Are we returning to the age of short books?

I’ve heard it said that in this post-print day and age of dwindling attention spans, books should be kept short. Why slug away writing an 80,000 word tome when it’ll sell online for the exact same price as a book half that length?

Wright_Books2In a way, none of this is really new. Even in the old print days, books spanned a wide range of scales. I’ve written books, myself, that have been as short as 15,000 words – books where the illustrations were the main focus – through to a monster tome that topped out at 250,000. There was also my early military series – now being reissued – which typically ran to around 40,000 words, by publisher specification, to meet a particular physical print size.

In general, though, most of the books I’ve written have been closer to 80,000 words. And that’s for good reason. The typical ‘good read’ sought by mainstream publishers is around that length. The scale is about right for a typical 220-250 page ‘Royal Trade’ paperback. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, that is also about the scale needed to really explore a subject, or to build a suitably in-depth story and character arc that provides a satisfying journey to the reader.

So the question, I guess, is whether books these days – and that, to most would-be writers, means fiction – should be shorter. Maybe 40 or 50,000 words. Back in the old days, that was a ‘short novel’ or maybe a ‘novella’. Reduced size wasn’t indicative of reduced quality, of course – Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea was novella scale, and he won a Nobel Prize with it. So yes, if the quality’s kept up – why not run these things shorter?

There’s also, I guess, the option of the serial novel. These were all the rage once upon a time, published by instalment in nineteenth century ‘penny dreadfuls’ or twentieth century ‘pulp’ magazines. Each of those instalments, usually a story of its own, was around 15-20,000 words. Later, the authors would gang them up as a novel, what A. E. Van Vogt called ‘fixups’. I suspect we might be going back to that world again – shorter novels, or serial stories that collect together to form a wider story arc. To my mind, the onus is always on to keep the quality up, of course – as Hemingway showed us.

More later this week. But meanwhile…thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


22 thoughts on “Are we returning to the age of short books?

  1. Personally I don’t think it much matters, and I think that’s what you are saying between the lines. As a side note, I’m reminded of another author who claimed that a writer cannot “find himself or herself” until after writing 1 million words.

    I don’t think he appreciated my reply as I told him, “I’m really screwed then, given that I don’t know 1 million words!”

    Long live the story, especially the the ones that defy words . . . almost. 🙂

    1. I think it’s true that the skill of writing requires a million words to master, but they don’t all have to be in the same book! 🙂 And I agree – long live the story, whatever its length.

  2. I like a good fat book. Youngblood Hawke by Herman Wouk is my favorite. It’s very satisfying to finish a long book. I do like the shorter books too, so I’m no help at all!

  3. A good book is exactly the length it ought to be, to paraphrase Gandalf. As for what sells, sometimes I want an epic tale that requires epic time to consume and that becomes my world during that time. Other times I want a book I can breeze through quickly. It depends. I remember when it was taken for granted that young adults read short books. Then Harry Potter happened. To an extent, technology is always reinventing what’s possible in publishing. I say, short or long, novel or installment, it doesn’t matter as long as the author is comfortable with the format and it suits the audience.

    1. I agree. Technology frames what we write and present – relentlessly. I have this vision of Medieval monks bewailing the disappearence of scrolls with their endless lines of text, in favour of this new-fangled ‘book’ thing. And, of course, now we’re back to scrolls, virtually (literally).

      In aside, the Harry Potter stuff was interesting – it captured my interest. What intrigued me was how the books became longer as the series extended. I think the later ones could have benefitted from structural editing, it was as if she knew the series was coming to an end and didn’t want to let go of the characters. She is, I think, too good a writer to have meandered for any other reason…

  4. I love stories that seem as long (or short) as they need to be. I’m a by encouraged by your post, as my upcoming (nonfiction) release isn’t as long as many novels. 🙂 Thought provoking stuff, regardless!

    1. I think non-fiction is a lot more flexible than fiction for size, in many ways – it need be just long enough to make the specific points and the ‘content requirement’ often isn’t as onerous as for fiction. I’ve just finished a novella which was specified at 10,000 words – for which I devised a very simple and brief plot, but it was still a challenge to shoehorn the necessary character shapes and arc in.

  5. I tend to avoid short books. I like something I can become part of and stay there for a while. Guess that also reflects in my writing. All of my books are around the 120,000 word mark. Speaking of which LOL should be writing book four not browsing… but I do enjoy your posts Matthew.

