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.


  • 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”…

The unexpected page-turner: Virgil


Of late, I’ve been worrying that I’m losing it. Specifically, my ability to concentrate and … to read. (To read, you must concentrate on what you’re reading.)

I read so much all day on screens large and small that I find myself struggling to read words on paper when they are bound into packets of a certain thickness, otherwise known as books. Perhaps that is why I struggle to appreciate tomes that others are still capable of savoring.

You will appreciate that this is an odd confession from an aspiring author. Soon, in my fantasies, I will persuade all of you to read my book, once it is published. If you’re still able, that is.

So I’ve been starting and dropping books. It’s so easy nowadays — one click on Amazon, a few seconds on the Kindle. But they can’t hold my attention anymore.

And then, I returned to an old book: Virgil’s Aeneid.

Perhaps Cheri reminded me to pick it up again when she did. Perhaps I was just looking for an excuse.

And oh, what a surprise. The pages turn themselves. The pace is fast but light, the action non-stop, the tension immediate, the storytelling riveting. My concentration is complete, my effort nil.

I am reading Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, which preserves the rhythm of Virgil’s Latin. I mentioned the other day how Virgil paid attention to his words, like “a she-bear licking his cubs.” Well, this is the result. Not a word is amiss or extraneous. The poem has speed.

Perhaps I need to get my head examined. Perhaps I am an anachronism, two millennia out of date. Or perhaps there is a reason why the Aeneid is a classic. It is so good. It made me remember how to read. If you’re like me, wondering whether “Google has made you dumb” (Nick Carr), pick up Virgil.

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Pew and me, “imagining the internet”

The Pew Internet & American Life Project invited me to participate in the next iteration of their serial “expert” reports on the future evolution of the Internet.

The questions themselves were interesting and telling, and I thought I might share them with you and let you know how I answered. (I look forward to finding out what all the other participants said when “Future of the Internet” is published by Cambria Press.)

The questions were “tension pairs” of alternative scenarios around the following themes:

  • Human intelligence
  • Reading and writing skills
  • Social and human relationships
  • The Internet’s “end-to-end principle”
  • Desktop versus cloud computing
  • The next takeoff technologies

Human intelligence

Here is one tension pair (their words):

By 2020, people’s use of the internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices. Nicholas Carr was wrong: Google does not make us stupid.


By 2020, people’s use of the internet has not enhanced human intelligence and it could even be lowering the IQs of most people who use it a lot. Nicholas Carr was right: Google makes us stupid.

I chose alternative 1 and elaborated (my words):

What the internet (here subsumed tongue-in-cheek under “Google”) does is to support some parts of human intelligence, such as analysis, by replacing other parts, such as memory. Thus, people will be more intelligent about, say, the logistics of moving around a geography because “Google” will remember the facts and relationships of various locations on their behalf. People will be better able to compare the revolutions of 1848 and 1789 because “Google” will remind them of all the details as needed. This is the continuation ad infinitum of the process launched by abacuses and calculators: we have become more “stupid” by losing our arithmetic skills but more intelligent at evaluating numbers.

Reading skills

Here is another tension pair (their words):

By 2020, it will be clear that the internet has enhanced and improved reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge.


By 2020, it will be clear that the internet has diminished and endangered reading, writing, and the intelligent rendering of knowledge.

Here, too, I chose alternative 2 but elaborated (my words):

We are currently transitioning from reading mainly on paper to reading mainly on screens. As we do so, most of us read more, in terms of quantity (word count), but also more promiscuously and in shorter intervals and with less dedication. As these habits take root, they corrupt our willingness to commit to long texts, as found in books or essays. We will be less patient and less able to concentrate on long-form texts. This will result in a resurgence of short-form texts and story-telling, in “Haiku-culture” replacing “book-culture”.

Friendship and intimacy

Here is another tension pair:

In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a negative force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.


In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a positive force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.

