Towards A World of Smaller Books

by Henry on February 9, 2010

Ezra Klein

It is true that for the best books, there is no substitute for a book. I do not want to read Robert Caro’s blog posts if they will delay his final volume on Lyndon Johnson by so much as an hour. But for many books, a few blog posts, or an article, would work just fine, and the reader would save a lot of time in the process. And time has value.

I think you can push this argument further. I would estimate that about 80% of the non-academic non-fiction books that I do not find a complete waste of time (i.e. good books in politics, economics etc – I can’t speak to genres that I don’t know) are at least twice as long as they should be. They make an interesting point, and then they make it again, and again, padding it out with some quasi-relevant examples, and tacking on a conclusion about What It All Means which the author clearly doesn’t believe herself. The length of the average book reflects the economics of the print trade and educated guesses as to what book-buyers will actually pay for, much more than it does the actual intellectual content of the book itself. Length may also, of course, reflect some practical judgments concerning the book as a display object (I seem to remember Tyler Cowen somewhere suggesting that only a relatively small percentage of books bought are actually read ). Books which are, for example, extended versions of articles written for The Atlantic, The Public Interest or what have you are especially likely to be over-long for their topic – I don’t remember ever reading one of these books and feeling that I got substantial insights which were unavailable in the original article (in some cases it might have been useful to have a better sourced and slightly better fleshed out version of the original piece available somewhere, perhaps half the length again of the original piece, but there doesn’t appear to be a market for that).

All this may be changing as we move towards an electronic book publishing system. The economics of electronic text production are not the same as the economics of book production (as best as I understand either), and there aren’t the same pressures towards standardization of length. I suspect that people who would feel cheated if they paid ‘book’ price for a long essay (say around 20,000 words or so) will feel less so if they buy an electronic version. Ideally, we will end up in a world where people won’t feel obliged to pad out what are really essays to book length in order to get published and compensated. If I’m right, we will see a lot more essay-length publications than we used to. I suspect too that the effects will be non-symmetrical – that is that we will see an explosion in the number of very short books/essays, which will be somewhat cheaper than traditional books, but not very cheap, a moderate decrease in the number of ‘standard’ (say, 60,000-90,000 word length) books, and stability or decrease in the number of long books (books with 100,000+ words). Long books still cost a lot of money to edit. I also suspect that we will see traditional printed books become (a) more expensive, and (b) more beautiful – their main value will be as display items rather than use items. Of course, I have no direct experience of the publishing industry (except as author) and know that several of our commenters know more, and have strong opinions, so look forward to being corrected on any or all of the above …

{ 55 comments }

1

CJColucci 02.09.10 at 9:11 pm

For a great many books, I have found the better, longer, more substantive book reviews, like those in the NYRB, to be a perfectly adequate substitute for the book itself.

2

Jonathan M 02.09.10 at 9:46 pm

There are books for which this is undeniably true. Most of the internet-wisdom books like the Long Tail really are padded out essays. Reading the books will bring you nothing that you will not get from reading the original essay. Some self-help books never get past the title. If you see the title of Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, you don’t actually need to read the book… that’s as far as the insight goes.

3

kid bitzer 02.09.10 at 10:07 pm

i think this is definitely right. i saw a book on the shelves recently called something like “zombie economics: undead ideas blah blah blah”, and it struck me as a clear waste of a binding and boards. i mean, maybe the author had something to say, but why not just say it in a series of blog-posts, instead? instead, you got woodpulp, padding, and bollocks.

4

bjk 02.09.10 at 10:19 pm

Yes, I’m sure young Klein is going to camp out at the bookstore to be first in line for the next Caro sequel.

I think Kinsley is more honest:

“Mr. Bush warned Saddam Hussein that American opera companies will begin putting on actual performances throughout Iraq unless he cedes power immediately. “Nor will we hesitate to drop all 17 volumes of Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson on targets of opportunity among the Iraqi leadership. The United States of America will always strive not to bop innocent civilians on the head with heavy hardcover volumes, but let us be clear: If they find Caro’s high-decibel hectoring and tedious, repetitive detail unbelievably annoying, the true author of their misery is Saddam Hussein. Americans are a compassionate people, and we will distribute free synopses of all Caro volumes to every Iraqi citizen who needs them. But not until Saddam is gone.” White House officials are said to hope that this strategy will encourage a coup. “

5

steven 02.09.10 at 10:27 pm

Part of the problem is that publishers think an 80k-word book is a more serious prospect than a 40k-word book. (They are right inasmuch as most 40k-word books that actually get published should have been 10k-word essays instead.) But if we move to an exciting world of epublished 20k-word books, the danger might be that no one will bother to write (or that there will no longer be a market for) 80k-word books that justify their length.

