When Will We Evolve Past "Books"?
As I browsed the latest Kindle bestsellers to decide if anything was worth purchasing I found myself asking this question over and over: Does the author really need 300 pages to explain this concept? I can't tell you how many times I finished a book and felt frustrated that the 3 or 4 key learnings I came away with could have easily been boiled down to a few pages.
Part of the problem is the physical presence a publisher (as well as author and bookseller) feels a book needs to have on the shelf. Imagine a book like Freakonomics as a 40-page work instead of a 336-page one. I read that one though, and despite the fact that's it's a terrific book, the authors easily could have condensed it down to about one-tenth its length.
You might say that a good book is all about storytelling and I don't completely disagree. Freakonomics is loaded with great stories, btw, but a 40-page version would have been just as effective at conveying the key points. And frankly, most lengthy business books don't have much of an engaging story to tell at all; the authors just go on and on, seemingly in an effort to puff things up to 300 pages or so.
A 40-page version of Freakonomics would be lost on the shelves. Couple that with the theory that no one is willing to spend $25 or $30 on a "business book" and you now know two of the key reasons why these things all have very similar form factors.
That's how the market has operated up to now, but how will it work in the future? The more we move from print to e-books the less important something like spine width becomes. There's no shelf to have a physical presence on, so why force every business book to be 300-400 pages?
How about the price? Would you pay $25 for something you could read in well under an hour? I would, especially if it delivers all the knowledge that's so diluted across the 300-400 pages we have to read through now.
I can see a model where the typical work is longer than a magazine article but much shorter than a book. In fact, I think that's the sweet spot for the future. A magazine article (2-3 pages) typically doesn't allow for enough space to adequately cover many of the topics you find in business books today, but I'll bet 30 or 40 pages would do the trick, and many authors might not need that much space.
So what will we call these products? A new name is required. They're not books and they're not articles. There's no elegant way to splice those two words together so I think we'll have to come up with something brand new. In the mean time, I very much look forward to the day when these new products dominate the market and we're no longer forced to read 300 pages to gain 30 pages of insight. I know I'll read much more in that world. How about you?
P.S. -- I realize this model doesn't work for all types of books. For example, fiction is definitely all about storytelling and doesn't apply. Then there's the world of how-to books. I'd argue this model isn't ideal there either. In fact, I believe a totally different e-model will evolve there over time, one without boundaries and something that takes us in a totally different direction...but that deserves its own separate blog post, so stay tuned for more...
Differentiated versions of content are not fungible! What 'job' are people hiring the content to do? If a consumer wishes to grasp the concepts of FREAKONOMICS, the 40pp version will do the job. Heck - the getAbstract summary will do it even faster! For the person who is commuting - maybe the audio version. And for the fan - the advocate - the promoter who ALL authors must relentlessly cultivate in order to extend their thought leadership platform, the book (the kind you put on your shelf at the office, on the credenza at the office) is the most powerful tool available.
Posted by: Mark Bloomfield | May 11, 2009 at 08:43 AM
Two great points here! The fact that some of us would happily pay more for less (or at least the same amount as we're used to paying for overlong, bloated books) and the fast disappearing importance of the spine-out presence at brick and mortar retailers. The first point brings to mind T.S. Eliot's great quote which I believe is: "If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter."
Posted by: Pete Meyers | May 11, 2009 at 08:58 AM
I believe that the "book" needs more than evolution, but rather a rebirth that extends to the whole business ecosystem around it. You've got to rethink content production, format, distribution, pricing. You have to forget everything you've ever known about the printed books business. That's hard for an established book publisher, and that's why there is no "Rand McNally Earth" or "Wikipedia Britannica". But if there's any publisher that can do it, O'Reilly can!
(Also see the following comment that I left on Tim O'Reilly's blog: http://radar.oreilly.com/2009/04/reinventing-the-book-age-of-web.html#comment-2058576)
Posted by: Luca Fabbri | May 11, 2009 at 10:32 AM
Two points to add. Smaller books already have a name – "booklets". And two, part of the love of reading isn't to just have the bare concepts explained to minimize the time spent reading. Great books strike the right balance between having good succinct content and expressing it well. Learning via stories is key to retention. Made To Stick (by Chip & Dan Heath) has some good points in how/why to do this. And although I agree that Freakonomics could have been a little shorter (odd statistics at some points), I really enjoyed the length of the book. A 40-50 page "summary" would have been much less enjoyable. Malcolm Gladwell is an expert in this area -great, enjoyable stories that teach at the same time.
