What the world wants is print on a diet and a second helping of bite-sized books
February 23, 2013
Pick yourself up and go back several hundred years to that fateful day in the 1450s when a man named Gutenberg printed a book called the Bible on an odd contraption he called a printing press.
The world was stunned. And down in the corner monastery, members of the local union of monks were sadly shaking their heads and saying, “It’s just a fad.”
“It’s never gonna work.”
“It won’t last.”
After all, just who did old Gutenberg think he was fooling?
Why print books? People can’t read.
And the popes and priests and bishops and ministers all wanted to hold a real, honest-to-goodness 7,000 page, handwritten, loose leaf manuscript pages in their hands when they read down to the masses who had no alternative to believe whatever they were hearing.
But somehow, against all odds, the printing press survived. It revolutionized the world. And it put hard copy and paper back books in the hands of the masses who suddenly had a reason to learn to read.
We find ourselves in the same predicament. Whether we like it or not, whether we want to accept it or not, we have awakened in an unfamiliar world. As writers, we are living in an instant society. Everyone wants instant gratification.
And that includes books.
No one has any patience, and very few are willing to wade through a 400-page book anymore. Here is what they want in a book.
Tell me who the characters are.
Throw them in the middle of a plot.
Kill a few.
Have a few of the sexy ones fall in love.
Chase down a zombie or two.
Trade bites with a vampire.
And it’s all right to let the characters scramble through another place and another time either far in the future or far in the past. But get them into a story and get them out of the story in 50,000 words or less, and I hate to tell you this, but 50,000 words is considered somewhat of an epic. A good 25,000 word story works a whole lot better.
There was a time when a day of leisure was sitting down on a rainy Saturday afternoon and reading a book. No more. Now everyone wants to sit down on a rainy Saturday afternoon and read four books.
What do a growing majority of today’s readers want? They’re looking for bite-sized books. We are faced with the same kind of revolution that confronted the world during Gutenberg’s day. It’s just that we have replaced the printing press by a digital eReader. Those who insist on deniability will be left behind.
Amazon caught the vision early and began producing Kindle Singles, glorified short stories. In fourteen months, the company has sold more than $2 million of them. As Russell Grandinetti, vice president of Kindle content at Amazon points out: ‘The rise of the digital format has allowed publishers to sidestep some traditional constraints.”
In the past, your written work had to be short enough for a short story or long enough for a paper book. That time is leaving and gone.
Now, says Grandinetti, it’s all about “print on a diet.”
Even a stuffed-shirt like The New York Times is getting in on the act. The newspaper has begun publishing timely eBooks – non-fiction narratives, that come in at around 12,000 words. And The Times is planning to develop original stories for eBooks as well. The aim is to create books that can be read in a single sitting.
Their target is the world of eReaders, iPads, and smart phones.
Read on the go.
Read standing in line.
Read over a hamburger or a cup of coffee.
Read on the subway.
Read on the plane.
Read while you wait, and we are always waiting.
So what does the future hold for books? The New York Times says it comes down to three things: price, length, and subject.
There was money to be made in fast food. And now there’s money to be made in fast books. Short books. Dramatic books. Memorable stories.
As one publishing guru said, “A stunning and brilliant novel at 100 pages wouldn’t work in paperback. But in eBook format, it would be fine in terms of the economics and mechanics – and not as obviously short in that format either.”
As my partner Stephen Woodfin says, cut the story to the bone and strip it down to its bare essence. If you believe it takes 100,000 words to tell the story in your novel, you would be much better off cutting it down to three books instead and publishing a trilogy.
I’m still writing, but I’ve traded my dictionary for a pair of scissors.