6

Harry 02.09.10 at 10:32 pm

There’s another model, of academic-y books – -like the ones that Boston Review has sponsored, where you get a lead essay (basically the core idea of what might otherwise have been a book) and responses. New(ish) ideas, and stimulating responses, that serve well as textbooks as well as for a very small general public, and some academics. Very few academic books in my discipline contain really new stuff — most has already been published in some, more technical, form.

I have a forthcoming book which roughly meets these standards — a revised version of a pamphlet I wrote ten years ago (quite substantively updated, I would add) plus critiques (that I’ve not yet seen) by two others, and an intro and concluding essay by an editor. Clearly for the textbook market, but in fact there is some new stuff in it. It amounts to 65k words (my essay is about 18k).

7

James Conran 02.09.10 at 10:33 pm

“…we will see an explosion in the number of very short books/essays, which will be somewhat cheaper than traditional books, but not very cheap, a moderate decrease in the number of ‘standard’ (say, 60,000-90,000 word length) books, and stability or decrease in the number of long books (books with 100,000+ words). “

Does this refer to electronic publishing only or books published both electronically and in paper form? Presumably, for the economic obstacles to the publication (in hard copy) of small books to be overcome due to the advent of e-publishing we would need to be in some kind of halfway house where e-publishing considerations were driving decisions but it was still considered necessary to publish in hard copy as well.

8

Emma 02.09.10 at 10:40 pm

One interesting thing about reading on an e-reader (Kindle in my case) is the lack of real apprehension of how long the thing you are reading is. My clearest example of this is fiction (Wolf Hall), which is an enormous book, quite daunting in its dead tree version. I hadn’t seen the physical version before I read it on the Kindle, and it was so absorbing that I had no consciousness of how long it was — the Kindle tells you that you are 48 % through, but if you’ve achieved ‘flow’ in the reading, and you don’t tend to keep running tally of the hours you’ve spent reading, that doesn’t give you a concrete idea, unlike the position of your bookmark in a physical book. So great length (as well as relative brevity) might not be a disadvantage, on an e-reader. I’ve found that my whole consciousness of length is rather more tied up with the physical appearance of the book than I had expected.

9

Adam Kotsko 02.09.10 at 11:04 pm

How have the French managed to get by publishing such short books for so long? At least in philosopy, many works tend to be long essays at best — much of what gets translated are actually compilations of such shorter works. Perhaps a more familiar example of the short-philosophy-book phenomenon is Agamben (who’s Italian), whose generally quite short books tend to be translated as-is. It’s a mystery to me what’s keeping Anglo authors from writing shorter books as well. That’s one thing I really like about the Zero Books series (other than the fact that they’re coming out with a book of mine this fall) — they’re purposely aiming to publish short books.

10

Chris Bertram 02.09.10 at 11:09 pm

Length isn’t the only relevant dimension here. Some time in the 1980s, publishers decided to abandon the then standard sizes (think old Penguins) in favour of B-format. Not good. It was nice to be able to put a novel in your pocket.

11

Warren Terra 02.09.10 at 11:13 pm

@bjk

Yes, I’m sure young Klein is going to camp out at the bookstore to be first in line for the next Caro sequel.

Um, why not, other than the anachronism of camping out rather than pre-ordering from his favorite online bookseller or even immediately downloading to his handheld reader?
I take it from your comment that you’re not a fan of Caro’s work (or rather, that you approve of Mike Kinsley’s distaste for Caro’s books; incidentally, Mike Kinsley has never written a book, unless you count a compilation of his quite-forgettable columns, while Caro’s four books have garnered two Pulitzers, two National Book Critics Awards, and one National Book Award). Still, an awful lot of people are huge fans of Caro’s books and will absolutely pre-order his next one. Well, I am, at least, and I don’t think I’m alone.
I take it that your theory is that Klein was making a point in which it would suffice to include the name of any living author whose work he particularly admires and whose next book he especially anticipates – and yet for some obscure reason he included in that sentence the name of an author who doesn’t meet those criteria. This theory makes sense to you, does it?

