The natural-length revolution in books

Short text, tablet edition

I”ve long been predicting that the main effect of the digital revolution on writing and reading has to do with word count. Put differently, it has to do with the length of texts.

Yesterday, I saw my vision starting to become reality.

But first let me explain why word count/length are so important to literary culture, and why length is at present often distorted.

As music went….

In this post, I’ve ruminated on the imperative of writing to the optimal word count — that is, writing neither too long nor too short.

To use the imperfect analogy of music: Beethoven shouldn’t have been forced to shorten his Fifth to the length of the Rolling Stones’s Brown Sugar, nor the Stones to lengthen Brown Sugar to equal the duration of the Fifth. Each work of art has to be true to itself, which means that each has its own optimal length.

For many years, that presented a packaging problem in music. It made no sense for an orchestra and an audience to gather for only a few minutes. And it made little sense to manufacture and sell vinyl discs that contained only a few minutes of music. So the emphasis was on longer forms of music, or on collections of short pieces — albums, not singles.

But as soon as music migrated from analog to digital media, that packaging distortion disappeared. So now music has been “liberated”. Each artist can compose at optimal length. (Where the medium is still analog, as in a live performance, there is still a preference for greater length.)

… so will text

Text has been far behind the curve. Yes, the digital media have already resuscitated ancient short-form traditions such as haikus, sonnets and aphorisms, in the form of Tweets and blogs. But the dominant medium for the written word is still the printed book. And analog books present the ultimate packaging problem.

Hence the pernicious and pervasive bias toward unnecessary length.

An adult book, especially non-fiction, that is as thin as a baby book looks stupid. No self-respecting publisher, and no author, would touch it. Hence publishers demand that authors pad their ideas to reach a minimum word count. A 30,000-word idea has to be packaged as an 80,000-word book.

This

  • delays the process of writing and publishing and
  • means that most readers only read a small part of most (non-fiction) books.

Bookshelves everywhere are groaning under the weight of unread words. What a waste.

Enter the Kindle Single

Digital books (on Kindles, iPads, iPhones etc.) will change all that. Suddenly, a “book” (shall we still call it that?) no longer looks stupid if it is short. As many Kindle readers have pointed out, one has no sense of length on a Kindle anyway.

And thus Amazon, shrewdly, has launched Kindle Singles, in direct allusion to the music analogy above. As music was liberated from length distortions, so text will be.

This really sank in yesterday when I got an email from Chris Anderson, the “curator” (a title I find a tad pompous) of TED. (That’s an upmarket conference that would like to be a social network. I’ve attended, hence I’m on the email list.) In it, Anderson announced that “TED Books” are now being sold as Kindle Singles. I just bought my first one.

TED Books, he writes, are

to Books as TED Talks are to lectures. They’re short, pithy, riveting. They’re designed to express a single big idea in a way that can be absorbed in a single sitting. A typical 18-minute TED Talk might be around 2000 words. A typical traditional book is at least 60,000 words. TED Books nicely fill the gap in between. They come in at 10,000-20,000 words. So they can be read and absorbed in an hour or two.

So there you have it: the length distortion has disappeared. More interesting is how Anderson talked about that distortion:

Many people are hungry to learn, but have limited time to read full-length books. TED Books offer an exciting new alternative. And it also will allow many brilliant thinkers who don’t have a spare year to author a full-length book (and another year to wait while that book gets published) to nonetheless get their ideas out in the world….

I highlighted that phrase because, as you may remember, I took about one year to write my book, and have been waiting almost two years now for the publication process to kick off in earnest. (It has indeed kicked off: publication is slated for the fall, and my publisher is suddenly very busy.)

My point is that this process, which all publishers today share, makes no sense to a logical alien visiting earth, or to anybody under thirty. This is why the publishing industry will (not might, but will) be disrupted.

As TED’s Anderson puts it,

the world of serious reading is undergoing a revolution. Suddenly it’s possible to carry around a whole library in your coat-pocket. Suddenly, books don’t have to be 200 or 300 pages long so that they feel substantial in printed form. Any length is possible. And that was the breakthrough for us. We’ve seen from TED Talks the power of giving speakers a time constraint. It’s been an amazing instance of “less is more”…

34 thoughts on “The natural-length revolution in books

  1. Not only length, but “books” will be very COLORFUL with plenty of illustrations. My first adult nonfiction book pubbed by Harcourt Brace nearly 20 years ago had 25 pieces of my own illustrated art. The second book became prohibitively expensive (also with 25 pieces of art) to the buyer. The price of the second book was $37 in 1996.