Posted by: Ross Slater | May 11, 2009 at 10:55 AM
I think you call these magazine articles. Or blog posts. Until a publisher can figure out a way to monetize them, you will keep getting puffed up "books".
Posted by: John Helmus | May 11, 2009 at 11:06 AM
Hi John. I disagree. 2-3 page magazine articles aren't long enough for most of these topics. They provide enough space for a review of a book, but not the core concepts for most books. I definitely think there's something in between that represents a big opportunity for the future, particularly in the e-space.
Posted by: Joe Wikert | May 11, 2009 at 11:29 AM
Joe - agree. These shorter (be it 40pp or 5pp) versions of the content are most well suited to distribution on digital platforms. On John's point - the content IS being monetized by some (O'Reilly, HBS) already. The content is the content - but conTEXT is key. The same 40pp that might be used to engage the reader and build the audience (and be made available 'episodically'/freely as a blog post or manifesto, for example) can be monetized when it is returned as a search result AND available in permanent (book/magazine/pdf) format).
Posted by: Mark Bloomfield | May 11, 2009 at 12:04 PM
I fail to see what's wrong with the hoary term "monograph", although fiction has the novella and novelette as specialist terms.
Posted by: Tim of Angle | May 11, 2009 at 09:39 PM
I have been writing how-to books for O'Reilly for eight years (Missing Manuals and Hacks). Right now, I am still hooked on print books for technical topics--mainly because it is so much faster to scan the index and flip to a page. However, I have been frustrated by trying to demonstrate procedures in print media. How the pointer changes, where to click, what you should see when you're done is tough in a combo of steps and the occasional screenshot. What's more, my books are hundreds of pages, because I cover topics for beginners, intermediate, and advanced types. Electronic media can solve many of these issues. Videos to show process. More targeted content so people can buy what they need. I'll have to figure out how to make it fast and easy to find the right eBook and ePage.
Posted by: Bonnie Biafore | May 12, 2009 at 07:51 PM
I am going to present a different kind of idea, in Japan, approximately 70% of video games are what are called visual novels, these combine text, anime style art, music, and simple games in one package. They are not adventure games in the pure sense, they are kind of like choose your own adventure books turned into video games. This is what a lot of kids are "reading". Wikipedia has an entry on them. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visual_novel . I admit I sometimes like games, I even tried one out it is a game for teenagers called Fatal Hearts put out by Hanako Games http://www.hanakogames.com/fatal.shtml There is a free demonstration. I think there are more serious versious of these. Hidden under their anime exterior may be a serious competitor to books attention as the younger generation grows older.
I can easily imagine something like Freakonomics turned into a visual novel, combining text, simple games, music or audio, and art. This is a kind of stretch and might not be that serious.
Posted by: Book Calendar | May 13, 2009 at 10:06 PM
Mental telepathy is a way to move beyond the written word. What you seem to be asking is when will human beings ingest information in forms other than books. As it is, people already read information in symbols, feelings and sensations. They also read energy. How energy is transmitted and transmittable depends on the receptiveness of sender and receiver of information. We have electronic books which are a step away from the witten word. We have books on tape and CD which magnify the importance of senses other than sight. How you choose to communicate opens possibilities possibilities like channeling that not every human bing is willing to believe or accept. Your level of awareness and self-acceptance influences how you send and receive information and what you block out by choice. Fascinating topic. Love this site!
Posted by: Liara Covert | May 14, 2009 at 04:57 PM
We could return to the world of pamphlets (or monographs, as suggested above), but at the moment, I'd say the shorter-length pieces are called "free ebooks". In particular, authors are writing ebooks as first looks at their ideas (The New Rules of PR, ChangeThis), which naturally tend to be shorter.
I can read a 40-page PDF quickly, file it, and skim it to remind myself of its information when needed. And I'll check out an ebook if its title sounds interesting, while I'll look for a book if it's recommended by multiple people.
Even if I'd rather read a fully developed idea, the just-in-time information of a short ebook is convenient - and I agree that too many business books are filling up pages instead of adding to their ideas. We just need to help the benefits of free/summary reach the paid/full-story. I haven't yet switched to Kindle/eReader/etc., but I'm looking forward to the new books: right length, instantly accessible, and using no extra space in my bag.
Posted by: Jennifer Berk | May 23, 2009 at 11:40 PM