What the hell is a "book" these days?


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.)



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