12

Salient 02.09.10 at 11:18 pm

If I’m right, we will see a lot more essay-length publications than we used to.

Also (hopefully) the revival of fiction serialized by chapter.

Books which are, for example, extended versions of articles written for The Atlantic, The Public Interest or what have you are especially likely to be over-long for their topic

And the “I didn’t have time to write a short essay, so I wrote a long one instead” excuse is unavailable to them.

13

KCinDC 02.09.10 at 11:30 pm

Does this mean that electronic distribution of movies will lead to the possibility of shorter ones, so that it’s no longer necessary to take a 5-minute SNL sketch and pad it out to 90 minutes?

14

Marc 02.09.10 at 11:43 pm

It takes much more time to write something short and clear than it does to write something long and rambling. Remember Mark Twain: “I don’t have time to write a short letter.”

15

Maurice Meilleur 02.10.10 at 12:08 am

‘80% of the non-academic non-fiction books’? Why not include academic monographs? At least in the last 30 years, maybe 19 or better out of 20 every academic books should have been journal articles, 99 out of 100 journal articles should have been research notes or (once they existed) blog posts.

I side with Lindsay Waters who takes much the same argument in Enemies of Promise (2004), and I share the optimism of many that, with more academic blogging and the increase in online sharing and discussion of scholars’ work, this might actually happen. Really, there’s no reason to persist any longer in publishing rituals that made more sense when scholars had no other practical and regular way to speak with one another but through articles and books.

And I speak as a bibliophile and lover of paper. In the digital world there is still great need for crisp writing, informed and perceptive editing, expert typography and layout, and eye-catching, original and thoughtful design, and it could be that art and design books may for a long time require resolution and quality of reproduction that monitors and handheld screens can’t achieve. But it would be wonderful if print in the world of academic publishing was increasingly limited to books of rare importance and beauty–no less so than in trade publishing.

16

Jake 02.10.10 at 12:17 am

The Atlantic, The Public Interest or what have you are especially likely to be over-long for their topic – I don’t remember ever reading one of these books and feeling that I got substantial insights which were unavailable in the original article

This has been happening to me with some frequency lately, and it’s led me toward quitting nonfiction books with greater swiftness than I once did. Lily Koppel’s The Red Leather Diary and Winifred Gallagher’s Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life are particularly egregious offenders in this regard.

If I’m right, we will see a lot more essay-length publications than we used to.

To extend this, I hope we see more works of a length appropriate to the amount of content and insight they have.

17

Salient 02.10.10 at 12:19 am

Remember Mark Twain: “I don’t have time to write a short letter.”

It was Pascal actually; Mark Twain cribbed it. And (like every other bon mot) it gets attributed to Voltaire (there’s lies, there’s damned lies, and there’s poorly sourced Voltaire quotation pages on the Internets).

But this isn’t totally off-topic! For behold, Voltaire also allegedly weighed in on this thread’s topics:
The multitude of books is making us ignorant.
and
The secret of being boring is to say everything.

So there’s that. When the Internets take over the world in the twenty-second century and encode all human knowledge into ZML, it will be revealed that Voltaire actually wrote every book ever written. (And was therefore rather boring.)

18

Ombrageux 02.10.10 at 12:49 am

There are different kinds of books for which different lengths are appropriate. There are essays or “arguments” that can warrant 150 to 250 pages. There are what I’d call “empirical” books which are, if not without argument, then primarily made up of description and reporting. These include memoirs, history books, sociological studies, etc.

Then there are “political science” texts and various books on current affairs. Generally speaking, the more famous the person becomes, the more vacuous the text. It simply becomes unnecessary to say anything much or argue coherently. The person is famous, the book contributes to their “intellectual brand” which is composed of 2 or 3 ideas, which the book must then hammer home relentlessly. In this category include the various utterly uninteresting books that should have remained articles, including those by our foreign policy luminaries Fareed Zakaria, Samuel Huntington and Tom Friedman. It’s a pretty sordid business.

