Earlier this week I posed a question: are books getting shorter? It’s a question that should be occupying us now because the rules are changing.
In the old days – ‘as recently as five years ago’ – scale was mainly driven by cost. Make a book too big and the cover price would be driven up – pushing it outside the market slot and killing sales. Sure, there were big books – especially non-fiction hardback picture books. And there were long epics that rendered out at 15 cm thick, especially in B-size paperback form. But by and large, publishers worked from cost of production, and page size to come up with an optimal length that would be priced for the market.
Publishers also wanted readers to get value for money and a ‘good read’ – something that wasn’t over in a flash, but which they didn’t have to wade through. I still remember discussing this with my publishers at the time, Random House, over the scale of a book I was writing for them.
For fiction, that was typically about 80,000 words. Non-fiction was much the same for a non-illustrated book (same size calculation). Depending on page design, this translates to around 200-250 pages in a typical C-size ‘Royal Trade’ paperback.
Books can be longer or shorter; I’ve written transport histories that were primarily picture-based, topping out at 15,000. But my paperback C-size books – the ones published by Penguin, for instance – all ran to around 90,000 words.
Enter Kindle, Smashwords and the rest. Suddenly, that calculation is out the window – printing costs don’t enter into it. In theory, somebody can knock out a 1,000,000 word epic novel on their cellphone and publish it with the same purchase price as a 5,000 word essay, and they’ll still make on the deal (as long as time isn’t an issue…)
That hasn’t reduced the reader calculation, though – that ‘good read’ balance between a satisfying reading experience and something that’s either too brief or over-long. And that, as far as I can tell, still stands at around 70-90,000 words for a typical book.
Or does it? I wonder. There’s a trend these days to shrink book size – counter-intuitively, given that the marginal cost of a longer e-book is effectively zero. Why? I think tastes are changing; we look to the web for a constant flow of novelty. It surrounds us with choice, and interest spans are dropping on the back of it (‘interest’, not ‘attention’). Add to that the fact that most e-books don’t sell much, individually, and the pressure is on to issue books of much reduced length, though an author will likely write more of them.
Right now I’m wondering whether the optimal size should be closer to 50,000 words? Or maybe less. I have precedent. Back in 2001-03, I signed a multi-book contract that produced three history books of 40,000 words each, all closely linked – a trilogy. I wrote them as if they were a single large volume of 120,000 words. But they were published individually. I can see that sort of thing becoming the norm now, providing the material is amenable to that sort of structure.
What do you think? Do you see individual books shrinking as time goes on? What’s your take on this?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015