  6. Looking at it from a purely commercial point of view, shorter is definitely better if you want to have a lot of titles to your name, appearing reasonably regularly, and especially if they hook readers into a series. It gives authors a chance to try lots of different things to see what catches the public’s attention, instead of labouring over a single lengthy tome that fails to reach an audience.

    On the flip side, ebooks allow an author to write as long a book as they want with no physical restrictions. As long as all the words contribute to the story and a reader is willing to spend the time – why not?

    We’re moving away from the on-size-fits-all scenario dictated by the big publishers and back towards a market determined by authors and readers. I think it’s an improvement.

    1. So do I. I think you’ve nailed the issue. There is certainly a commercial sense to ‘more and shorter’ given the difficulties of discovery. And the e-book format allows a good deal of flexibility. I do wonder if audiences are being conditioned to ‘shorter’, though, given the evanescent nature of the online world.

  7. For me it depends on the topic – I agree with ontyrepassages paraphrase of Gandalf completely. For non-fiction, which for me usually means history, I’m starting to prefer books that are no longer than about 250 pages. If it’s a complex topic, I’d rather it was split into separate books, or the book was split into separate sections.

    For fiction, I prefer longer books. My favourite books are where I can follow a favourite character over several books. There are several at the moment where I just wait until the next book about that character comes out, and if it’s taking too long, I go back and read all the books from the first in the series in preparation for the next book. For some that means I’ve read tens of thousands of pages about the same character/s, and their continued development. It’s really disappointing when the series ends.

    1. I write a lot of NF history – my 250,000 word book was of that genre. Whatever the length, the challenge is ensuring the theme and argument spans that length with proper pace – and in an appropriate order. Chronology isn’t necessarily the only way to organise analysis, though I find it quite a useful broad structure on which to hang thematic ideas. One of my highest-horsepower histories was a technical sociological analysis I did of the ‘musket wars’ era in New Zealand, which was ‘broadly’ chronological but where I took a thematic approach to many of the social issues, chapter by chapter. It was around 90,000 words in the end and could easily have been longer, except that was the contract length…

    1. I think it is too. I suspect the trend is being driven by the same subtle pressures that have dropped online attention spans generally. Though – as some of the other commenters have noted – there are still keen audiences for longer books.

  8. I’ve had two books published and both have ended up being around 70,000 words plus. That was never in a plan or design but just the point where the story concluded. I have noticed, as a blogger of over four years experience, that a post of around 600 words get read quite easily, but if you push beyond 1,000 words, you are really testing modern attention spans. I think shorter books are a response to that as well

    1. I agree. Same’s true of feature writing, actually – when I started 1000 words was typical of a shorter one but now they’re down to even 500, which is barely enough to state anything.

  9. As a short fiction writer, I’ve been waiting for reality to catch up with the oft-repeated statements about shortening attention span for years. It doesn’t seem to be happening. Films and novels are getting longer and we’re seeing more rather than less serials in both forms. Meanwhile, short stories and novellas remain a niche interest even though, as you said, many of the great works of 20th century fiction were novellas or very short novels by today’s standards.

    I suspect there are probably a lot of people out there who would enjoy the short form, but because it’s stuck in the dark corners of the literary world, it’s just not in the consciousness of most people to go looking for it. Meanwhile, publishers won’t push it precisely because potential readers aren’t interested, and the short form remains confined to those dark corners.

    I can’t see it changing unless there’s a breakout success that catches the attention of readers and publishers alike. Thanks to the ease of self-publishing, it’s more likely to happen now than it was a few years ago, but then magazines of short stories were using the internet as a platform long before novel publishers caught on and it hasn’t happened yet.

    1. I agree. I think one of the drivers to shorten – and as powerful a one as the way we are being conditioned to flit from thing to thing – is the commercial side and especially the reality of generating income in an online world where discovery is often chance and the customer expectation is low price or free. Shorter works are cheaper to produce in terms of time but potentially as likely to generate as much income. It will be interesting to see how everything pans out.

  10. I think we’ve chatted about this in the past. For me it’s more content and pacing than length. As long as the story moves along and holds my interest the length is not all that important. I lean toward shorter (250-350 pages) books because most epics I’ve read get bogged down in details that are not greatly important to the story. As I stated there are exceptions.

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