The Future of Books (Calm Down Edition)

Let’s talk about the future of books by stating the obvious: books take a long time to write.

In fact, per hour, I think they’re definitely one of the top most time-consuming forms of art.

Writing a book in a year is considered almost a heroic effort.

Two, three years, well, that’s about normal.

A lot of books are late-bloomers, too, and won’t get finished for years and years.

Authors are willing to put in the sweat, blood, and missed Life Opportunities to write.

When it’s done, we put every sentence to a magnifying glass, carefully scan the pages… then promptly decide we hate it, ALL OF IT.

We write and rewrite, which adds more time to the process.

But is that the way writers should be writing in the 21st century?

Our exponential rate of consumption

Everyone knows machines get faster every year. Their processing speeds more or less grow exponentially.

That means our capacity to consume information grows exponentially every year, too.

That prompts us to consume more things, faster.

Just think about the way you’re reading this blog post.

Even if you’re interested in it, your eyes are more than likely skittering around, looking hungrily at the other links.

Maybe you’re tapping a finger on your mouse, ready at a moment’s notice to flee to Facebook at the first sign of Boredom.

Creating a 20th-century product in a 21st-cenutry world

As we redefine what a “book” really is, we need to consider how people are consuming information.

Really, people are reading more than ever.

Just to be socially acceptable in high school and most other phases of life (which, let’s admit it, are just mutated versions of high school), you need to have some kind of online Thing, be it Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr.

Teenagers sent an average of 60 texts a day in 2011. Most teen girls send 100 or more a day.

Americans are reading. They’re just not reading what we as writers wish they would read.

Reading has already been redefined.

What does it mean to read today?

It means you have the internet. So, everyone is a reader now.

With the advent of mobile devices, our rate of information consumption will continue to grow.

Worse, we take it for granted that content – such as this insightful blog post – should be free. In fact, we more or less demand that it should be free.

We even laugh at authors who try desperately to get paid “the old way” for their writing.

So “writing” really has to be a labor of love at this point.

Especially when you spend three years writing a novel, five years shopping it around to agents, and then decide to give it away for free on Kindle Direct Publishing.

It’s time to redefine the novel

Don’t panic. Look at this beautiful picture of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland:

Like this extinct volcano, the future of books is beautiful.

Books are going to be okay.

Our notion of what a book is… well, that probably won’t be.

Anyone past the age of ten today who considers themselves an “author” is an unwaveringly proud member of a dying breed.

It’s very likely writers younger than that won’t even know what “paper” is.

By default, we’re part of an endangered species of writer who clings to ivory tower conceptions of what makes a book a book.

Admit it to yourself.

Even with the undeniable rise of ebooks, you’re still writing with the hopes of one day being validated by a group of people in New York City.

Here’s what’s going to happen:

  • Books are going to get shorter [happening]
  • New ways to monetize books like pay-for-chapter and subscription e-delivery service will develop [happening]
  • Short stories will go through a renaissance as a potential marketing tool for novels [happening]
  • Magazines & e-zines that offer visibility will be more important than cash prizes [happening]
  • Magazines & e-zines will start publishing ebook excerpts to highlight new works by up-and-comers [happening]
  • Publishers will acknowledge ebooks and come up with innovative ways to help authors [happening]
  • Writers are going to have to get used to all of this

Did you notice that all of these predictions are already coming true except for that last one?

If you’re a writer, you’re going to have to get comfortable with this change. Things aren’t going back to what you think of as “normal.”

You’re going to have to stop turning your nose at ebooks that seem like they’re poorer quality than your own book. Ebooks you think are “flooding” the market.

You should cheer your fellow authors, because they’re paving the way.

If you already have a published ebook, you need to stop thinking it’s not a “real” book. Because it is.

When authors start writing shorter books, people will consume more books.

When publishers begin to innovate, as they’re slowly starting to do, then people will consume more books.

Take a deep breath.

None of this is bad, it’s just different.

This is all going to mean that your books are going to get published faster so you have more time to write more.

Isn’t that the dream?

The breakdown

1. Don’t panic about the future of books. Adapt.

2. Short stories can be a serious potential tool in growing readership for your book. Write them. They’re fun.

3. Change is going to be violent and unpredictable for authors as traditional publishing houses and newcomers like Amazon & Apple clash.

4. Think about where your book will be published, how it will be read, and who will read it.

5. Keep writing, because your dreams of publication are an easy reality. It’s finding the readers and establishing yourself that’s the hard part.

6. Publishers have a huge opportunity to help writers establish themselves, but they need to redefine their notion of publication, just like writers need to redefine their notion of a book.


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Book Photo Credit: infra-leve

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6 Responses to The Future of Books (Calm Down Edition)

  1. brianhmoll says:

    I agree. For books to exist, they need to be able to compete with the other forms of entertainment out there. They need to adapt. But that doesn’t mean shorter is necessarily the way to go. I don’t think it’s the length of the book that’s keeping people from reading, is what I’m saying. People will still read long books. Pynchon and David Foster Wallace still sell. Adam Levin’s The Instructions, and John Sayles A Moment In the Sun, both published by McSweeneys in the last few years, were each a gajillion pages long. I think the content has to justify the price of the book. When you can buy a DVD, instant entertainment for 12 dollars (plus, if the DVD sucks, you’re only out 2 hours of your time), why would you spend 16 on a book that isn’t going to deliver the same level of concentrated entertainment? And so I think this is where ebooks come in. They can be priced lower, allowing more people to buy them and feel like they’re getting their money’s worth.

