Authors: Write Shorter Books

By Deane Barker on July 5, 2008

Is comprehensive-ness a point for, or a point against, a technical book?

I used it think it was an advantage – the bigger, the better – but as I get busier and my company accelerates, it’s increasingly a liability. I’ve started to be greatly attracted to smaller books – or thinner books, more accurately. I’m more and more interested in concise books that cover a more detailed point than broad monsters that try to hit every base.

Who has time to read them? Two years ago, I embarked on Bob Boiko’s “The Content Management Bible, Second Edition.” This is roughly the “War and Peace” of content management. Amazon puts it at 858 pages, but I remember being something like 1,100. And it was larger than a trade paperback – I don’t know the format, but combine the page size and the page count and you have a book that I could easily beat someone to death with. I would say that it’s physically the largest book on my shelf.

I loved the book, and I have something of a sense of accomplishment for reading it. I still remember the moment I finished it on a flight from Los Angeles to Omaha that got diverted to Kansas City because of a thunderstorm. I flopped back in the seat, wide smile on my face. I think I was sweating.

Still – there’s no way I could read this book again today. It just wouldn’t be an option.

The book was an attempt to cover everything to do with content management, and it got very broad. There were several hundred pages in the middle, for example, discussing general project management applicable to projects far beyond content management.

Contrast this to two books I’ve read in the last six weeks:


Tagging: People-powered Metadata for the Social Web 216 pages, but lots of screencaps


Writing White Papers: How to Capture Readers and Keep Them Engaged 214 pages, but the page size is smaller than normal, and the type size is big

Given the qualifiers I listed there, both of these books would clock in at less than 150 pages in a standard trade paperback with a standard type size.

I get excited when I see books like this with a subject I’m interested in because I’ll get so much more out of them. I’ll walk away with 10x the comprehension than a massive book that has bitten off more than it could chew.

Sadly, there’s an economy of scale that means the larger book is more likely to get printed, which is too bad. From a price-per-page perspective, smaller books are probably vastly more expensive for a publisher. My suspicion is, however, that smaller books sell better, though I know there are people that know the true answer to that question.

I’m wondering how eBooks are going to level the playing field.

Chris Love wrote the other day about “The 7 Virtues of Reading eBooks”. He has just written two ebooks for the WroxBlox series, and they look good because they’re short (40 and 50 pages) and they cover very concise topics:


Leveraging httpModules for Better ASP.NET applications


Leveraging httpHandlers to Stream Custom Content in ASP.NET

These are two topics that would be single chapters in larger books. If you look at the economics of it, the publisher comes out ahead. These ebooks are $7 each. Seven dollars for one chapter? That’s good money for a publisher that doesn’t even have to print the book, and – here’s the important point – I’m much more likely to buy one of these than look for the information in “ASP.Net Unleashed” which clocks in at a svelte 1,490 pages.

I’m working on a book deal right now. I’m finishing the proposal this weekend, and under the “Format” section, I have this:

[Book title] will be a very short trade paperback – absolutely less than 100 pages. Its size will be one of the main selling points. Our target reader does not have the time nor the inclination to read a 400-page technical book – they need to get up-to-speed quickly and can’t devote more than a half-dozen hours to reading about the subject.

Yep, I’m going to keep this baby under 100 pages if it kills me. Given my target audience specifically, and the IT crowd in general, the size of this book will help sell vastly more copies than it ever would if I started throwing more content into it.

So, authors, write shorter books. Please. I’ll buy more of them.

Comments (3)

Chris Love says:

Thanks for the plug on the Virtues of eBooks and the two WROX BLOX. I am working on a new printed book this summer, but plan on more eBooks in the next year or so. Shorter, concentrated and portable are always good things.

czar says:

Great comments. I am in the end stages of copyediting a book that is over 2000 manuscript pages with way too many graphics, notes, sidebars, everything. The author sent it out to try to get it published and was horrified when one of the publishers wrote her back and said that she was obviously a competent author (well, not if they’d seen the first draft), and they would welcome another book from her that was more tightly focused. I told her that was a great response, and that she should try another book as they recommended. (I’ve been telling her all along, treading the thin line between honesty and keeping the gig, that the book was unpublishable in its current state for many reasons – length among them. But this author has a vision for what the book should be, for better or worse.)

Anyway, long or short, technical or not so much, just about any book of nonfiction is going to need an index to be considered legitimate or worthy of sales to libraries. If you’re an author who needs an index done by a professional – because your expertise is in writing about your subject, not creating an index – take a look at, where I talk about what it’s like to be a fulltime editorial freelancer in the American publishing industry. Indexing is among my services, and often the one that baffles authors the most.

benxamin says:

Short, sweet and practicing what you preach!