

In 2006, when I started my first job in the publishing industry as a lowly assistant editor, one of the first tasks I was given was to “calculate the pages of this manuscript.”

I did what (I hope) any bright-eyed, naïve college grad would do: I opened up the .doc, scrolled to the bottom, and said, “Looks like 468,” … and was promptly laughed at by a room full of surly long-time acquisitions editors. After they wiped the mirthful tears off of their cheeks, one of them took me aside and spend a day teaching me all about how to calculate an accurate “castoff.”

What’s a castoff?

In the world of publishing, a castoff is the estimated page count based on: the word count, the trim size, number of illustrations, and a little bit of editorial intuition.  The number is the bedrock of the book’s budget as it’ll be the basis of the cost of printing, editing, and more. Getting the estimated page count wrong is among the worst sins an editor can commit in the industry.

How do I calculate a castoff?

You start with your trusty word processor’s “word count” feature… but don’t – under any circumstance – look at the number listed next to “word count.” Instead, you’re going to snag the “character count (with no spaces)” number.

Why the character count with no spaces? Because using averages gives us a more accurate measure of the book’s length at publication than your word processor’s, which counts things like “a,” “or,” and “at” as whole words.

Armed with our character count with no spaces, we’re going to divide that number by 5.5 (the average number of letters in a word in the English language).  And, that, is our approximate number of words in the manuscript.

And that’s only the beginning of this tricky process. Join us next time to figure out what to do once you’ve got your book’s approximate word count!

Photo CreditJustin Scott Campbell

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