Are books changing?

Via The Passive Guy blog, an article about whether not just reading habits but books themselves have begun changing to meet the demands of (you can probably see this coming) today’s easily distracted, tech-using reader.

So how do you sell books to somebody who doesn’t normally read? Mr. Patterson’s plan: make them shorter, cheaper, more plot-driven and more widely available.

In many ways, this move is potentially very good for business: it opens up reading as a possible option to new, untapped customers, it provides the possibility of a new revenue stream and, as the Times notes, it allows Patterson and Hachette to attempt “to colonize retail chains that don’t normally sell books, like drugstores, grocery stores and other outlets.” …

This initiative … is a clear reflection of reading adapting to the times. Not as many people read as before, and for many people who do in fact read, they have neither the desire nor the time to read something lengthy, or to waste any time reading a book they may ultimately put down unfinished.

Okay, I must say that both The Passive Guy and I find this iffy. The Passive Guy says, “Sounds like a lot of generalization to PG, speculation by people who know more about the buyer for Barnes & Noble than what real people are doing with books, particularly in genre fiction.”

Yeah, and speaking as someone who just read SEVENEVES, which clocks in at nearly 900 pages, I find the suggestion that readers today are generally turning away from longer works unpersuasive. Are they quite sure the people who prefer shorter works didn’t always steer clear of longer books? Are they entirely confident that if the publisher’s prefer shorter works, this necessarily reflects the readers’ preferences? It’s hardly unknown for publishers and readers to be out of step in such matters. Shoot, which representative of a Big Five was it who said last year that ebook prices don’t affect sales? Uh huh.

I’m all for colonizing . . . interesting word choice there . . . grocery stores and so on. But I rather expect non-dedicated bookstores to continue doing what non-bookstores have done in the past: stocking bestsellers by Big Names and ignoring everything else, no matter how long the bestsellers are and how short and plot-driven the other works might be.

And I hardly think that James Patterson’s sales in any format are going to reflect the experience of most writers, no matter what kind of book he writes.

Out of curiosity, if you’ve read one or more epic-length novel or an epic-length series this year, raise your hand. I bet that’s all of us, right?

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4 thoughts on “Are books changing?”

  1. hand up, indeed.
    And it’s not new for drugstores and grocery stores, etc. to carry books, they used to carry quite a few. If they still do, I don’t notice, but I’m generally heading down the aisles I need, not browsing.

  2. I have my hand up, too.
    After I got used to the in-depth character development possible in longer works, many of the old shorter books I read and enjoyed in my teens have , on rereading, become a bit flat an the characters a bit cardboard.
    Standard novel-length used to be 80,000 words, then became 100,000 and now is about 120,000 words is what I read somewhere (I think on the blog of Modesitt or Wrede or maybe Cherryh, in any case a long-published writerwho had seen this development up close). So cutting back on novel length just means returning to the situation of about a century ago.
    In other ways too: at the start of mass-market paperback/pocketbook publishing these short and action-packed genre books like the penny-dreadfuls were sold in grocery stores and such places where they were easy to find for the new reading public.
    The more things change, the more they stay the same…

  3. And it’s not like short, cheap, plot-driven books are new. That was sort of the whole point of the pulps!

  4. I bet we do not, in the foreseeable future, see a trend toward 80,000 words to the extent that longer books actually become rare. I suspect self-publishing will prevent publishers from establishing set lengths maxima — even if they want to, which I also doubt.

    I will be personally interested to see what my Saga editor says about the length of the manuscript I just sent her, though. It’s pretty long — for me. 180,000 words or so. Pretty short compared to SEVENEVES, though.

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