eBooks and Their Effect on Book Length

By Deane Barker on June 23, 2012

CMAP #5: Why books are the length they are: This is a series of posts by a science fiction author under the heading CMAP: “Common Misconceptions about Publishing.” In the series, he discusses the nitty-gritty detail of publishing books and how the publishing industry works (or often doesn’t).

This particular entry is interesting because it discusses why books are a particular length. What struck me is that a lot of the reasons for and problems resulting from book length have to do with the physical constraints of the book itself. Few discussions of book length can occur, it seems, without discussing the physical aspects of a book.

Remember that the actual cost of the paper and ink is only a small component of the retail price of a book — around 10-15%. Increasing a book block’s size from 150 pages to 180 pages is cheap.

[…] production costs scale with the size of the book, and you don’t get to charge twice as much money for an 800 page novel as you would for a 400 page book.

[…] I am told by my editors at more than one publisher that if the page count in a US hardcover goes over roughly 424 pages, this causes no end of problems: they have to outsource the binding to a bindery that uses a more expensive technique, disproportionately raising the production cost of the book.

So, why does this matter? Because ebooks are going to remove a lot of this discussion.

eBooks aren’t bound, so there are no problems with quality or problems caused by size. They don’t have weight to them, and there are no shipping costs (there may be more data to download, but this is utterly negigible). They don’t take up space on a shelf. They don’t hog an entire pocket of your laptop bag. Potential buyers will be less quick to dismiss a book for being too short or get intimidated by a book because it’s too long since they can’t see the book in its physical entirety.

How will these factors affect book size? Well, already you’re seeing neat formats like the Kindle Singles — books, or essays really, that are too small to be effectively turned into physical books but are thriving as downloads. In the technical market too, you have a solid ebook marketplace for topics that are a bit too in-depth for a blog post or that require enough expertise that a qualified author wants to be compensated for writing them.

[…] we may see a revival of other formats: novellas for one (they’re undergoing a renaissance in SF publishing among the smaller publishers), the Dickensian serial for another, and the gigantic shoebox-sized monster for a third. The corsetting of the modern novel to fit between the tight constraints of binding costs and price elasticity of demand will be unstrung, or replaced by bras, or some other over-stressed metaphorical construct.

I’ve spoken before about how I like the physical aspects of books, and how this has made the transition to ebooks hard for me. But, in a lot of ways, the physical binding of books has been an artificial limit on the market which has forced books into a length range, which has then had a trickle-down effect on the content.

First, ebooks have destroyed the concept of the page. Then they hid the book cover.  Now I argue that they’re destroying the concept of the “book” itself as a generic thing and opening the term up into a much wider range of interpretations. This is a good thing.

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