And again I chose alternative 2, but said:

The question presents a false dichotomy: Technology has no impact whatsoever in the long term on human relationships. What it does is to facilitate some aspects of it for a time (thoughts with letters, speech with telephony, updates with social networks, nearness-awareness with geo-location, etc) at the expense of outrunning the etiquette and courtesy protocols of the previous generation (disturbance during dinner time with telephony, privacy and discretion with social networks and geo-location, et cetera). Over time, etiquette catches up (or evolves), but efficiency advances elsewhere. But throughout, people remain responsible for their human connections–ie, the commitments in time and trust they make to others and their expectations of reciprocity.

Privacy and “sharing”

One more tension pair:

By 2020, members of Generation Y (today’s “digital natives”) will continue to be ambient broadcasters who disclose a great deal of personal information in order to stay connected and take advantage of social, economic, and political opportunities. Even as they mature, have families, and take on more significant responsibilities, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will carry forward.


By 2020, members of Generation Y (today’s “digital natives”) will have “grown out” of much of their use of social networks, multiplayer online games and other time-consuming, transparency-engendering online tools. As they age and find new interests and commitments, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will abate.

And again, I chose alternative 2 and elaborated:

The human maturation process does not change because of a new technology. Starting before we left the savannahs, the young members of Homo “Sapiens” have over-shared in order to make themselves socially interesting to the group and to potential mates, only to discover the enormous risks involved when shared information reaches malicious individuals or a group at large, at which point they have re-learned the discretion of their parents. Thus sharing on the internet will continue on its present trajectory: more will be shared by the young than the old, and as people mature they will share more banal and less intimate information.

The other topics didn’t interest me quite as much, although I gave my opinions. Regarding the question of “cloud computing” versus PC-based computing, I made my thinking quite clear when Apple’s support team gave me ample (in terms of time) opportunity to ponder it.

Can’t wait to hear what you guys think.

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Ancient scroll worms

As a writer, I am naturally interested in reading. That includes all the ways in which technology changes reading habits. How is reading different on a Kindle? Do you retain more if you “delete through a text“?

And: What if we were still reading scrolls?

That was the fun insight in this piece by Mary Beard, a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge. She takes us on a tour of reading and writing in ancient Rome. Some aspects of the trade were eerily familiar, but others quite different:

The ancient equivalent of the printing press was a battalion of slaves, whose job it was to transcribe one by one as many copies of Virgil, Horace or Ovid as the Roman market would buy. And it was a large market. Imperial Rome had a population of at least a million. Using a conservative estimate of literacy levels, there would have been more than 100,000 readers in the city. The books they read were not “books” in our sense but, at least up to the second century, “book rolls” – long strips of papyrus, rolled up on two wooden rods at either end. To read the work in question, you unrolled the papyrus from the left-hand rod, onto the right, leaving a “page” stretched between the two. It was considered the height of bad manners to leave the text on the right- hand rod when you had finished reading, so that the next reader had to rewind back to the beginning to find the title page.

Reading was a very different experience with this technology. You could not really skim, for example. You could not easily go back to check something you had forgotten. And you really had to concentrate, because often the Romans did not separate words with spaces but wrote in one continuous stream of letters.

Incidentally, in case you were wondering where papyrus came from: It came from Phoenicia, the mother country of Carthage and thus Hannibal. The Phoenician city that did the briskest export trade was Byblos. Hence: Bible, bibliography, bibliophile, etc.

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The other context for newspapers

Thanks to Stephanie (courtesy of the Orlando Sentinel) for keeping me au courant on trends in reading that affect the newspaper industry. (Possibly another implicit endorsement of the Kindle?)

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The nomadic reader

What a page turner

What a page turner

Here I am yesterday, reading a book on the new Kindle for iPhone app while, you know, being worked on. (My editor Tom and I must have been among the first to download the new app that day.) Later I got home, picked up my actual Kindle, the one I reviewed last month, and kept reading from the page I got to during the haircut (the two devices had automatically synced).

