E-book prices appear to be in a race to the bottom. When Amazon first opened its Kindle store, it priced most bestsellers at $9.99. Big publishers fought for higher prices, both to put more money in their pockets and to prevent “devaluing” books. But authors went the other direction. As David Carnoy explained in a recent article for CNET, “Just last year, the magic price point for a lot of indie (self-published) authors was $2.99.” Even this puny price — just a third what many mass-market paperbacks cost — didn’t last. Carnoy goes on, “But then something happened on the the way to the check-out cart. Some authors started saying, ‘Screw it, I’m not selling that much at $2.99, I’ll just go to 99 cents and see what happens.’ And bam, some of these books took off. And some really took off.”
Will Someone Not Think of the Authors?
This incredible shrinking price has provoked genuine questions about the future of the book, however. Today, a new fiction hardcover retails for around $30. Amazon discounts that, as do many bookstores, but even the discounted price far exceeds $0.99. Authors happily put in the long, long hours it takes to write a novel in exchange for their (surprisingly small) cut of $30. (“Surprisingly small” typically meaning somewhere between 10% and 15%, or $3 to $4.50.) Earning $3 for each copy sold without doubt beats the 29 cents Amazon gives an author when his book sells for $0.99.
The result of these one-tenth royalties, the worry goes, is fewer books. Who wants to put in the long, long hours it takes to write a novel if you’re only going to pocket a little more than a quarter each time someone reads it? (At $2.99, Amazon’s kickback to the author jumps to $2, which looks a whole lot better — and a whole lot closer to print book rates.)
Let’s set aside the reasonable counter that, at $0.99 (or even at $2.99), readers are likely to buy quite a few more novels than they did at $9.99 or $30. After all, no matter what the price, people only have so many hours in the day to read. It’s also why I believe $0.99 novels won’t mean fewer novels. Instead, $0.99 novels will mean shorter novels.
And that’s a very good thing.
Most Books are Too Long
Ed McBain’s first 87th Precinct novel, Cop Hater, publish in 1956, ran 166 pages. A decade later, in 1968, McBain published Fuzz, at 288 pages. By 1989, with Lullaby, the page count ballooned to 432. The length of McBain’s work fluctuated, but never settled to anything approaching Cop Hater’s sub-200.
Elmore Leonard’s famous 1961 novel, Hombre, runs a mere 208 pages. Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is only 217 pages, while Raymond Chandler’s classic, The Big Sleep, is only 139. Would any of these giants of fiction been better longer?
A place exists for long books, of course. Sticking with the crime genre, James Ellroy’s magisterial L.A. Confidential is 512 pages, without an ounce of fat. (The novel’s famously spare prose style in fact resulted from his publisher telling Ellroy that the original manuscript was far too long, Ellroy said to me at a book signing once. Ellroy went back and removed every unnecessary word, so as to bring the length down without impacting the labyrinthine plot.) Long novels can develop character and setting and mood in a way short novels often can’t. Long novels can, in that sense, be richer than their shorter peers.
But most authors don’t write rich novels. And most novels need not be rich. The bulk of fiction is not Charles Dickens or Marcel Proust, nor should it be. The bulk of fiction is story and stories frequently are better shorter. Infinite Jest (1104 pages) is great, but an armful of books like that would make any of us long for And Then There Were None (272 pages).
In Praise of Short Books
Few people walk out in the middle of a movie, even if it’s rather bad. Few of us will drop a novel once we’re more than a third in, even if the prose is miserable. We engage in such irrational behavior not because we’re crazy or because we don’t understand sunk costs. Rather, we stick with mediocre (or worse) storytelling because we want to know how the story ends.
In this way, long novels ask a great deal of their readers. If the novel is wonderful, the extra time the author demands will be repaid with dividends when the final page is reached. But most novels aren’t wonderful and almost all of us can think of several books we finished and thought, “That was okay or even pretty good, but it could’ve been half that long.”
The simple fact is that most novels are too long. We authors could learn a lot from the masters of the pulps, who churned out tale after rip-roaring tale, offering huge entertainment in very small packages. We may think our opus is worthy of 700 pages, but it’s probably not. And a 700 page book means asking our readers to forgo the other 350 page book they could’ve read if ours had been half as long. Or the two-and-a-half other books they could’ve read if novels averaged a reasonable 200 pages.
Cheaper Books are Shorter Books
That’s exactly what I predict will result from the price of novels dropping to a buck. Authors won’t give up writing (if we did it to get rich, few of us would be writing today, anyway). Rather, seeing that they’ll only earn a quarter for every sale will make writers look at their works not as monuments it took them ten years to craft and so it better take the reader that much time to appreciate. Instead, authors will shift back into the pulp mindset, seeing their books as stories to be written quickly for maximum entertainment, before moving on to the next.
In an ideal world, novels would settle into a happy length of around 50,000 words — or a little over 150 pages. That’s more than enough space to tell most stories.
And it’s short enough that readers can finish it quickly and move on to the author’s next 50,000 word, 99 cent pageturner.