A new author approached me recently asking for my help with a publicity campaign for a book he’s just written.
He had a fascinating story to tell about his journey from being brought up in an orphanage, to drug abuse in his teens, to becoming the successful entrepreneur he is today. His heart was in the right place: he genuinely wanted to help others rather than make a fast buck from publishing. I really liked and admired him. He had an incredible tale that would inspire thousands of others.
But then, while we were talking about his forthcoming book launch, we hit a slight snag. I asked how long his book was and he told me: “Twenty-thousand words.”
Now, don’t get me wrong, twenty-thousand words is still hard graft by anyone’s standards. I’m sure this book contains a lot of valuable information for anyone wanting to follow in this man’s footsteps. But is a twenty-thousand-word manuscript really “a book”? Or is it – and I know some writers will hate me for saying this – more of a brochure or a pamphlet?
Call me a cynic, but I am wondering if the reason this entrepreneur was advised to write something of this short length was because he could get it written within the 60-day time-frame of publishing program he’d been on.
Yes, you can always justify a short manuscript by saying that readers have limited attention spans and they want easily digestible information. But then perhaps there are other documents like “The Constitution of the United States of America” or “The Lord’s Prayer” which could also be put inside paperback jackets and be called books? When exactly is a book, a book? When is a book, not a book?
Back in the old days, there used to be two camps only. On one side, you had the big guns of publishing (mainstream publishers such as Penguin, Random House or Macmillan). On the other side, there was (boo, hiss!) Vanity Publishing. You were either in one camp or the other and the boundaries were very clear. If your work was of a high standard, then you eventually got a publishing deal. Your book got sold in high street book stores and was reviewed by literary editors in newspapers and magazines. If your book wasn’t what was euphemistically called “of a publishable standard”, you paid extortionately for the privilege of Vanity Publishing. Your book rarely got into shops and it certainly didn’t get reviewed. There might even be embarrassment if you dared to mention your book.
Today, self-publishing has blurred those boundaries. There is no limit or control on the number of mediocre, average or sometimes crappy books that are being sold at this very moment on Amazon. Some of them are e-books that are only eight pages long. Truly outstanding books are few and far between.
So back to the question of: how long should a book be? What is the best length for a novel or a non-fiction book if you want to get published?
The proof of the pudding is in the eating as they say. Would a literary agent or a mainstream publisher (the “gold standard” of publishing as it were) offer a publishing deal for a twenty-thousand-word book? Highly unlikely. Not even these days when all the old rules have been over-turned and there is a publishing free-for-all going on.
Would a high street store like Barnes & Noble accept a “book” of this length on its shelves. Again, I doubt it. The spine wouldn’t even be thick enough to have the title and author’s name printed on it.
What about newspaper journalists or TV producers? Would they look at this book and feel inclined to do a book review? Would they give it the same treatment as other books that are four or five times the size? Or would they think of it more as a “report” or a “pamphlet”.
What about you? If you saw two books on a shelf and one had a 3mm spine and the other had a 15mm spine, which would you consider to hold more valuable information? Which author would you respect more?
And those books you studied at high school: how easy might your exams have been if they’d been a fraction of the size?
Sure, there are exceptions to the rule like Annie E Proulx’s novella, Brokeback Mountain. But they are the exception. Plus, it was published after she got famous.
There’s a reason why authors have been revered throughout the ages and held in high regard. It’s because most books are seventy-thousand to ninety-thousand words long, and writing them takes unusually high levels of tenacity, persistence and perseverance. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
Except that suddenly, everyone is. A manuscript can be uploaded and published, and on sale in across e-stores in a matter of minutes.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of self-publishing. It opens up amazing opportunities for both first-time and experienced authors. It also remedies the disproportionate balance of power between big publishing houses and talented writers. However, at the same time, I do think it’s time for a reality check and a frank and honest assessment of the state of publishing today.
Take a look at some of the 12 million plus books on Amazon right now. Some have unappealing titles. Some have appalling covers. Others have spelling and grammatical errors on the opening page. Many seem to have been thrown together with scant regard for editing or proof-reading, let alone typesetting and cover design.
Just because you can sell a book, and someone somewhere is willing to buy it, doesn’t mean you should. Just because no one is writing bad reviews, doesn’t mean you can automatically assume that your book is of high quality.
Isn’t it time for authors to stop taking the lazy option? Isn’t it time to stop writing “good enough” books? Isn’t it time to start raising publishing standards?
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