Length and spine width in a digital-first world

How these print relics are hampering digital innovation

I’m still working through this extremely long exchange between Nicholas Carr and Clay Shirky about containers and contents but one point keeps jumping out at me: We have got to get away from thinking every “book” has to be at least a couple of hundred pages long.

The Carr/Shirky discussion pulls in the oft-used music analogy. And yes, the shift to digital music meant we no longer had to buy the entire album. We are now free to buy only the tracks we really like. Many look to extrapolate that into books and claim consumers are dying to buy individual chapters. That may be true for a few genres but there’s a much more important lesson here.

Rather than assuming digital is the gateway to chapter sales I believe we need to focus on content length instead. How many digital works really need to be the equivalent of 200, 300 print pages or more? I’m talking to you, business books, self-help guides, and a large number of other bloated categories.

Why do we insist on puffing up books so they have a physical presence on the shelf? Borders is gone, B&N is struggling, linear bookstore shelf footage is constantly shrinking and digital continues to grow.

As an industry we seemed wedded to the thought that every book has to be a minimum length to be worth a minimum price. That logic goes out the digital window. Spine width has zero impact on ebook discovery.

Unless the author has a real, compelling story to tell that requires all those words I suggest they go as short as possible. I’ll pay you more if you’ll save me time. The history books I read often tell a story from a number of perspectives. Those stories are a key ingredient in those books. The business titles I skim (because most aren’t worth reading) could have been condensed to 20-30 pages max. They’re puffed up, probably by an editor who’s looking for spine width.

Albums like 2112 from Rush were intended to be listened to from start to finish. There’s an interesting story throughout. That’s not the case with most albums though, hence the interest in individual song purchases. Most albums are filled with tracks that have no relation to each other aside from the fact that they’re part of the same collection.

Don’t misinterpret the music lesson and assume your next digital step is to sell individual chapters.¬†The real opportunity in publishing is to create more works that are like individual songs, where the message is short and efficient. The former is a weak extension of the current quick-and-dirty print-to-e thinking while the latter requires a digital-first mindset.

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