19

Matt 02.10.10 at 1:17 am

There are several series of fairly short philosophy books out now, some of them quite good. The Princeton Monographs in Philosophy series is a nice example. The “Thinking in Action” books are another example, though more mixed, as are the “very short introductions” (some of which are quite good. They are not all philosophy, of course, and some are re-packaged “past masters” or “modern masters” volumes, but still nice over all for quick introductions.) In addition to the Boston Review books that Harry mentioned (some very good, some less so), the Princeton University Center for Human Values has a similar series, though it’s a bit longer and a bit slicker in production values (and more expensive.) As for me, I hope real books don’t die or become even more expensive- I still massively prefer working with a book than an electronic version.

20

LFC 02.10.10 at 1:51 am

I very strongly disagree with (at least) one aspect of Henry’s post and with M. Meilleur at @15 above: namely, in their apparently both looking forward to a world in which most books will be electronic rather than print, and in which print will be just for or mainly for “display” or “beautiful” items. Generally speaking, I don’t want to read books on a screen, and probably that includes the screen of a handheld reader (though admittedly I’ve never used one). Some people, definitely including me, like to be able to mark up a book in the old-fashioned way, with pencil in the margins, and make marginal notes. I might even underline a sentence or a phrase or whatever now and again. I know there are ways to mark text on a screen, but it doesn’t feel the same (or wouldn’t, I think: I’ve never tried to mark in the margins a long text on the screen). Then there are the physical aspects of reading: sometimes a difficult passage, or a passage one wants to pay special attention to, requires repeated readings. Now I have done that on a screen, and somehow it really doesn’t feel the same as with a printed book. Also, I like (some) book stores, and the end of printed books would be the end of book stores (at least in a form I would recognize).

The basic point is that I think it somewhat narrow-minded, to use the politest word I can think of in this context, for the post to assume that everyone shares the same preferences and that everyone would rather read all the time on a screen rather than a page. I cannot believe I am alone in taking strong exception to this assumption. On a related note, I would observe that Andrew Moravscik, in the current issue of PS, remarks in passing (in a piece that’s mostly about “active citation”) that the days of the hard-cover, printed academic book are numbered (or words very close to that). And I didn’t get the feeling he regrets this supposedly coming state of affairs. I find the remark and the attitude objectionable. Moreover, apart from my preferences, I’m not sure the history of technology bears out the forecast: radio survived the advent of TV, broadcast TV survived cable, a few people still write with typewriters as a matter of choice and there are still places where one get them repaired (or so I assume), and despite the proliferation of home video whats-its and DVDs and Netflicks etc, people still go out to the movies as they did, say, in the ’30s (true, the theaters no longer show newsreels and a lot of other things have changed, but the point stands). I’m not opposed to newish things (I’m writing a comment on a blog, after all), but I am opposed to the view that everything electronic (in the sense of E-books) is good and everything pre-computer age is bad.

All that said, I do agree that most books are longer than they need to be and/or should be. But in my view, that is a separate question from screen versus page.

21

LFC 02.10.10 at 1:54 am

I hadn’t seen Matt’s comment @19 when I hit submit on the above; obviously I am not alone in my opinion.

22

Lee A. Arnold 02.10.10 at 2:10 am

I made a 90-second summary review of the argument of Al Gore’s last book, using a flow-cartoon language:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6nTAR2MVYQ

There are about 100 facts in it, organized. Visual animation allows a new degree-of-freedom in a regular grammar, so you can accelerate comprehension.

More here (and my project’s own bibliography, at the bottom of this page:)

http://www.youtube.com/leearnold

23

Martin 02.10.10 at 2:16 am

1. This was a repeated theme of Samuel Johnson. For example, Boswell quotes him as telling his friend Mrs. Thrale, “Alas, Madam, how few books are their of which one ever can possibly arrive at the last page.”

2. Re Robert Caro: More or less all criticisms of his books that have ever been expressed are valid. Yet they are still great books and great reads. This is implicit in Kinsley’s parable of Caronian aerial warfare. A premise of his proposal is that, after having been bonked on the head with volumes of Caro from the sky, the Iraqi’s will be unable to stop reading without outside assistance in the form of summaries telling them how the story ends. And at the same time they will be prepared to face the fearsome risks of rebellion against Saddam Hussein to obtain such assistance. Of what blog post (apart from the works of Daniel Davies) can one say something similar?

