In Book Publishing Today, Size No Longer Matters
By Michael Levin
New York Times best selling author Michael Levin is a nationally acclaimed thought leader on the subject of the future of book publishing. firstname.lastname@example.org Read his blogs at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michaellevin/
Once upon a time, authors wrote big books about big topics, and publication was a big event. The competition was Freudian: whoever had the longest one could brag the most.
Today, however, the closing of the American mind (the title of a 400-page book a generation ago) has given way to the collapse of the American attention span thanks to texting, Facebook and Twitter. Neither authors nor readers seek size from their books.
In the pre-iPhone era, when people used downtime to engage in independent thought instead of engaging in smart phone "thumbsterbation," books took their sweet time to get to the point. If somebody wrote a biography, you'd have to get through 80 pages about what their grandfather ate for breakfast in the old country before the ostensible subject of the book was even mentioned. Thorough? Yes. Overkill? Absolutely. But that's how things went back then, because attention spans were longer and there were fewer media competing for readers' time.
For example, consider Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight David Eisenhower, each subjects of numerous lengthy biographies. Eisenhower, A Soldier's Life, for instance, is 880 pages. FDR is 880 pages.
Today, you can find a 112-page joint biography of FDR and Ike,Architects of Power, published in 2010. The notably terse Philip Terzian effectively summarizes the lives and careers of each man in a mere 51 pages per president. This is a vertiginous drop of roughly 84 percent in length compared with the bigger tomes.
This is not a random event. It's the wave of the future.
Consider Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the subject of Taylor Branch's definitive 1,088-page 1989 effort, Parting The Waters. By 2001, theAutobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., compiled by Stanford University historian Claybourne Carson, came in at a relatively slimmed-down 416 pages.
The following year, Marshall Frady published Martin Luther King, A Life, 228 pages. Jump to late 2011 and we find The Trumpet of Conscience, a republished collection of King lectures -- just 96 pages.
What's the take-away for people planning to write a book?
|Jon Batson's sci-fi saga stacks |
1:3 to his latest novels.
If you're writing a business book to brand yourself as an expert in your field, keep it under 50,000 words. People read business books to learn something, not to be entertained, so don't inject a lot of filler and fluff. It should be a quick read, rich with takeaways and illustrative anecdotes written in clear, concise language.
You fiction writers should take heed as well; 90,000 words is the new optimum max length, down from 150,000 just a few years ago.
One of my favorite short business books is by Olalah Njenga, 37 What Were You Thinking Moments in Marketing. This 214 page "light-hearted, irreverent account of the author's career as a marketing professional" is a must read.
What's your favorite business book?