WAFFLE: Why Most Books Are Too Long

By Neuroskeptic | March 1, 2012 7:34 am

I have a theory about modern books.

There’s a certain kind of book, let’s call it the “TITLE: How This Subtitle Summarizes My Big Idea” genre.

I don’t think I need to name names.

Now, I read a lot of these, and I’ve come to the conclusion that most of these books shouldn’t books at all. That’s not to say they’re bad – the big idea may be brilliant, but I don’t care how big your idea is, you do not need 100-200 pages to explain one idea.

They tend to contain a couple of core chapters with the good stuff and maybe 4 or 5 chapters of what can best be called waffle. Anecdotes, backstory, additional illustrations, etc. Like a waffle this may be perfectly pleasant – but it’s not very nutritious.

Here’s why I think this is – publishers (we are told) increasingly want books with a single big idea that can be summed up in a sentence. Partly because they sell, and partly because publishers are overstretched and just don’t have time themselves to spend hours thinking through a complex argument to find out if it’s any good.

But the problem is that, for whatever historical and business reasons, books are meant to be a certain length, say 100 pages bare minimum. No-one prints 50 page books and few people would buy one, except children etc.

So there’s a gap in the profile of the length of non-fiction writing. There are all kinds of shortish pieces – from the briefest news reports and op-eds up to long feature articles and New York Review of Books type articles. That covers all the way from 1 to up to, say, 10,000 words.

But then there’s nothing until you reach the short book at (say) 35,000 words, after which, it’s plain sailing again.

Think about it – have you ever read a 20,000 word piece of non-fiction? I don’t think I have. It’s too long for a periodical but too short to be a book. (Academic papers are an exception; I’m thinking of general interest pieces).

Yet it seems to me that a great many of today’s books could have been that length, without weakening the argument or dumbing down in any way. And, if so, then they should be, because a fundamental rule of good writing is to keep things as concise as possible. The problem is that while that would make them better as pieces of writing, it would make them unmarketable as books, or anything else; there’s practically no market for 20,000 good words and true.

Except… now we have ebooks.

So you could see this post as an argument in praise of ebooks, not just as a new technology but as a whole new form of writing falling somewhere between the “article” and the “book”. Which is ironic because I don’t even have a Kindle yet. Of course I’m not saying that all books are too long. I like books. Many are the right length, some I wish were longer; but just because an idea could be made into a book, doesn’t mean it should be.

Edit: I hadn’t read this when I wrote this post but it seems the industry are way ahead of me -

Yesterday, Amazon began selling its Kindle Singles online. Singles are e-books between 5,000 and 30,000 words long. According to the press release, these e-books are meant to “allow a single killer idea — well researched, well argued and well illustrated — to be expressed at its natural length.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: books, media
  • http://www.google.com Christopher M

    Yes, and it has had some success, for example Tyler Cowen's e-book The Great Stagnation came out last year and was pretty widely read and discussed in the economics & policy corners of the blog-world.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15225859145004971487 Jon Brock

    “If I'd had more time I'd have written less”. Or words to that effect. Mr Twain I believe.

  • Anonymous

    I couldn't agree more. In fact, because books are unnecessarily long, I've begun approaching them in a much less orthodox way, much more skimming through the chapters' introductions, finding the thesis and then just reading the meaty parts that are directly on-point. Not only do I rarely remember the morass of off-point discussion books include, but it's distracting. Furthermore, it's as if every author feels compelled to begin the book with a short history of the subject, usually poorly done, not necessary and often (depending on the subject) involving the exploration of America and what the colonists did (why? I don't know). It's a waste of time.

  • Anonymous

    Coincidence or covert advertising?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Anonymous #1 – Exactly. I'm kind of sentimentally attached to reading books cover to cover, so I don't do the waffle-skipping that you describe, but I know what you mean; I don't remember the waffle.

    Anonymous #2 – Coincidence. I was really surprised when someone pointed me to the Amazon thing on Twitter this morning. Just to prove it though: I have never bought a book on Amazon and I recommend against it. Support your local bookstores instead, especially second hand ones. They are brilliant institutions, one of the few remaining windows in the filter bubble. Some people worry about Starbucks putting local coffee shops out of business, I'm much more concerned about books.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    P.S. It's thanks to secondhand books that I was able to write this post – it means I read books from 20 or 30 years ago, and they're totally different to the stuff around today. Less waffle, more than one idea per volume, titles and subtitles that don't summarize the contents… of course, there was a lot of real rubbish back then, but at least you got a full serving of rubbish.

  • omg

    I can't read a book without being skeptical of its motive. I need to figure out who wrote it and why. I don't read books anymore I'm uncultured no time no money. Hanging around a second hand book store would kill me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10992458507944205149 Nick Byrd

    I too wish publishers would return to appreciating the binding of 50-100 quality pages, like JS Mill's Utilitarianism. I actually read a book like this a couple years ago: Craig Hanson's Thinking About Addiction. It was a fine philosophical approach to akrasia and addiction and it was not a page longer than was merited (if anything I found myself wanting just one more chapter).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16799427691983018249 Ryan Stuart Lowe

    In academia — esp. the humanities — writing a scholarly book is par for the course for making tenure. What happens? Lots of books out there that have no business being books.

