Friday, February 4, 2011

Does Size Matter?

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.


Dan - Friday


  1. Very interesting. I don't think it's just crime stories though. I would think as people are more and more pressed for time, shorter (regular) length books would be desirable. But, as you said - perhaps we've become such a price driven society that we want "all you can eat" in our books too.

  2. Dan, Stan and I are guilty parties. Our first two books were about 130k words each. Looking back, we think they could have used a bit more trimming. Our third contract specified 100k words as your does. We thought it was there to cut down the size of our books!

  3. Sheila - I'd have thought shorter books would be more desirable in this day and age too. But I'm sure publishers have done tons of market research on this (probably where all our advance money has gone...)

    Michael, well, that's only 65,000 words each, which is nice and brief ;). And of course I'm not suggesting that shorter books are better. There have always been big books. It just these days bookshops are like a Vegas buffet - everything's huge.

  4. Maybe the huge book trend is an attempt by the majority to prove that they do not have the attention spans of gnats, that they can follow a story that is longer than a magazine article.

    I wonder, too, if books are carried to show that the reader is taking part in a cultural phenomenon, even one that has gone awry. How else can THE DAVINCI CODE be explained?

    Larsson's books might have been overly long but the extraneous detail gave readers a break from the descriptions of the cruelty inflicted on Lisbeth.

    I don't choose books based on their size and if I go back to an author it is because they tell a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end (some books have the first and last but are sorely lacking the middle)

    There doesn't seem to be a magic formula to boost book sales. All of the members of this blog are writing best sellers but the public hasn't discovered it yet.

    Michael, I don't think your books are too long. I think there aren't enough of them. And that applies to all of you as well.

  5. Beth, that's very kind indeed. On Dan's calculation we would have four books already! At least the third one is being copy edited at the moment and we're working on the fourth one right this minute.
    And I agree with you about the others' books too!

  6. Dan,

    What an interesting conversation you started. I'm from the "I want my book to fit in my back pocket" crowd, but with all these Kindle critters out there that no longer seems a valid criteria for most. Still, my publisher believes between 60K-80K is perfect for a mystery, and that works fine for me.

    Having said that, I've just learned that a "very well known" mystery writer from another publisher is about to come out with a 400K book. It's so long it's going to be released in two parts. I think it's time for me to order a pair of extra-large cargo pocket pants.


  7. "I don't remember risking carpal tunnel syndrome holding [crime novels]." That gave me a nice, heartfelt chuckle.

    I agree that a lot of crime novels published in recent years have suffered from what I call "the Stieg Larsson syndrome", certainly in size if not in content. I also believe, as you do, that in these times of economic uncertainty, a lot of people might be going for the bulkier books because of a subconscious feeling that they are getting more for their money. I must confess that, even though I don't specifically go for the thick-spined books when browsing new arrivals at my favourite bookstore, I have sometimes refrained from buying slim-spined books upon glancing at the price tag, which seemed a dozen dollars heavier than the book's light weight suggested...

    The mean-spirited part of me also feels that some people like to pick up heavier, wordier books because they mistakenly think that saying: "I read all gazillion pages of [insert name of wordy author here]'s latest book" makes them sound intelligent--the literary-inclined's equivalent for the "short-wick" car. But maybe that's just me: after all, there was a time when I thought having read a complete edition of "Les Misérables" from cover to cover was a major intellectual accomplishment. I eventually learned that a lot of nineteenth-century authors were paid by the word, and that they often got a nice little bonus if they could make a story go on for as long as possible, since in those days, a lot of books were published in installments. That certainly put a damper on any illusion of intellectual superiority I might have held. Not that I'm complaining, mind you.