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...