    In the UK, tenure usually requires a few very well-placed journal articles. I like the idea of that better — making full-length books something that happens only when you have the time and the thought to write out a book.

    (outside academia, it's probably the same: you make more money on a book than on an article. bad books abound. etc.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Here's an idea for publishers – since we're not going to see 50 page printed books any time soon, how about keeping 150 pages but getting say 3 authors to contribute?

    You could have an essay by one guy. Then a response by someone who disagrees. And then finally a summing up by someone else.

    Or you could have one main essay and a lot of comments by different people.

    But while that would make for good books, it would probably be impossible to orchestrate because it's hard enough to find one author who'll stick to a deadline, let alone 3 and the authors wouldn't like it because they wouldn't want to be seen as the 'loser', they'd all demand the final word… so no, probably not.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03994169558252043919 Tiel Aisha Ansari

    I don't believe your theory can fly without a clever acronym. How about “Why All Fluff-books Fail Length Edits” ?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13252583693919755922 Anthony

    Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber made a similar point about smaller books a couple years back.

  • Anonymous

    It sounds to me as though you are wasting your time reading a lot of very bad books.

    I recommend some long books: “History of the Franks” by Gregory of Tours, “Essays” by Montaigne, “Eleanor of Aquitaine” by Alison Weir. All highly readable and full of insights.

    DC

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16985978221627051493 Carole

    You are so right. Interesting blog. The best non-fiction book I have read for years was Better http://caroleschatter.blogspot.co.nz/2011/11/better-by-atul-gawande.html

  • Janelle

    Do check out Zero Books. You may not be chuffed about all of the topics upon which it publishes, but it puts the small book format to brilliant purpose in general. I suggest The Politics of Down Syndrome as a first read.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08172964121659914379 andrew

    “have you ever read a 20,000 word piece of non-fiction? I don't think I have. It's too long for a periodical but too short to be a book. (Academic papers are an exception; I'm thinking of general interest pieces).”

    Yes, but, for example, 20,000 words is almost the precise length of the stereotypical law review article and most articles in the social sciences and humanities. Honestly, its not a very good length and the critical trend is to argue that these articles are too long and the epiteme of waffle.

    Also, while not a lot of us consume 20,000 word pieces in print form, this is close to the length of the screen play for a feature length documentary in print.

    I'd also note that the trend in mass market non-fiction is getting shorter, driven by feature article writers from magazines like Malcolm Gladwell putting their work in book form. Another notable non-fiction book at the short end (adapted from a four lecture series) was QED by Richard Feynman.

    “Here's an idea for publishers – since we're not going to see 50 page printed books any time soon, how about keeping 150 pages but getting say 3 authors to contribute?”

    These survey books with one chapter per author, although usually more than three authors are quite common in academic presses, often designed as literature reviews aimed at larger audiences or as survey course textbooks, are quite frankly, awful.

    To hit 120 pages, which is about the minimum for a book you need about four single idea chapters. No matter how deep your idea is, the reader can't be counted upon to read more than 30 pages in one go. And, if you have just one idea it deserves an article, not a book. I don't see a dearth of two or three idea books as a horrible thing. Also, at shorter lengths, one often gets pamphlet style publications, either practical (first aid guides) or polemics (a la Jack Chick or the Federalist papers) or public service guides (prepared by your friendly local bureaucrat).

  • infinidiv

    How about having your cake and eating too?

    We are used to linked articles, but that trend has simply not arrived in books, and an index just does not cut it anymore.

    And while the waffle can be extremely important to the author and process, it is not necessary for the argument being made, once the author has focused on the core thesis.

    The problem with removing the waffle is that different readers would remove different parts and consider very disparate parts essential. So make the first few chapters the core idea development and, where the author would write in some waffle, let them reference a supplementary article. Then the reader can decide whether that is something new to them and important for their understanding, or not.

    And that design would easily be portable to the ebook format as well, and even more appropriate with the use of links!

  • Michel

    I agree with you completely neuroskeptic. Even to the anonymous commenter who said that the Essays of Montaigne are long but worth reading, I say – isn't this better?

    http://essaysbymontaigne.blogspot.com/

  • http://toto.club-med.so toto

    I'm reading Kahneman's “Thinking, fast and slow” right now and… it's basically the exact opposite of “waffling”. :)

    Some people just seem to be able to pack several lives' worth of ideas into a single book.

  • Anonymous

    You have not considered that this ARTICLE is too long? You completely lost me to a bitter taste of irony when you concluded that the publishers are one step ahead of you.

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Neuroskeptic

No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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