Monday, 9 November 2009

Should Books Be Shorter?

Why are books so hard to market? Is it possible that the main stumbling block to purchase, (and to consumption), is the sheer amount of time required to read them?

For the sake of argument, let’s say that the average book is 80,000 to 100,000 words long and requires six hours of fairly sustained attention from the customer.

In some situations that will be precisely why the purchase is made, because the customer has ‘time to kill’ on a beach holiday or a long journey, in a sickbed – whatever. Sometimes the pure beauty of the author’s prose and the languor of the storytelling is the reason why that title or that author has been selected. But what if the motive to purchase is that the reader merely wants the information contained in the book and wants it as quickly and painlessly as possible?

Am I the only person who has seen a book that they really want to read in the shops, or read a review, and then simply failed to find the time to read it – or at least failed to get beyond half way? Most people have a colossal number of calls upon their time once they have put in the hours required to earn a living, bring up their family or clip their toe-nails. Given a choice between a quick flick through a newspaper with a cup of tea, an hour in front of the television with their supper, or consuming one sixth of a difficult book, how often does the poor consumer give in to one of the easier options?

So many books could do with severe editing to remove extraneous material, repetitions and all the rest – “kill your darlings” as any creative writing tutor will tell you - but if the final manuscript then comes in at 30,000 words, or less than a hundred pages, it will not look like good value for money, and the publishers will have another marketing hurdle to overcome.

It seems likely that the printed book will never escape from this trap, any more than the average sit-com will escape the traditional half-hour format or many feature films will be allowed to come in at less than ninety minutes. The audiences have historical expectations of the formats which cannot be lightly dismissed.

But if electronic books take off, might we see something altogether different evolving? If people can’t see how ‘thick’ the book is when they buy it, might they be less daunted by the long ones and less likely to dismiss the short ones? Might publishers then be able to stop buying writing by the pound?

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