    • Art, and moving art, and three-dimensionally rotating art, and self-updating & interactive art…

      Yes, amazing, once one liberates the imagination and reconceives the meaning of “book”….

  2. Your reference to Beethoven’s 5th is very apt because that is often cited as a symphony in which “nothing stays longer than it should and nothing disappears before it should.” Not a bad guideline for book writing as well.

    This might signal the end of the Procrustean bed of book lengths!

    • Just this very evening was contemplating the ‘perfection’ of Brown Sugar’ as a piece of music. (Also just finished reading Keith Richards 547 page autobiography.) But this is great news for this aspiring writer who has many chunks of ideas that may or may not coagulate (?) into something larger and coherent. Love your many insights into the emerging present moment.

    • @Thomas: The Procrustean bed is the perfect metaphor. I wish I’d thought of that. Oh wait, did I think of that…? 😉 We’re mind melding again.

      I love that phrase about the Fifth. Wouldn’t every artist in every medium like that to be said about his work?

      @Arthur: Brown Sugar is a fine piece of music, but I only chose it because it’s, well, famous, and I needed to make a point. Had I chosen freely, I would of course have picked the Stones’s Sweet Virginia. I’m gonna turn it on in the background right now…

  3. “Natural length” will probably evolve in both directions, not only toward fewer words, but also in the direction of a larger word count , namely

    (a) due to the ever increasing ease of the writing process itself, i.e., laptop computers versus goose quills and typewriters, plus the ubiquity of the Internet, which puts an endless supply of additional information at every author’s fingertips, ready to be worked into his narrative, thus naturally padding the word count; and

    (b) because prior to the digital revolution, many particularly detail-oriented authors were told by their publishers to actually cut their literary creations by thousands or even tens of thousands of words so as to be able to keep the books below a certain sales price, as more pages used to mean higher production and distribution costs (the more pages, the heavier the book, i.e., the higher the fuel costs for shipping it around, the more space it takes up on the shelves = higher shelf rent, and so on); in digital format, an extra 100,000 words need no extra paper, add no extra weight, and take up no space, plus the potential buyer will be less likely to be intimidated by the length of what they’re about to buy. (I, personally, tend to stay away from thick books, because not only are they more expensive, but I know I’ll never read them anyway. Just a waste of money. In digital format, on the other hand, I won’t see how much information I’m buying, hence I won’t be deterred by length that easily, and the price difference will probably be less noticeable, so I may be more inclined to buy longer books.)

    • Well, yes, achieving optimal, or natural, length can mean more or less. (Procrustes sometimes cut his victims’s feet to fit them onto his bed, and sometimes stretched them on a rack to lengthen them; see Thomas’s analogy above.)

      But I think we’ll see an asymmetrical, or relative, shift toward more shortening and less lengthening. The reason is the one you gave yourself at the end of your comment above: the attention of the reader.

    • You may be correct that the digital shift will entail a disproportionate increase in the publication of shorter books rather than longer ones. We’ll see.

      However, the reader attention argument I presented at the end of my previous comment, in which I used myself as a representative example—God help us!—of the typical book buyer, was meant to make precisely the opposite point, namely that once I get a Kindle, I may actually be more inclined to buy—or, to put it more precisely, less deterred from buying—longer books, because (a) I have a hunch that the price disparity between long and short books will shrink, so when debating between two titles, I’ll be less likely to automatically opt for the shorter one because it’s cheaper, and (b) if a paper book is 9,000 pages long, just holding the monster in my hand sends a message to my brain that I’ll never read this thing, and I’ll put it right back in the shelf; yet lengthy digital books precipitate no such adverse visceral reaction to their length, for their length is only indicated by an abstract number on the screen indicating page count or download size, i.e., there’s nothing concrete and tangible to react to and be deterred by on a visceral level.

  4. Technology has always intruded on artistry. I worked in book publishing back when some books were still done in actual metal pressed to the page and pages sewn together in signatures. Signature length was then a factor. My first real job was character counting manuscripts, then casting off galleys, and then checking page proofs–all to ensure that the page count was “correct” . Of course I managed to read each and every one of the book’s on the publisher’s list, but all those jobs have now been eliminated or morphed out of existence.

    And magazines and the rise of the short story, which some claim was developed for American’s brief attention span.

    This is just the latest front in the ongoing war of the words. I try to get the best of both worlds–I download Kindle to my computer but just now I am reading a dog eared small hard bound copy of Villette from the local charity shop. I don’t think anything will ever replace the pleasure of a leisurely stroll through a book book.

