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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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Comments: 10

  1. The “container” question is really interesting, especially in light of the increasing transition to books as apps and books as HTML. However, as the definition of a book’s “container” is stretched, so too is the very definition of a book itself.

    Additionally, the opportunity for singles or chapters to hit the market fast and, ultimately, become something more over time (if needed) is quite intriguing from both a creation and financial perspective.

    It’s hard to imagine these trends slowing down.

  2. As a literary-fiction writer, I find this fascinating. Several recent and highly successful literary novels (e.g. Olive Kitteridge and also Welcome to the Goon Squad) have been told as linked short stories and I am considering doing so for my next. There’s much discussion too among novelists about promoing one’s book by posting chapters or short portions. I remember my pride when my current book topped the 300-page mark and remember wondering why that was important. And all this without even considering the relevance of the “container issue” to other genres.

  3. “Only as long as it needs to be, and no more” should be pinned on every publisher’s wall. The need in nonfiction especially is clear, succinct explanation. Far too often it is bloated and the result is something the reader struggles to understand. Business management books are especially bad; most would be far better in bullet form!

  4. What we need to do is to stop thinking about the “book” as a category when it is the container. We need to focus on the contents. “HTML5 for Publishers” isn’t in the same category as “50 Shades of Grey”. They don’t serve the same purpose at all.
    Anyway, my point is that we don’t treat “everything that ships in a cardboard box” as a single industry. That would be stupid, right? Why do we treat everything that ships in a book format as the same thing? If real world products worked like the print world, here’s what it would be like. A single action figure bought at the store packaged in plastic would be part of the same “industry” as a USB memory stick packaged in plastic. But six action figures packaged in a cardboard box would be in a completely different “industry”, competing with wine decanters and vacuum cleaners. And there would be a totally different set of contracts and pricing. That would be insane. And we would have pundits writing articles about the “Death of Cardboard” when some retailer started using plastic bags instead of cardboard boxes.

  5. Kevin O. McLaughlin

    Really good points. Books, thanks to digital and POD, can now be as long (or short) as they need to be. For fiction, book length in the last few decades has largely been set by publishers based not on what’s good for storytelling, but rather based on calculations of reader perception (is this book thick enough to be worth the money) and bookseller space (is this book too thick to order many copies of it).

    In the ebook venue, fiction length is already changing wildly. We’re seeing a virtual Renaissance of short fiction, novelettes, novellas, and shorter novels (40-60k words). Fifty years ago, 50-60k word novels were common; they were more the norm than the exception. And we’re headed back in that direction, with a wild array of other lengths also coming to the surface.

  6. You
    make some good points about efficiency and book length. True, spine
    width and shelf space are of little concern any more. However, readers
    do expect a certain length in a novel. What that is certainly varies,
    but a novella length piece can only yield a certain amount of payoff for
    time invested in the characters/universe.

    Perhaps that ratio is what makes series so desirable to some. I think it
    is incumbent upon us to meet the minimal length for a full sized novel,
    but not go beyond it with unnecessary content and bloat. If a reader
    has invested in a novel, they should get the entertainment value they
    expect, or pay less for it.

    Songs as individual units have centuries of appreciation in that form,
    certainly more so in the radio era. I do not think the song to album
    analogy cleanly fits with chapters to novel.

    Certainly an interesting discussion. Perhaps I too will post on it. The
    market can and will continue to evolve. It is a fluid thing.

  7. Long, short, multimedia, remix… yeah!

  8. I absolutely agree with you.

  9. I decided to post on this topic after reading yours, and mention you as the genesis.


    I agree with much of your overall point, but I beleive we diverge when it comes specifically to novels. 

  10. I tell ya, those “Idiot’s Guides” and the “For Dummies” books are often WAY to packed with information and are structured a bit too much like a text book. Hey they make a good resources book (in the same way a dictionary or a VCR manual does), but for a guide to beginners, even the “Beginner’s Guide” series of books are a bit too much information.

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