24

Henry 02.10.10 at 3:07 am

Oh dear. LFC – even if you read _very very closely_ I don’t think that you can find ‘remarks’ or ‘attitudes,’ ‘objectionable,’ ‘narrow-minded’ or otherwise suggesting that everyone would or should prefer reading on a screen to reading on a printed page. I simply don’t say it, for the reason that I don’t believe it – I like electronic readers, but also like printed books quite a lot. I really can’t see where you are getting this from.

25

Maurice Meilleur 02.10.10 at 4:00 am

I don’t ‘look forward’ to a world where most books are digital and read on a screen, at least not for the sake of being digital and being on screens. I certainly don’t think that ‘everything electronic (in the sense of E-books) is good and everything pre-computer age is bad’. Kindles are terrible, like reading a cross between a Brother typewriter and a Nintendo Game Boy; I can read texts on my iPhone with varying levels of comfort; I haven’t held an iPad yet; I don’t much like reading on a monitor and can’t do it immersively.

But I do look forward to a world where digital publishing can help texts find a length, format, and venue appropriate to their content, substance, and the nature of their contribution to larger conversations. If it is true that the practicalities of print publishing are driving scholars (or anyone else) to pad their manuscripts beyond what is necessary for the author to get his/her point across–I’m not sure it is, or that the effect is greater than other factors–then more power to digital if it can put an end to that. And I just wanted to remind people that academic manuscripts have the same problem as trade books, and that sometimes the problem isn’t that a book is too long; it’s that it should never have been printed as a book in the first place.

Or, as Henry said, I look forward to a world in which ‘people won’t feel obliged to pad out what are really essays to book length in order to get published and compensated’–tacking ‘tenured’ and ‘promoted’ onto that list as well. Most good academic ideas take about a blog post to explain, and I don’t see why we need to inflate them twentyfold, print and bind them, just to get the person who had the idea the professional recognition they need to advance in their career. Most good academic arguments take about a journal article’s space to lay out; what is the point of publishing a 300-page book around them? In both cases printing and physical distribution actually slows down the conversation anyway.

26

Substance McGravitas 02.10.10 at 4:09 am

I don’t ‘look forward’ to a world where most books are digital and read on a screen, at least not for the sake of being digital and being on screens.

I look forward to a world where all books are also digital for the sake of being on screens. I like Chris Ware for instance, and I have a feeling that a decade or two in the future I’m going to be unable to conveniently read the beautiful books I already own. A magnifying glass just doesn’t cut it.

27

Matt 02.10.10 at 4:19 am

Most good academic ideas take about a blog post to explain, and I don’t see why we need to inflate them twentyfold, print and bind them, just to get the person who had the idea the professional recognition they need to advance in their career. Most good academic arguments take about a journal article’s space to lay out; what is the point of publishing a 300-page book around them?

Perhaps it depends a lot on the discipline and the sub-field but I don’t in general think this is true. In the areas where I most work I find that people often don’t show the care to detail that their arguments need and don’t consider objections and context. This makes their work unconvincing and superficial. I’m reminded of Kant’s remark that making a book too short in the writing can make it too long in the understanding. (Not that we need to write like Kant, just that people’s ideas are often not as well developed as they think and they would be better off taking the time and space to work them out rather than spewing them out half or less baked and thinking them done. )

28

Ceri B. 02.10.10 at 4:35 am

William Langeweische comes to mind as someone whose books do add substantial things of merit to their original essay and article versions. But I’d be comfortable acknowledging him as unusual in this regard.

29

Ronald Brakels 02.10.10 at 5:16 am

One appliance that may or may not take off is the home book binder. A basic one could potentially cost $100 or less and spit out paperbacks with black and white covers while more expensive models could make books with colour and hardbacks. While I have no idea if they will take off, they will have interesting implications for the publishing industries.

30

Martin Wisse 02.10.10 at 6:54 am

I think you can push this argument further. I would estimate that about 80% of the non-academic non-fiction books that I do not find a complete waste of time (i.e. good books in politics, economics etc – I can’t speak to genres that I don’t know) are at least twice as long as they should be.

I’m curious to know what kind of non-academic non-fiction books you read, since this isn’t my experience at all. I recognise the sort of book these could be — the current affairs/political polemic ala Al Franken, Molly Ivins or Michael Moore or the journalistic compilation books Greg Palast e.g. turns out, but that’s just a specific genre. In history and science non-fiction this phenomenon isn’t true at all, afaik.

