Books are getting shorter; here's why
With shorter books and modern technology, leisure reading may be vanishing
Sunday, April 28, 2013
Unless you're not a big TV watcher, you've probably seen the string of AT&T commercials featuring a bunch of cute kids. To me, the best out of the series is the one that features the little girl with the red hair, who explained why more is better than less.
"More is better than less, because if there's more less stuff then you might want to have some more, but then your parents won't let you because there's only a little," she says in probably the cutest run-on sentence you'll ever hear.
"If you really like something, you'll want more of it. We want more, we want more. Like you really like it, you want more."
Clearly in the kid world more is better than less, but not in the adult world, says Michael Levin, founder and CEO of BusinessGhost, Inc., a company that provides writing services for individuals and companies.
Levin says many books are being written shorter these days and technology is partially to blame.
"It seems as though everyone is developing what's being called 'culturally induced ADD," he said in an interview with ConsumerAffairs. "We are so easily distracted by the fascination of devices and what they offer (social media, email, stock prices, news, shopping, etc.) that we are losing the ability to handle sustained thought."
"A leading brain scientist in England points out that texting actually decreases the ability to think in complex ways because it eliminates complexity in sentence structure. Put it all together and it seems that no one has patience to sit quietly and read a book, as we might have a generation or even ten years ago."
And if a person does decide to read a book, he or she will most likely choose one that can be read quickly, says Levin. "People are publishing books that are radically shorter than in the past," he says.
"You can find on Amazon countless 'books' that are from 30 to 100 pages; these would never have been considered 'books' a generation ago. They would have been called essays or white papers, but today the term 'book' has broadened to encompass these shorter documents."
So does that mean authors should write shorter books to increase the chances of selling more copies? But, don't some books have to be long to get the author's point across?
"Yes, absolutely -- some books do have to be longer. But I'm hard-pressed to think of exactly which books those are," says Levin.
"Novels often still need to run 300 or 400 pages to capture a reader's imagination and tell a great story. But nonfiction for a general audience? The readership for the 600- or 700-page biography is vanishing. We all have to ask ourselves, when was the last time we read any 250-page or longer nonfiction book on any subject cover to cover. Even people who read a lot may scratch their heads trying to answer this."
What readers want
But books aren't just getting shorter, says Levin. What the reader wants from the author is changing too.
He says readers no longer want an author to prove his or her assertions. They just want to know the author is giving legitimate answers to their questions.
In addition, Levin says readers are more likely to accept the word of an individual over the word of a company or an organization when it comes to books.
"It's a paradox," he says. "We distrust authority if it's in the form of a major institution, like government, business or Wall Street. But if an individual claims authority in a given field, we assume the person must be telling the truth about his or her credentials. It's the natural trust we extend others -- we typically assume that people are who they say they are."
"But it's also a little bit of intellectual laziness," he adds. "That's what happens in an era when people are famous for being famous instead of famous for having accomplished something distinctive. If you and the media say you're special, you probably are."
And e-readers make a lot of people want shorter books too, says Levin.
With a printed book people feel more committed to reading the entire thing, but with a digital book not so much, which is another reason a lot of today's books are shorter.
"When you start a book, you feel a little guilty if you don't read it all the way through to the end," said Levin. "You expect that it's going to be more like a marathon, not a sprint. When you read something on a device, you expect that you'll have your answers within moments. That's what happens when we do search, when we go to Wikipedia or visit a medical site or a stock trading site. We expect instant answers. It's hard to sustain the energy to read a long book on a device, simply because we associate devices with quick hits, short answers, and immediate intellectual gratification!"
The end of books?
Furthermore, Levin says shorter books aren't a trend and they're pretty much here to stay. In fact, leisure reading as a whole isn't as popular as it used to be.
"My fear is that we are 'de-pegging' from the book as a trusted and valued source of information," he says. "Publishing economics no longer support the sustained work it takes for an author to become a subject matter expert and then write a long-form piece about a given topic."
"That's a long way of saying you can't make money selling books today, unless you already have a huge national brand like a Dr. Phil or a Seth Godin," Levin believes. "Most books are money losers. The traditional publishing model is under siege -- if individuals can write, publish and promote books online as effectively as the major publishers, then why do we even need the major publishers?"
And take a look around, says Levin. Bookstores of all sizes are closing everywhere, which is another sign that leisure reading isn't the popular hobby it used to be.
"Bookstores are vanishing from communities. Borders closed and Barnes & Noble is on life support, and would have closed were it not for the miracle of 50 Shades of Gray," said Levin. "People seem to be getting along fine without books. The real trend is not just shorter books; it's that we may be moving away from the idea of reading books altogether."
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