The Natural Length of a Book

Posted on: October 16th, 2012 by Patton Dodd No Comments

One of the most promising ideas to emerge, or re-emerge, in recent years as a result of  developments in e-publishing is that some books and some ideas have “natural lengths” — they need a certain amount of space to deliver their information, and no more. That’s a rather unusual concept in traditional publishing of recent history, because in order for a book to be a book, it needs to be a certain length. But what if you’ve got a great idea that can be expressed in a shorter form? Will you ruin your essential message by inflating it artificially?

You’ve no doubt experienced this problem as a reader — think of the last book you read that was more or less complete after Chapter 4, but it kept going and going, becoming more redundant with every chapter…

Writers experience it, too. Let’s say you want to write about teaching your daughter to cook. You begin to write, and some time later, you’ve said all you have to say, and your word count is around 15,000 words.

What do you have? That’s far too long for a magazine article, which tend to be 2000-4000 words for most feature stories, maybe a few thousand more at best for some of the top national magazines. And it’s far too short for a book, where the economics and physical realities of printing, binding, packaging, shipping and displaying tend to demand that most trade books be in the range of 40,000-60,000 words on the low end. So if you’ve written 15,000 words, you have…well, you might have a book proposal, but if you get a contract, you’re going to have to promise that you have 30,000 more words of material at least, even if you have no clue what those words will be. And you’re going to have to find the time to research and write that much more. And the publisher will have to edit that much more. And readers will end up paying a premium for that much more in order to account for all those additional costs, and they may get a more watered-down book for all the trouble. The result is a longer, weaker book that took an extra year or two to come to market and cost more money to create, market, and own.

Wouldn’t it have been better for you and your readers to let the idea exist at 15,000 words, published sooner, and priced accordingly?

I began to reflect on these issues about 18 months ago when the ebook start-up Byliner published Jon Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit. I first saw the news of Krakauer’s story, which was a riveting expose of Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson, on Twitter, and I immediately went to Byliner and downloaded the piece, which was then available as a PDF. It was about 90 pages long — too short for a book, too long for an article, and ideal as a complete, satisfying one-evening reading experience. I read it all in one sitting and was enthralled by the story. I shared the news of it on my own Twitter and Facebook profiles, and many of my friends downloaded it for themselves.

Krakauer could have written a shorter article for Outside or some other magazine, but he would have left out loads of important detail. He could have written a gargantuan book — as he is wont to do — but it would not have had the sense of urgency that was so essential to the Byliner ebook. Instead, he was able to let the idea exist at its natural length. I was able to read it at its natural length, which arguably helped the book become much more viral — Tweeting about it was a natural reflex, not least because I felt I had experienced the whole story all at once.

I have much more to say about all this, and will offer more in the coming days. But I wanted to register my excitement about the “natural length” trend — even as I continue to be a reader and lover and editor and promoter of traditional books, too. Bondfire Books won’t be publishing shorter ebooks exclusively, and the economics of all this are being sorted out in “real time,” as they say. We all — writers, readers, publishers, publicists, etc. — have a lot of learning to do. Shorter ebooks aren’t going to take over the publishing world. But they are a promising development and a new and welcome opportunity for writers and the readers they serve.

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