Ebooks are not going to replace proper books anytime soon, even if anybody on your blogroll seems to have bought a kindle/is going to buy an ipad. I would offer my reasons, but the margin is too small to contain them.

31

John Quiggin 02.10.10 at 7:33 am

Then again, we might all agree that a given book could be half as long, but disagree on which half to cut out.

32

Kenny Easwaran 02.10.10 at 7:39 am

I was going to say the same thing as Martin Wisse. Most of my non-academic non-fiction reading is popular science (I hesitate to say the names Richard Dawkins and Michael Pollan, but The Ancestor’s Tale and The Botany of Desire are definitely two of the best books I’ve read) and most of the ones that I’ve enjoyed have been the sort where I enjoyed the presence of every chapter, and every anecdote in every chapter.

Academic books on the other hand tend to be too long, even though they tend to be much shorter (in my experience) than non-academic non-fiction.

33

JoB 02.10.10 at 8:36 am

12- yes, serialized fiction, definitely!

34

novakant 02.10.10 at 9:04 am

It’s the same with films: 75% are just too bloody long, I could cut 5-30 minutes easily! And it would be a massive improvement – that is, if you care about things like narrative flow and pacing, as opposed to the spaghetti on the wall/everything but the kitchen sink approach so common nowadays.

And don’t even get me started on director’s cuts, most of them are exercises in self-indulgence and vanity with little regard to the actual art of the narrative. I recently bought the special edition of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and it was the first director’s cut I’ve ever seen, that was actually shorter than the theatrical version: I love Peter Weir!

35

chris y 02.10.10 at 10:44 am

Bob Benchley apparently used to burst into tears in bookshops at the sight of all the lovingly written and carefully published books that near enough nobody would ever read. Would a move to shorter, iPad friendly, formats address this problem, or would it merely encourage more pixels overall to be added to the black hole?

36

JoB 02.10.10 at 10:55 am

More pixels in the black hole, probably.

But the really sad thing is the sight of all those hastily written and ‘because (s)he’s so famous’ published books that fill the spots of other books that nobody will read but that at least have something original to say.

37

Pat Capps 02.10.10 at 11:09 am

No one has picked up on the reference to Caro’s book on LBJ. I’m reading it at the moment, and I can’t stop telling people how brilliant it is. “IT IS BRILLIANT”. It is also probably too short at 2000-odd pages.

38

Barry 02.10.10 at 11:47 am

I’ve done some business lit searches at work, where I’d look at both journal articles and books on a subject; it’s a rare book which isn’t a single article padded out to 300 pages.

39

Shaun 02.10.10 at 12:52 pm

A thought-provoking post. I will be self-publishing a 120-page non-fiction book on a series of unsolved murders in the spring. Self publishing because I will not whore out myself to a mainstream publisher to whom I would have to cede artistic control who will take years to get the book into print, and 120 pages because I can tell the story more than adequately at that length and padding, as noted, is the death of many a decent book.

40

Walt 02.10.10 at 12:56 pm

I’m saddened that there’s someone on Earth who is naive enough to believe that any of us will live to see Robert Caro finish his biography of LBJ.

41

Anderson 02.10.10 at 1:55 pm

Maybe we can amend this to “people practicing in fields that are mostly b.s. tend to write books that are too long.” Because when you’re just b.s.’ing, how do you know when to stop?

I’m reading Peter Wilson’s new book on the 30 Years War, and while I’m sure someone on Amazon has complained that it’s too long, it’s not like there’s filler. There’s just a damn lot to talk about.

42

thy blackest jam 02.10.10 at 2:05 pm

Speaking of B.S. … I remember reading “Future Shock” 30 years ago and thinking; this book could not only have been written in about 20 pages, but could also have, by virtue of that compactment, effectively illustrated its central point (such as it was).

43

The Ancient 02.10.10 at 2:10 pm

Something is being left out. Compared with 30 years ago, there are very few editors left in the book industry — people who have the ability and standing to take a manuscript and make it better, in part, by making it shorter. Once upon a time, editors worked with authors through several drafts; nowadays, authors are lucky to have their manuscript briefly waved in front of a copy editor. In today’s publishing world, editors are “packagers,” not text mavens. One consequence is bigger books, which require a higher price point, and a more patient reader.

