Books – Short or Long?


I heard on the radio today that there’s a move a-foot for authors to be paid by the number of pages that readers actually read, rather than by the book – I didn’t catch the whole article but I suspect a certain South American river may be the source of the story.

It’s certainly an interesting idea. In theory it would root out all those writers who (and I’m prepared for someone to say I ought to be included in this) really and truly shouldn’t be writing in the first place. I’m sure we’ve all picked up books that have a great cover, an intriguing title, excellent blurb on the back and so forth, but when we actually turn the pages (physical or electronic) and begin to absorb the content we find that the quality of the writing leaves something to be desired. Even ignoring the punctuation and spelling and just looking at the execution, we suddenly come face to face with paragraphs a bit like this:

The king had a princess he was going to mary off to the first guy who could rid his kingdom of the deadly menace that had been stalking his kingdom for many years in the form of a hideous monster. He made a proclamateon that anyone that could kill the beast would get his daughters hand in marriage as a reward for killing the beast.

“Let it be known that I will give my daughters hand in marrage as a reward for killing the monster that has been molesting my kingdom for many years.”

Hmm. No, I won’t reveal the book or writer because that would be poor sport, but the above exemplifies the quality of all too many works currently being offered to the public and marketed (okay, self-marketed in this case) as being ‘a great read’. (Alright, maybe there aren’t too many quite as dire as the above, but a fair few get awfully close!)

So maybe being paid for what the reader reads isn’t a bad idea. But there may be a problem.

Following that particular marketing strategy would, I think, result in a plethora of short stories and potentially hammer a nail into the coffin of full-length novels. It could become more economical for a writer to focus on tales of a score of pages rather than invest their time in producing anything more substantial. (If that’s where the money is, you can’t blame the author; they need to eat too, you know.)

That’s not to say established writers, the ones with great agents and funded by wealthy publishing houses (yes, admitting to a smidgeon of jealousy there!) wouldn’t still write epic tomes of adventure and daring-do. I’m sure they will. But for newbies it will mean there is less incentive to write ‘big’.

Writing a long piece is a great way to hone your burgeoning skills as an author. A single plot line doesn’t always suffice for a full-sized book so you will need to master the art of keeping track of multiple plots and sub-plots. You will have to learn how to develop your characters in a way that makes the reader (hopefully) empathise with (if not necessarily like) them. You have to come to grips with pace and tempo, as well as expanding your vocabulary so your reader doesn’t get fed up seeing the same word repeated over and over. And learn grammar rules so you avoid the sin of starting sentences with ‘And’!

And(!) what of the future? Will we become so accustomed to being spoon-fed with short-bursts of instant storylines that we lose the ability to concentrate on anything longer than a few pages? Where will the next Tom Clancy come from? The next Jane Austen? Terry Pratchett? (Hugely missed.)

So what I’m saying is, don’t forsake the big book in favour of the little book (and I confess to having written several shorts myself.) By all means read short stories, especially those written by newcomers, but also browse the catalogues and pick up the next Dune, the next Lord of the Rings, the next Dracula. If you don’t, our literary world might easily become a far less diverse and interesting place to be.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Books – Short or Long?

  1. Naomi

    Great post. I’m a bit ambivalent about this new way of paying authors (except I recently found out that if you’re Australian and earn less than $100 US from KU or Createspace, they just plain do not pay you!). I guess the challenge is that there’s money to be had – quite a lot – in long novels, just so long as you can write one awesome enough for the reader to stay with you the whole way!

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  2. It’s an interesting point, Nigel. Would authors be tempted to pad out to get a longer page count? I’m sure they’ve been doing that for years if they felt they weren’t hitting their publisher’s wordcount target, but readers can be brutal if they don’t like what they read. I know I am. It’s easy to go elsewhere. I think the main effect of this will be to make Kindle serials (series of very short books) slightly less common.

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  3. J. M. Welker

    I love my novels. Short stories are not what I read. I am trying to change that.

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  4. Kevin

    This has to be a very short sighted approach, that does not take into account reader’s habits with different genre books. For example, what about pages that get re-visited again and again by readers? Would there be a sliding scale of payments gradually tapering off after the same reader returns to the same parts of the book. I’m thinking here of the soft-porn area of romance novels and ‘fifty shades of grey’ where the reader may be less than pleased to be told that their regular consumption of the same pages is being tracked and monetized.

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    • Good insight, Kevin. I suppose from a professional author’s perspective I imagine there’d be little complaint about the generation of revenue from any source – however, I think you make a good point about the fact that a reader’s penchant for any particular titillation could be measured (and potentially exposed). At the same time, from the marketing perspective, knowing a reader’s particular tastes would certainly offer another in for targeted adverts.

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