August 11

Short ebooks: good idea or bad idea?


In the last 20 years, we have seen dramatic shifts in how the ebook and self-publishing industry is changing how we think of what a book is. We used to think of writing a book as a 300-page to 500-page undertaking, but we’re now seeing many successful authors and bloggers are writing extremely focused ebooks in the 50-page to 150-page range. And this is the question facing many authors now, “Is publishing a short book a good idea?”

Why the shift from longer books to shorter books?

Some people might be tempted to ask, “Why are books so short now?” I might flip the question and ask, “Why were books so long in the first place?” I come from a strange land called “academia,” where great ideas are born and brought to fruition in the most painfully long and boring literature known to man.

After I received my MA in Sociology, most of my client projects were editing dissertations and monographs. Yeah, you can imagine why I don’t edit those very often, anymore!

But I think we used to value long, soap-box writings as a way to demonstrate expertise. These long-form monographs (or book) were like the written form of a lecture, where no questions or rebuttals were allowed. When you think about it, what an egotistical undertaking! That you could present 300+ pages of argument, hold people's' attention, and not leave space for other opinions?

How has the publishing industry shifted to encourage publishing a short book?

Our culture's expectations for publishing have changed, and you see this across the board—in academia and trade publishing.

Not so long ago, a professor could make his career on one, solid publication and ride that for five years. A New York Times bestselling author could get away with publishing a great read every few years.

Charles Dickens, one of the greatest literary writers of our cultural history (who also wrote quite length books) published a new book every few years. The most books in one ten-year period was early on in his career, from 1836 to 1835—six books.

Let’s jump to modern day for a quick comparison. Now, both academics and trade authors are expected to publish every 12 to 24 months.

From 1978 to 1987, one of his most prolific decades, Stephen King published 12 books.

Want to guess how many books James Patterson has published in a ten-year span, from 2007 to 2016?

94. That’s NINETY-FOUR books. And he’s listed as the single author on these books. He does often co-author, but that’s a different ballgame.

Okay, yes, I’m pulling some extreme examples here. There’s no other modern author who has ever published as prolifically as Patterson. There’s also no author who has ever made as much money as Patterson—$300 million in book sales, alone. (Side note: J.K. Rowling has a higher net worth, but her wealth is also tied to royalties from movies and theme parks.)

What this means is that we're publishing our thoughts as our expertise is emerging and our craft is improving.

(Some might argue against Patterson’s craft, but that’s a debate for another day.)

This is good and bad. There might be less incubation time for a complex idea, but there's also more room for feedback and growth of an idea over time. There might be less pressure to be a literary prodigy, right out of the gate, but there’s also less time and space to truly hone the writing craft between books.

What we see now, though, is that there's more of a difference between an author's first self-published book and her fifth book because her ideas have emerged through the publishing process, not prior to it. I don’t know about you, but I’m okay with that. I like growing with the author and watching the author’s perspective and style evolve over time.

For authors and readers, what’s the benefit of publishing a short book?

Now, these shorter books are more of a conversation starter. As authors, we want our book to connect with the reader, to offer some of our story, and to provide a step toward changing the reader’s perspective or solving the reader’s problem.

These new, shorter self-published books intend for readers to then join the author on a blog or in a Facebook community or on a Twitter chat to talk more about it. The book is a sounding horn for like-minded folks.

One upside to shorter books, from the author's perspective, is that publishing shorter ideas more often is fun! It’s less pressure. You can publish a book, knowing that it's a sounding horn for like-minded thinkers, and allowing for your own ideas to develop. Publishing a short book is a great way to intermingle ideas with colleagues and spread germinating ideas to other fertile soil. It's a giant thought experiment. Plus, it’s such a rush to publish and launch a book!

I won’t say that change is always good. I miss the idea of slow, unhurried research and writing phases. I like to think of writers, back in the day, having time to just sit in an easy chair and think the day away, knowing that they have plenty of time to both think and write. I don’t love authors being pressured to produce more and more, faster and faster.

But, overall, I don’t think this trend of the typical author publishing a short book is a sign of the End Times, either. It’s just a change, nothing more, nothing less. We process information differently. We’re able to grab ideas from a variety of contexts and fields and mash them together in a completely new way. That’s pretty impressive! And we love the process of exchange, iteration, and constant improving on a new idea.

When it comes down to it, I’m all for publishing a short book. I do believe we’ll always have the 300-1,000-page tomes, but there’s more room now for short, quick, pithy books, too, and I’m excited to be in this day and age of publishing.

What do you think? Are you already nostalgic for the days of long, meticulously thought-out books? Or are you intrigued by this new liberty of publishing a short book that either starts or pushes along a larger conversation? Leave a comment below!


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