  5. Tyler Cowen’s new book seems to be another example of this freedom. Here’s Matt Yglesias making that point: “… [Cowen’s The Great Stagnation is] much shorter and cheaper than a conventional book in a way that actually leaves you wanting to read more once you finish it. My guess is that this is the future of books” (http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/2011/01/the-great-stagnation/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+matthewyglesias+%28Matthew+Yglesias%29).

  6. A thought occurred to me while reading the comparison between music and writing. Music distribution is currently evolving from a traditional physical media (records, CD’s) to digital media (i-Pods, MP3 players). Writing is undergoing a similar transformation. As mentioned, Kindle and other electronic readers are replacing the paper products just as internet sites are replacing newspapers and periodicals. It seems to me that this will have a huge impact on publishing. No need for a publishing house, just sell the Great American Novel you just wrote on your laptop from your website. We are already seeing this now, as we have been seeing with software for a few years now.

  7. The fact of carrying around an entire library is an exciting revolution. You are young and have the ‘feel’ of what is happening. I was a computer engineer until 3-4 days ago, but I am a bit filled to the eyelids, so to speak, with high tech.

    I liked the optimum length notion, and its variables due to packaging, digital, non digital etc. Clearly, people under 30 prefer shorter texts.

    Let me play the Luddite. I fear the possible parallel variable of technology and web making concentration harder, and influencing people personalities, with digital devices that cannot be escaped and invade our every waking moment.

    There is an interesting research published on Stanford Magazine on what happens to personalities that are incessantly on.

    http://www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/2011/janfeb/features/digital.html

    • Great article and I think you are right about too much technology impairing concentration. When everyone sits down for lunch in a restaurant and puts their phone on the table and then starts taking calls you have to believe that something is suffering–either the table conversation, the phone conversation or the soup is getting cold. I’ve read about people who sleep with their phone under their pillow. Andreas has pointed out the pitfalls of technology addiction and texting while driving. A time and a place for everything?

    • Thomas, I experiment this addiction myself. Even I have enough with technology I am always on, with my blog, with my desktop, 2 notebooks and a Blackberry. I create VPN tunnels between them, protocols, encryption and on each computer I have several OSs, ie several varieties of Linux (which to me is the best: forgeet the MAC), Windows of all sorts, no Mac. All I need now is an Iphone with all those apps. No, no, no, NO! 🙂
      Paper books console me and give me peace, a lot of it.

    • PS

      @Thomas
      @Andreas

      I had missed Hannibal man’s posts on the pitfalls of technology addiction. My comment was appreciative of his article, which I find excellent. I just like dialectics – he knows – in the classical meaning of the word. At 62 I guess I have played with technology enough (but I still love it). I tend to get back to the old habits of my youth, return-to-the-womb like. Andreas is young and the future. He has a solid mind. Many young people though are not that solid imo. I have the impression moronity is growing everywhere and in my country ‘greatly’.

    • Well, I started reading that article in Stanford Magazine, but then … I lost my concentration.

      Just kidding.

      I’m going to read it, and say something profound about it. Failing that, I will say something else about it. 😉

  8. I knew you could be the under-thirty type too!! 🙂

    Kidding. No earth-shattering comment needed. Just a very concrete research on the psychological effects of the ‘being always on-line’ habit.

    And, if those two pages are too long for you, you can always read them bit by bit 😉

  9. Some observations on media length:

    “Ottmar Mergenthaler, from Hachtel in Baden Wuerttemberg’s Tauber Valley, has been called a second Gutenberg. Like Gutenberg, Mergen- thaler revolutionized the art of printing. Prior to Mergenthaler’s invention of the linotype, no newspaper in the world had more than eight pages.”

    http://www.germanheritage.com/postal/mergenthaler/index.html

    “When Philips and Sony developed the compact disc format in the late 1970s, they specifically set its maximum length at 74 minutes to ensure that a single disc could hold all of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. ”

    According to mythbuster http://www.snopes.com this may — or may not — be true:

    http://www.snopes.com/music/media/cdlength.asp

    • Mergenthaler is best remembered as the man who helped bankrupt Mark Twain, a serial venture capitalist who put about $100,000 into a rival typesetting machine. Mergenthaler’s system ultimately proved reliable whereas the system Mark Twain supported was always a few months away from being “perfected”.

      The Mergenthaler Linotype worked by forming molds into a row as someone typed. When the row was complete, hot lead was poured into the row creating a “slug”. A page was then made of out of a few dozen slugs. Once printing was complete the slugs were melted and reused. The molds were reused continuously. For Mark Twain it took a round-the-world lecture tour to pay off his numerous and varied business debts.

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