Now, this sort of think should make you think. It is the latest installment in what I called “the new nomadism” in The Economist last year. New behaviors and social contexts are arising out of, not so much new gadgets, but new expectations about connectivity. Big, very big, sociological change is afoot, I believe. And, of course, as an aspiring author I have much to contemplate on the topic of books in particular…

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The conservative Kindle

Just a quick follow-up to Tuesday’s post about this incredible week in matters of the printed word: The article I ended up doing for The Economist focused mostly on the Kindle and its possible effects both on books and on newspapers. My editor Tom wrote a Leader (ie, an Editorial) to go with it (as usual, there is overlap).

As you can see, I see the paper-printed word being cut by a pair of scissors with two blades: one blade is the “conservative” new medium of the Kindle and its ilk (the phrase comes from John Makinson of Penguin); the other blade is the more “radical” edge of mobile-phone apps for reading.

Like Makinson, I consider the Kindle “conservative” because it wants to preserve and improve long-form reading for people like me. Which it does, as I can attest now that I have played with the Kindle 1. So the Kindle as such cannot be something that Penguin’s imprint Riverhead (my publisher) or I as an aspiring author should fear.

I consider the apps (such as Stanza) “radical” because they are more likely to lead to new reading habits among the young, habits that may lead them away from deep immersion in long-form literature. (That is not a criticism, just a hunch.)

I have no doubt, furthermore, that traditional newspapers readers (again, like me) will subscribe through the Kindle and drop their paper subscriptions. One line that got cut from my piece (which must adhere, ironically enough, to the line-count and layout of the paper version), is this: No more soggy newspapers piling up in the rain while the subscriber is out of town on business.

I mean, what of that alleged “sensual” experience that some people claim to get from paper? The print that rubs off from the New York Times? Or the ads of ladies in lingerie next to the table of contents? I am in favor of lingerie. But is this the appropriate place for it? The Kindle saves me from all that nonsense, and gives me a much more focused reading experience, no matter where I am traveling.

Some interesting overmatter that did not make it into the piece:

The Kindle 2 “reads to you”, as Bezos proudly says. He’s not talking about audiobooks but about software that vocalizes the text when you’re, say, driving. As Penguin’s Makinson pointed out, this raises some interesting questions for authors. Is software-powered audio an audio book? Who has rights to it?

Will future Kindles make books “linkable”? The link economy is where Jeff Jarvis thinks the future lies.

And one last frivolous thought: How strange for Bezos to name the thing Kindle, which leads to an immediate association of books and fire–ie, book-burning.

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Book publishing: dead or just resting?

I’m beginning to keep a mental laundry list of reasons to be pessimistic about the book industry. Admittedly, an odd thing to do as I prepare to enter that industry with my own book.

Among the hypotheses already advanced by others (some of them already rebutted, others contradictory):

1) people don’t read anymore,
2) publishers are crap,
3) the marketers of publishers are crap,
4) people don’t have time. And now
5) people still read but they’re cheapskates bent on ruining authors and publishers.

This submission comes from David Streitfeld in today’s New York Times. He begins with the usual wrap-up of angst–Houghton Mifflin Harcourt not accepting new manuscripts, bookstores closing, and so forth–and then assigns the blame:

Don’t blame this carnage on the recession or any of the usual suspects, including increased competition for the reader’s time or diminished attention spans. What’s undermining the book industry is not the absence of casual readers but the changing habits of devoted readers.

In other words, it’s all the fault of people like myself, who increasingly use the Internet both to buy books and later, after their value to us is gone, sell them. This is not about Amazon peddling new books at discounted prices, which has been a factor in the book business for a decade, but about the rise of a worldwide network of amateurs who sell books from their homes

For readers and collectors, these resellers, as they are called, offer a great service. Lost in the hand-wringing over the state of the book industry is the fact that this is a golden age for those in love with old-fashioned printed volumes: more books are available for less effort and less money than ever before. …

There is, he says,

no longer a set price for a book at any one time. If you want it during those first few weeks when it is new, you will pay a premium. If you can wait, it might be only a pittance.

The book industry is thus in the bad company of 1) the music industry and 2) the news industry. In music, the people who do the most listening are the young, for evolutionary reasons, and they have been sharing music free for years, because they can. In news, they have been doing much the same.

I think there are angles missing from this analysis, so more to come.