    • blaiselucey1 says:

      Very true!

      Length won’t be a make-or-break sales issue, but I’m thinking more along the lines of authors getting paid for their work and staying top-of-mind with their readers. In that case, putting out 3 shorter books in one year, each $1, may be better than putting out a longer book for $2.99.

      I think it’s easy to overlook how a shorter book can seem more “doable” to people, so they’ll be more likely to buy it. We love the sense of accomplishment of finishing things, and shorter books could plug into that instinct.

      And, as the demand for continual content increases from publishers trying to maximize revenue streams, I think shorter books could lessen the burden on authors.

      Just my totally unproven theory, haha.

  2. Erik Hoel says:

    Does this actually means shorter is better, or the future of publishing? For me, all the points except 1 make sense. For instance, even currently no major publishing house will accept a fiction book (not talking about genre stuff here) from a first author that’s over 120,000 words, and even that would be considered “risky.” DFW’s Broom of the System was 155,000 words and that is probably the longest first novel I’ve heard of. This has to do with publishing costs – for instance, DFW’s Infinite Jest was sold basically at a loss, because it cost so much money to publish it and ship it because it was so huge. Given that a 210,000 word book (Moby Dick) will now be as cheap to “publish” (whatever that means in the future, perhaps support with targeting advertising and then take a percentage of the profit – basically investment) wouldn’t it be the case that this frees authors up? Maybe if the author’s want to “maximize profit” they would write shorter books… but do you actually know of a good (literary) author who would consider this? And besides, that assumes that everything can be expressed in short works, whereas I think that a major draw for readers of fiction is Time Spent With Characters (TSWC).

    I mean, I do believe that the average person’s attention span is being affected by the internet, but long movies and books are still made… there doesn’t appear to be a reason why books would become shorter. In fact, I think that movies and novels are the two things safe, in some sense, from the internet, due to the sheer man hours required to produce good works in either domain. For instance, news is fundamentally something that can be crowd-sourced, so most news agencies are kind of fucked in the end just by the very nature of the internet. Movie making cannot be crowd-sourced, and neither can novel writing. As long as novelists are still willing to put in the hundreds or thousands of concentrated man-hours, this makes them immune to internet trends, because there are no competitors.

    In the age of the internet, be an K-selected species.

    • blaiselucey1 says:

      Some interesting insights… but I think that there will be an increasing pressure from authors to produce more books, both by readers and publishers, and that will result in shorter novels.

      I don’t think this is a bad thing. I actually think it’s great. The variable of TSWC is going to be actually easier to attain if you have 60-page books coming out once a year from an author… or even twice a year… for $1 a piece, instead of once every three years for $9.99.

      Rather than one experience for a month with those characters, you’ll have continuous interaction with those characters throughout the year.

      And I think the competitors that novelists will run into is other novelists who are willing to do this, actually. Because as soon as a group of writers decides to publish bi-yearly and the benefits are clear, I think most others will follow the trends.

      I personally think this will rejuvenate short stories, novelettes, and serialization.

      I think those are going to be the K selected species: the same quality with the same quantity, just in different formats.

      All you’re doing is taking one offspring and, uh, publishing its different stages: beginning, middle, end.

      Plus, you have to take into account that K selected species can only flourish in a stable environment… right now, books aren’t in a stable environment, bwahaha.

  3. Mike Adlam says:

    The internet has had a staggeringly good and bad effect on the world of books. Under the guise of offering readers unlimited choice, Amazon in particular has flooded the market with dross. Going back to the days of Dr Sam Johnson (‘No-one but a fool ever wrote except for money’) we professionals have always had to live alongside idiots who will pay to see themselves in print – now they don’t even have to pay! But then who pays for dross? Sure, we all like to see prices coming down, particularly in hard economic times, but at the end of the day readers have their own tastes and will pay to satisfy them. No matter how cheap, no one’s going to waste time reading an author they don’t like: you don’t get shorter or cheaper than a Mills and Boon, but I once tried one, just to see what women see in them, and couldn’t make it to the end of chapter one.
    Quality has always won through and, when the initial panic subsides, I believe a new market will emerge, cleared of a lot of dead wood. Good booksellers will survive because they will get more agile at developing and keeping people who like browsing in bookshops and visiting literary festivals. There is no doubt that e-books will be massive (they already are) so bookshops need to think hard about a new marketing role, just as we authors are having to think about how Facebook and other social media are forcing us to become more inter-active with our readership.
    Adaptation is the name of the current game. I, personally, feel I’ve written a satisfying novel at about 120,000 words which is economic to publish, but still weighty enough to provide a good read or throw at the dog; that said, I would have no problem if my publisher suggested we serialised it.

    Mike Adlam
    Author of The Rent Man and Malpractice (trilogy)

    • blaiselucey1 says:

      Hi Mike,

      Good points. I think that as more people do read eBooks, more people are going to discover that it can be very, very easy to stumble onto the wrong book.

      That’s going to naturally lead to some new ways to figure out what writing is actually good. Programs, websites… a return to bookstores.

      As long as there’s no quality gate-keeper for self-published authors, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to encourage people to take such a big risk on an unknown author and an unknown work.

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