Linked: Even “book-length” has a history

Tim Carmody suggests that book lengths were largely influenced by shape and nature, as opposed to content:

Assuming all [other factors] are equal … you probably buy on weight, because you subconsciously anticipate a longer reading experience and, all things considered, good experiences that last longer are better than short ones. Remember that the actual cost of the paper and ink is only a small component of the retail price of a book — around 10-15%. Increasing a book block’s size from 150 pages to 180 pages is cheap. And so, from the 1960s to the 1990s, publishers unconsciously trained readers to expect longer novels.

This, of course, begs the question: what is the ideal length for a digital novel? I suspect that lengths would vary according to type of digital medium: short for the web, 300-500 pages for pdf, and possibly infinity for iBook/Kindle books. Hold that thought; I think it’s worth coming back to in the near future.

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  • Chris Poirier

    Personally, I prefer shorter books. Seems to me most of the increase in book size since the 60s has been filled with stuff that would have been better cut. I remember skimming a good half of the Tad Williams books I read. Don’t get me wrong — I enjoyed them. But I’d have enjoyed them more if Tad and his editor had cut out all the bloat. “If I’d had more time, I’d have written you a shorter letter” and all that. Honestly, who thinks The Goblet of Fire — at nearly three times the length of the first book — was the best of the Harry Potter books?

  • Eli James

    The Goblet of Fire was my favourite Harry Potter book! I mean – there was that two year drought where she took a break from writing (and the subsequent fifth book stank to the high heavens) – but. I. Loved. The Goblet of Fire! =) I reread it more times than anything else, because it was the first time she had killed a character, and was a turning point in the series.

    The ending, in particular, with Hagrid saying that the worse was yet to come, was incredible!

    //ends rant.

    On a more serious note, I particularly like this idea that you can write an incredibly long series, and only compile that into an ‘Omnibus’ edition at the end of the season. I think there’s something to be said for writing serials, and then compiling them at … episode 400 or so. Should prove for an interesting read. ;-)

  • Kyt Dotson

    The Omnibus concept is well played out in the comic/manga community, in fact, who happen to be a very close cousin to the concept of serial fiction — since they arrive in a chap book concept a lot of the time. Also, especially for serials that arrive as chapbooks the novelized edition and the omnibus provide different reading opportunities (and possibly price points.)

    I think that I’ve seen the form vs. content idea manifest with longer books. I don’t buy based on length. Originally I really strongly shied away from thicker novels expecting a slog, but now I accept length based on author — @Chris, Tad Williams becomes an excellent example.

  • Eli James

    @Kyt: Thanks for pointing that out. Also, there’s something to be said about length and skill – I think the Lord of the Rings wouldn’t be as fantastic as it was if it wasn’t so long. The Kindle/iPad allows us to bring books that length wherever we go. If Tim’s argument is right, and authors do write based on length/physical constraints of the publisher … then I wonder how long an ideal book will be on the iPad.

  • JP Smythe

    Surely the ideal length is the length that it takes to tell the story that the author has written? I absolutely disagree that length/weight of book has ever made any difference to me, apart from when I’m going on holiday and have hand-luggage considerations to take into account – most of the best novels that I have ever read have all been around the 200-page mark (or less), and the ones that weren’t could have done with some serious trimming to bring them down a bit anyway. It’s great that there’s no constraint with eBooks, but there isn’t really a constraint now, as the OP says.

  • Eli James

    @James: exactly. I’m betting that with digital mediums, authors who want to write larger works may now afford to do so, and won’t have to (necessarily) conform to the 300-500 page limit. How many editors in publishing houses today cut authors down by saying “no, no, it’s too long, it’s too long”?

    But you’re right, of course. In many cases shorter is better, and cutting things out of a story any(?) story makes it better. I’m just saying – the average length of a book may change. Not sure how (current ebooks suggest shorter, but we’ve not really felt the effects of real, good ebook readers yet) but I want to believe that they’ll get longer as well.

  • JP Smythe

    I agree; I think the average length *will* change. However – and this is clearly part of a longer, ongoing discussion – it’ll change because more and more eBooks will appear from people without the benefit of either a) a publishing deal and, therefore b) an editor to tell them to cut the shit out. If Lord Of The Rings hadn’t been tempered by editors, God knows how much of Tolkien’s side material would have made it into the texts – and anybody who has read all that stuff knows how much of a slog that might have made the books themselves.

  • Eli James

    @James: my contention is that writers will be smart enough to hire their own editors, though. I argued as much in my last article (which, to be honest, was influenced by some of the things you said, when we last talked on gChat).

  • JP Smythe

    Oh, I know – and I think that your plan/theory is superb, you know that. However; 99% of writers won’t be that smart. I know so many who balk at the idea of editors because they know best, and because they know what’s best for their text. I’m not arguing about quality of things, here; I’m just saying that the average will shift because the average self-publishing writer won’t even consider that somebody might have an idea about their text that might make it better.

    Also, something else to factor into this is the iPhone, and the fact that texts can move (in theory) between desktop/iPad (or other larger-form device)/iPhone (or other smaller-form device). Having texts that need to be mutable means that size has to be an issue; it’s fine to read longer texts on your iPad as you sit by the pool on your holiday, or as you ride your hour-long train journey to work every day. As soon as you start reading that text on an iPhone, however, it becomes five, six times as long, and immeasurably more daunting, I suspect.