Are e-books to blame for books getting longer? The Guardian’s Richard Lea ponders that question, in the wake of a research firm survey that shows the average length of the novel has increased from 320 pages in 1999 to 400 pages in 2014. The conclusion seems fairly obvious, given that period of time effectively coincides with the rise of the commercial e-book from its earliest years to the present-day.
The thinking goes that since it’s not as easy to tell how long an electronic book is, since you don’t get to see the thickness of the pages, people are more inclined to read longer books. Or possibly they simply don’t mind if a book is longer, since it doesn’t weigh any more on their Kindle. Another possibility is that the rise of television boxed sets (and, more recently, Netflix binge-watching) has shown publishers that consumers are accustomed to following long-form narratives, so they’ve started taking a chance on longer manuascripts.
This sort of thinking is interesting as far as it goes, but it seems to me that it doesn’t go far enough. For one thing, using page thickness as a measure of book length doesn’t necessarily measure what the research firm thinks it does. One commenter beneath the Guardian article notes that his comparison of two editions of the James Bond novels—one published in the sixties and the other in the last few years—shows that the more recent editions use more pages to contain the same content. He suggests that the difference might have more to do with changes in fonts and margins than in consumers’ reading tastes.
But on the other hand, if you go back farther than that, there can be very little doubt that novels have gotten considerably longer by number of words over a much longer period of time. Back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, when pulp magazines were the entertainment equivalent of modern television, the average “novel” was 40,000 words or so—and writers like Maxwell Grant churned out two of them a month for decades on end. 40,000 words is still the “official” minimum length for novels as set down by groups like the SFWA, but almost nobody would imagine publishing a novel that short today!
Going by a list I found on-line of fantasy novel word lengths, the Lord of the Rings trilogy was 473,000 words split across three volumes, but even this pales compared to the length of more recent works. A Game of Thrones, the first novel in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, is 284,000 words all by itself. The first Wheel of Time novel is 305,000 words. (And if there’s a poster child for the idea that e-books are leading to longer books, it’s Wheel of Time—the entire 12-book, 3.3-million-word series was made available as a single e-book to voters in the 2014 Hugo Awards. It’s still available on Amazon that way even now.)
This shift toward longer books was noted by Eric Flint when he discussed the declining relevance of literary awards like the Hugos to today’s publishing environment—the sorts of books and stories that are being published now are very different from when the Hugos were originally conceived. In that light, any change over the last fifteen years seems like just a natural extension of one that’s been going on for decades already.
Thus, if there has been a cultural shift toward longer books, it’s one that doesn’t rely solely on e-books. Perhaps the expansion of book sales made possible by paperback books was a factor, but I don’t know if even that was the start of it. Perhaps it’s something in the nature of a feedback loop: the publishing industry has gotten more efficient at cranking out and distributing these immense weighty tomes over time, leading consumers to buy more of them, leading publishers to publish more of them. And now that the immense tomes don’t even have to be so weighty anymore, maybe consumers are buying them even more.
Anyway, regardless of why books are getting longer, I think we can all agree that it’s nice we have e-books to let us avoid having to worry about the effect on our spines of toting around A Song of Ice and Fire, the Wheel of Time, or other immense series like that.
(Found via Publishing Perspectives.)