What the hell is a "book" these days?
December 28, 2012
This morning I saw a couple of blogs on a popular site that features digital books. As I often do in that situation, I pulled out my Kindle, went to the Kindle store, searched for the books and hit the buy now button. (Actually I did this on the Kindle app on my Nexus 7 Tablet, a device I really love.) Within a couple of minutes, I had both “books” in my hands. I paid $2.99 for the first one. The second one was free when I checked on it, even though I had expected to pay a couple of dollars for it when I began my search.
So, let’s talk about the $2.99 “book.” It was a non-fiction, how-to piece. The author said along the way that he wrote the whole book in ONE DAY. That’s what he said. I suppose the whole thing was around 20,000 words.
The free “book” was even shorter. It, too, was non-fiction. The subject was a particular type of marketing. I would guess maybe 15,000 words.
Okay, so I concluded that in the day of digital publishing and ebooks the definition of what constitutes a “book” is one of the things that is evolving.
I can’t fault these two authors for calling what they wrote “books.” But they were a far cry from what I had expected.
Did I feel cheated? Yes.
You might ask how a person could feel that way, especially in regard to a free book.
I felt cheated because I went to the trouble to purchase a book on a topic of interest to me and found that it was really thin soup. If I had known the “books” weren’t much more than pamphlets, I might have felt better about the experience. Of course, I wouldn’t have paid $2.99 for a pamphlet. Not in today’s ebook market.
If anything can wear the title “book,” does the word still have a meaning? I don’t think so.
I admit that I come from the fiction side of things. This makes the topic even more complicated.
In 2012, we have seen the launch of Kindle Singles and Kindle Serials. A Kindle Single is usually a standalone work that has somewhere between 5,000 and 30,000 words. I don’t have any problem with a person selling a single. I like them.
One of the reasons I like them is because I know going in what I can expect. I know I will get a piece of fiction I can read in a single sitting, or maybe two. I know it will be compressed, stripped-down writing.
I like that.
Likewise, Kindle Serials as a rule are about 40,000-50,000 words in total length, chopped into episodes of about 10,000 words.
I like that, too. Kindle’s approach is to sell a single episode for $1.99 and then deliver the rest of the episodes to the reader at no additional cost.
Again, the reader/customer knows what she is getting from the outset.
Then there are novellas. Books in a 35,000-55,000, or so, word length. They can be priced anywhere.
I’m okay with that, too, so long as I know it’s a novella.
Then you have “books” in the traditional length of long-form fiction. I take that as anything from 60,000 words, or so, and up. They can be priced anywhere, too.
So, where am I going with all this?
The bottom line is that the digital publishing world is a business in search of pricing standards. In order for customers to have confidence that they are getting their money’s worth, they need some assurance that a “book” has certain defining characteristics. As things stand now this is not the case.
Maybe 2013 will be the year when we re-define the word “book.”
In the meantime, I suppose anyone can call anything a “book” and get away with it.
(Stephen Woodfin is an attorney and author. He has written full-length novels, a single, a short story collection and has a subscription to his blog for sale. He labels his works so that readers know what they are getting when they hit the buy button.)