Does Size Matter? A Treatise on Big Books
They say not to judge a book by its cover, but what about the thickness of its binding? Some writers agonize over meeting word count goals, while others breezily fill entire tomes without breaking a sweat. But what does page or word count mean for the all-important reader? In the long series of obstacles that stand between a consumer and the decision to purchase a book, how much of a factor is the physical size of a product?
According to agent Bree Ogden in an earlier LitReactor post, the “sweet spot” for adult fiction is approximately 90k words. As of the writing of this article, the top ten titles on the New York Times Best Seller list (combined print and eBook fiction) are all above 300 pages. The average length of those books equals 448 pages, with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch weighing in as the heftiest of the shortlist at 755 pages. Although this data comprises a very limited sampling, there are other signs that novels have been trending on the long side for the past several years.
Take, for example, recent Man Booker prize winner, The Luminaries. At 835 pages, it could easily knock a home intruder unconscious. The overwhelming literary success of these titles seems a bit counterintuitive to the vast collective of writing advice that instructs would-be authors not to spare the red pen and spoil the manuscript. Whatever you’ve written, it can probably be cut in half, or so says the old axiom. Hemingway basically wrapped this line of thought up when he told F. Scott Fitzgerald, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
Smashwords, a distributor of independent eBooks, conducted a 2013 survey from a sampling of 120,000 eBook titles to better determine which books were selling and what factors contributed to their sales. The books were spread across several marketplaces, including the iBookstore, Amazon, Sony, and Kobo. Smashwords found that their top 100 titles averaged 115,000 words. Invariably, the same study found that the lower the word count of a title, the lower the sales.
Stockholm Syndrome and Frugality
None of this is meant to stand as an argument for or against longer books, but the question remains whether manuscripts are creeping towards the 100k plus mark for reasons that might have more to do with buying trends than craft. Are consumers simply looking for a way to appear more intelligent on the subway with a weighty, intimidating prop (unlikely, considering Smashwords’ eBooks statistics) or are these sales a reflection of something deeper?
Mark O’Connell of The Millions suggests that long novels induce something like Stockholm Syndrome in readers. “In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness…” O’Connell theorizes that it is the bitter-sweet mixture of reading a particularly dense book that readers enjoy; a sudden burst of brilliance nestled within two-hundred pages of brow-dampening hard work will keep a person on their toes. It’s probably why turning the final page on Joyce’s Ulysses seems like such an accomplishment to many.
Or perhaps this inclination towards longer books reflects a wider social or economic movement. Although analysts have lately been reporting somewhat more positive news regarding the global economy, the past five years haven’t exactly been a picnic. Frugal shoppers follow a predictable pattern— they try to get as much as they can for the lowest amount possible. When comparing two trade paperbacks for $16.99, the thicker one appears to be a better deal for the money, at a quick glance. A 2009 New York Times article on the impact of the Great Recession on publishing trends highlights the fact that book sales generally went up as the global economy took a downward turn. During that year, both France and Germany saw over a two percent rise in book sales. Looking back on a historic precedent, book sales plunged during the worst of the Great Depression, but the publishing giant Penguin was also born.
Of course, there are outliers to every trend, and there is a great deal of contradictory information to be found in the publishing world at any given time. Just last year, Forbes pronounced digital publishing the perfect opportunity for the return of the novella. As eBook publishing continues to change and expand, hopefully the future will hold plenty of room for both long and short fiction.
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