Time: you might have sooo much of it

Clay Shirky

Both in my “day job” at The Economist and in my new role as aspiring author, I spend a lot of time thinking about people’s … time. Do people who might read my book when it comes out even have the time to do so? Would they volunteer to spend it reading?

Somebody who makes good sense on the topic is Clay Shirky. He is an NYU professor and consultant and a new-media thinker.

Why do I find his perspective refreshing? First, because he takes a loooong historical perspective to understand our current situation, which is exactly what I do in my book, even though it happens to be about a different topic. So Shirky starts with the “information overload” problem posed by the Library of Alexandria, exacerbated by Gutenberg’s printing press and (wait for the surprise) soon to be solved in our own time.

More to the point: In the talk at the bottom of this post, which I attended, he exposes, with an ironic anecdote, the flaw in the widespread hypothesis that we have too little time to deal with our alleged information overload. He is talking to an American TV producer, who asks him what cool things on the internet he has seen lately. He begins to talk about the fascinating evolution of the Wikipedia page on the planet Pluto. She says nothing, then pops the question:  “Where do people find the time?”

And Clay loses it:  “I just snapped. And I said, No one who works in TV gets to ask that question.” That’s because that time that people find comes in large part out of the “cognitive surplus” you [ie, the TV industry] have been masking for the past forty years!

A short calculation to illustrate his point:

1) All of the articles in all languages of Wikipedia, by Clay’s estimate, took 100 million hours of human thought to compose.

2) Americans watch 200 billion hours of TV a year. They spend 100 million hours a weekend just watching the ads on TV!

So there is actually a huge surplus of thought and creativity, and we are only just discovering how to use it.

A Renaissance of reading?

His thinking extends fluidly to the context that I care more about, book-reading. Shirky is mildly bemused by the widespread fear about the alleged “end” of literary reading.

First, the medium to blame, if any, is not the internet but TV, forty years ago. See above. “What the Internet has actually done,” he says in this interview,

is not decimate literary reading; that was really a done deal by 1970. What it has done, instead, is brought back reading and writing as a normal activity for a huge group of people. Many, many more people are reading and writing now as part of their daily experience. But, because the reading and writing has come back without bringing Tolstoy along with it, the enormity of the historical loss to the literary landscape caused by television is now becoming manifested to everybody.

And so, in twists and turns, you get a lot of the current hysteria about the internet, which emanates not from twenty-somethings on Facebook, who are a lot savvier than their parents ever were, but from those parents who now hold down jobs in, say, the TV industry. They are the new Luddites, like that woman who interviewed Clay. Luddism, he says, “is specifically a demand that the people who benefited from the old system be consulted before any technology is allowed to disrupt it.”

Long story short: Turn off–better: throw away–your TV set; then read my book as soon as it’s published. 😉

Backlash moment

I’ve been flying a lot this week, on a route that GoGo now covers (see map). Each time at the gate, a male-female pair of hip, young marketers (the woman in each case being smarter, hipper, attractive and Indian) offered me and the other lop-sided laptop-bag-toting types in the boarding queue a promotion to get connected via WiFi on the flight.

My reaction progressed in two steps:

Step 1) This is great! I will get on the flight, log on, snap a photo or two of the airplane aisle and then blog it right from my seat so that you all can see what a connected urban nomad I am. En passant, I would be corroborating my own thesis in my special report in The Economist on that topic (ie, “nomadism”).

Step 2) What utter nonsense! Have you lost it, Andreas? This is the last redoubt you have for reading. For the next few hours it is you and your biography of Meriwether Lewis, which is 500 pages and must be read and absorbed for you to make progress in one particular chapter of your own book. For once, no kids tugging on you, no phone ringing, no email alerts. Instead, deep, linear immersion. And you are thinking of giving that up just because… you can?

So you had no posts from me while I was in the air. And I’m guessing that you’re no worse off for it.

Incidentally, I noticed that the other lop-sided laptop-bag-toting types also passed on this opportunity for uninterrupted mid-air connectivity, after the same moment of initial temptation. Have we reached the point of backlash? A civilizing counter-trend?

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