Also, in that small subsection of the publishing world where the author gets a substantial advance, the temptation to let the book grow longer than it should be is nearly irresistible — because a bigger (fatter) book commands a higher price, and potentially a greater profit.

Obviously, there are writers of all sorts who turn in manuscripts that are nearly ready for the printer. But the number is small, and the proportion dropping as the total number of published books swells.

P.S. In defense of Mike Kinsley, his real achievement was as an editor at The New Republic. He found new writers, pushed them hard, and put out what was then, thirty years ago, the best magazine in the country. (The back of the magazine has always been under separate direction, with wildly inconsistent results.)

P.P.S. EK should stop waiting for the last word on Lyndon Johnson and re-read The Power Broker. He might learn something useful about the limits of liberal hubris.

44

LFC 02.10.10 at 2:27 pm

Henry @24 – Apparently I drew an unwarranted inference from your saying that traditional printed books will come to have value mainly as display rather than use items at some point “as we move towards an electronic book publishing system.” It’s true you did not say that everyone would or should prefer reading on a screen to a page, and I’ll be careful not to attribute this position to you again.

45

Shaun 02.10.10 at 2:50 pm

Walt:

I have worked with Caro’s researcher in the recent past and suspect most of us will be alive.

46

Liz Alexander 02.10.10 at 3:40 pm

To your point about seeing more short books, I just read that FT Press Delivers (http://bit.ly/bPwLwn) are providing e-content as short as 1,000 words. That rather changes my response to a prospective client who recently sent me her “book” manuscript that was a three page Word document.

I think what we may see when this “revolution” in the publishing industry calms down is that e-content will take advantage of a more interactive way of presenting information–through video, interactive graphics etc.–while traditional books will (as you say) be coveted as beautiful, constantly thumbed-through avenues for mental exploration . That’s the nature of information versus understanding, surely? Sometimes we need quick, instantly “grabbable” information and at other times we want (I hope!) to take time with a book that provokes us to reflect on how we view the world and consider new ways of thinking, behaving, and being.

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ajay 02.10.10 at 5:16 pm

Does this mean that electronic distribution of movies will lead to the possibility of shorter ones, so that it’s no longer necessary to take a 5-minute SNL sketch and pad it out to 90 minutes?

Good point – but I’d say it’s more likely to lead to the possibility of longer ones, which can be watched in convenient chunks at home (aka: miniseries) rather than having to be the optimum length for cinema showing.
You could also refer to the constraint of the 3-minute vinyl single…

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smacker 02.10.10 at 7:44 pm

@Maurice,
I actually think the academic publication market cannot, for two reasons, be adequately compared to the popular non-fiction market in terms of proportion of crapitude.

First, there is the issue of peer review. While you might not agree with, like, or have any respect for the conclusions of authors of academic journal papers/books you read, people who are almost always more expert than you have thought these works sufficiently meritorious to approve their publication. This instantly lends them a sheen of professional credibility lacking in almost all popular non-fiction. Their contribution might be marginal or overwrought, but the mechanism that checks their quality is not merely based on sales or popularity. Of course, while this by no means guarantees that every piece of academic writing is stellar, if the widespread cultivation of expertise is important to you, the institution of peer-review should be as well.

Second, tons of journals exist because there are tons of professors or aspiring professors who make their living primarily from an institution sponsoring their research and expecting them to publish. There are few ways of evaluating the quality of professors’ research outside of publication (which, again, shows expert authorization of the findings of the piece) – this, in turn, while driving absolute numbers of publication up, also allows us to both saturate the intellectual terrain with new research and fairly easily rank contributions through the inevitable stratification of journals through status reputation. While nearly all of these contributions may be irrelevant or uninteresting to you (as well as, of course, being of uneven quality), because they are part of the larger academic project of growing human knowledge in a relatively institutionally defined way, they are probably useful to someone. Moreover, because only some journals are at the top of any discipline, it is easy to tell what is “important” for general disciplinary knowledge in addition being able to easily identify the more specialized contributions of use to a much smaller pool of readers. Despite it’s dysfunctions, I think it’s a pretty great system, actually.

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Kaleberg 02.10.10 at 8:42 pm

Just to calibrate tolerance towards reading on the screen, I’ll note that the original article and this discussion come in close to 6,000 words.

