I was browsing the crime section of my local bookshop the other day and one thing struck me: either books are getting fatter, or my hands are shrinking. Has anyone else noticed this? I think back to some of the crime novels I used to read, in my youth, and I don't remember risking carpal tunnel syndrome holding them. Maybe it's the same part of memory that wipes out all the rainy days from recollections of school holidays; I seem to remember only the days the sun shone, and it seems to have shone endlessly. So all of the fat, unwieldy books have erased, and only the slim Ross MacDonald's remain, with not a word wasted, and every scene significant.
I must confess to favouring books that err on the side of brevity. With my own, I try not to outstay my welcome, nor push a story beyond the bounds of its own worth. The first two were between 80,00 and 85,00 words, and the third will come in around the same. I'm hardly drowning in acclaim or sales, though. Perhaps had I gone for a bit more girth things might be different? Look at Steig Larsson. Those books are enormous, and they have sold phenomenally well. Do people want more dead trees for their bucks? Personally, I think a heck of a lot of fat could have been trimmed from all of those books and they would have been even better, but I think I'm in a minority. I wonder if the increase in size of books is down to the 'Steig effect'? We know publishers will always ape and copy what has been successful, particularly in tough times like these. Have they asked their authors to go for size? Or are authors writing bigger books subconsciously, having seen the bulging tomes on the bestsellers list and absorbed the lesson by osmosis. In some evidence for the first, I have a contract for a book in front of me which specifies 100,000 words for 'the work.' That's a heck of a lot of words. I don't remember seeing it specified on other contracts (though I have to admit to being a lazy sort who never reads the contract that carefully - the cash and delivery date tend to be facts that draw most of my attention.)
I've also noticed that books tend to get bigger over an authors career. Ian Rankin's first Rebus is a slim, economical affair. His later efforts must be double the size. Patricia Cornwell, too. I doubt she'd dream of handing in a book the size of Postmortem now, or if she did her publishers might have something to say about it (despite it being, in my humble etc, by far her best, partly for being so concise). If they dare. Or is that the problem? As authors attain success, are they or their editors less inclined to cut and trim? Then we see huge books on the shelves selling well, and new authors think they have to emulate that sort of word length to be successful, and we get a sort of creeping bloat. Or are their brief, concise books out there that still sell well? I'm struggling to think of any crime books. And where will that leave us with ebooks, specifically ebooks written solely for the electronic market? There is little tactile heft to an ebook file ('Ooh feel my megabytes') but would people feel short-changed by a book that was 70,000 words long? Would they even notice? And might we return to a time when values such as pithiness and succinctness are prized over verbosity and prolixity? It depends on the price, I suppose. Ebooks should be much cheaper than their printed counterparts. Maybe the view with books is that, I've paid xx amount of pounds for this, I want it feel like I've paid that. But has anyone ever met someone who says they buy a book according to its size? Or is it something people do, but don't own up to, like picking their nose in private or voting Conservative?
Many questions, much food for thought. But I don't think we're far off a crime novel where one of the victims is brayed to death with a bulky novel. Some of these behemoths could do real damage. I might write it. Call it Hardback and set it in a library. Mild-mannered librarian by day, book-wielding killer by night, driven demented by all the rejection slips for his failing writing career...21 words so far, 99, 979 to go.