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.”