Why aren’t business books shorter?


Image: Could some of these be shorter?   

Why are nonfiction books, business books in particular not shorter? Or available to buy in sections or by the chapter?

In their book Big Data: A Revolution… – my most quoted of the last few months – Cukier and Mayer-Schonberger discuss the huge, unexploited stores of data Amazon has about how we read.

Despite Amazon’s Kindle e-book readers’ being capable of showing whether a certain page has been heavily annotated and underlined by users, the firm does not sell that information to authors and publishers. Marketers would love to learn which passages are most popular and use that knowledge to sell books better. Authors might like to know where in their lofty tomes most readers give up, and could use that information to improve their work. Publishers might spot themes that herald the next big book. But Amazon seems to leave the field of data to lie fallow.

One insight from an Amazon competitor in the US has prompted the firm to start producing shorter nonfiction books:

Barnes & Noble’s analysis of data from its Nook e-book reader revealed that people tended to quit long nonfiction books midway through. That discovery inspired the company to create a series called “Nook Snaps”: short works on topical themes such as health and current affairs.

Amazon Singles is effectively the same proposition – and it appears to be successful – having sold almost five million downloads since it started in early 2011. It’s a money-spinner for some authors apparently, while others see it as a way to break into the literary world.

But will it become the norm? More popular than longer form

The short-form non-fiction book really makes sense. Anecdotally I half-finish, or third-finish a lot of nonfiction books. It’s not that they are bad, just that you feel like you have got everything you need after the first ten or twenty thousand words (a full-length book is typically 60,000 words or more).

When I wrote Me and My Web Shadow, it really felt like three shorter books – a theory of online reputation, a how-to guide and a set of manuals for various online tools and social networks.

Now that I am looking a second edition and  a possible new book square in the eyes, I think that a series of shorter

And yet…

And yet… people still buy the longer books. Unlike music, they don’t yet seem to want the singles. At least not yet.

I think that what it will take for the short-form e-book market to take off is longer books being published with an accompanying series option – either preceding, simulataneously launched or

From an author’s point of view the serial ending in a complete book is the best option. Each section will be more current, more immediately available and can be amended up to the point that the paper or complete ebook is published.

7 responses to “Why aren’t business books shorter?”

  1. Not sure if I agree or disagree with you, probably both. If by non-fiction we mean business type books in the broadest sense then I’m not convinced I would buy a short one. It is too much like an article that I could easily read elsewhere in a magazine, newspaper, blog etc.

    However, the style the book is written in is more important. I don’t tend to read cover to cover, rather I’ll pick and choose chapters and sections. So the idea of three short books in one big book is very appealing to me.

  2. Yes, I’d been thinking about it in a linear way – but a “picking the best bits out” approach means that you still need the bigger book as a collection of content…

  3. I suspect there’s a middle path: many business books I’ve read would have been better as two shorter books with the obvious padding cut. That would make each book significantly longer than a magazine article, but shorter than a traditional book.

    I suspect there’s still too much writing to a set length so that you have something that feels “substantial” as a print product.

  4. It’s the doing away with a set length that is the fun bit, right? Can we start these things by asking – how long does the reader need this to be, rather than how does the publisher’s format/business model need it to be?

    I suspect the answer will be a wide distribution – but the mean for most topics that currently fill business books is 20,000 words.

  5. This would be user-centred publishing, then….

  6. It’s not unlike the transition journalism has been through – news stories were around 350 words, features in multiples of 1,000 words based on the numbers of pages involved. Once there’s no pages involved, all sorts of constraints disappear, so you need to find intelligent new ones to give your publishing form.

  7. I have thought the same however I often skim read so they could be written with that in mind. Besides very few authors write a book with their name on it without a large part of their ego writing it, rather than writing for their audience. If you can skim-read out that you’re 2/3 way thru the book already.

    Different writing mediums have different predefined lengths. I.e. TV show, film (min. 75 mins, any shorter find something to pad it out, or it wont get distribution), blog post, novel. Its frowned upon to go outside this definition. Some people think bigger is better. I read The Seven Spiral Laws of Success (very short and precise) which is less is a business book, but then again a lot of business books are about life. It’s short and precise and perhaps better than the 7 Highly Effective Habits (is reading lots of books one of them, I never finished the book). I also have a very thick book called “Time Power” which I’ve not read because its supposed to be about best use of time but it should be 50 pages.on the flip side, reading is therapeutic. So as long as the author waffles on about something useful and you read I in a meditative like state, can have other benefits.

    Or are you just being lazy and want to write a shorter book? ;-) what’s an ideal length? Too short – blog, longer – real book. But I’m seeing shorter ebooks coming out but they often just rehash the longer books ideas (although you could argue no idea is new, just said in a different way.

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