Actually, we’re already seeing experiments in different lengths of media. Youtube revived the one reeler, and the how to sites are full of videos that run long enough to show how to, then roll the credits. It’s even revived the newsreel.

In music, digital delivery brought back the single, but that trend was underway before. Vinyl 45 singles started showing up in the early 90s. If you think a lot of books are full of filler, read a music blog about the filler ratio of most albums.

In text, we’ve not only seen a return of letter writing and epistolary novels, but also more variation in length. There are a lot more essays, and they aren’t all driven by word count. I tend to read non-fiction and public domain fiction online only because I don’t have a good supply of online fiction yet.

In every case there was a format dictated by the physical medium, and as that constraint has relaxed, we’re seeing new form factors. The problem we have is that the various businesses are behind the curve. Just as developers have trouble developing mixed use projects because they are unfamiliar, publishers are having trouble offering new products.

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Jon H 02.11.10 at 2:17 am

” I hadn’t seen the physical version before I read it on the Kindle, and it was so absorbing that I had no consciousness of how long it was—the Kindle tells you that you are 48 % through, but if you’ve achieved ‘flow’ in the reading, and you don’t tend to keep running tally of the hours you’ve spent reading, that doesn’t give you a concrete idea, unlike the position of your bookmark in a physical book.”

The kindle does show the position in terms of ‘Locations’, and shows the last/highest location #, which gives you an idea of the length of the book. The free samples from Amazon tend to be a few hundred ‘locations’. The longer books I have are over 15,000 locations. So if you buy a book and its last location is around 3,000, it’s not very long.
(My kindle version of “The Crimson Petal And The White’ is 15,000 locations. Amazon says the hardcover is 848 pages.)

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John 02.11.10 at 5:15 am

As an academic, I’ll agree with Maurice that academic books have gotten out of hand too.

There are the warmed-over dissertations that could have stayed perfectly well in that form, if we had a good mechanism for distributing them. The books made up of 8 chapters, 4 of which were “previously published,” two of which serve as intro and conclusion and the other two of which could have been skipped. Then of course the books that are really just articles padded out and mercilessly elaborated upon.

The tenure process doesn’t help, of course.

In my field the book was a fairly rare commodity until a few decades ago. Many influential articles were written, at tens of pages of length, and the authors are no less the well known for it.

No, we could use a little restraint.

Μεγα βιβλιον, μεγα κακον.

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Andrew Crofts 02.12.10 at 9:10 am

I recently blogged myself on exactly this subject, under the title “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 half-hour format or many feature films will be allowed 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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Ronan 02.12.10 at 11:42 am

Brilliant article. Been thinking this for a while, and this is spot on. Short books, that are cheaper and immediately available as ebooks, should be the next wave. Aside from non-fiction, for which this is perfect, it might help to reinvigorate the art of the short story. And books might return to being things of value, well-produced and of lasting value in the process. All would be lost would be that which could well be worth losing.

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James Lingard 02.12.10 at 11:51 am

I fully agree with Ezra Klein. My book Britain at War 1939 to 1945 What was life like during the war? ISBN9781434359339 was rejected by a mainstream publisher because ‘it is too short. We expect a minimum of 60,000 words for a book of this kind.’ It has had good reviews being described as: ‘an excellent easy to digest overview of the key events’ (History Times May 2009) and ‘a short but powerful book’ (UCL People March 2009). Not everyone has the time or inclination to plough through so called standard length texts. I suspect few of the published works on ‘celebrities’ are read from cover to cover.

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Barbara Fister 02.12.10 at 6:10 pm

One reason trade publishing has books that are force-fed articles is that an agent or editor read and interesting article and said “great idea for a book!” when in fact it was a great idea for an article, full stop. But the author is chuffed to get a call asking for a book proposal and it becomes a different marketable commodity. One that I recently read was about the factors that were leading to obesity. It didn’t mention the problem of obese books, but it was a good example of a text that would have been much more effective had it been shorter, tighter, and less repetitive – which it could no be and be priced at $25.00, though I would have happily read it in the New Yorker or the NY Times Magazine.

One reason academic publishing is broken is that we’re all suffering from a publishing disorder. We demand that scholars produce more than is healthy for any of us, and that leads to research that is thinly-sliced into least publishable units and books that nobody wanted to write, much less read. We have turned university presses and commercial publishers into our promotion and tenure committees, and it’s unsustainable in so many ways.

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