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.

E-book self-publishing tempts authors large and small

Image: Seth Godin intends to be a best-selling author without a publisher...

Seth Godin says that he’s going to publish his next book himself. Rather than sending his next manuscript to his publisher he told the Wall Street Journal he is going to hire an editor and a designer to format the book and then he’d be on his way:

“After those fixed costs, your idea is packaged as you want, and it can then be put on sale next to other potential best-sellers on Amazon and elsewhere,” he said. “The business race is on to have the relationship with the reader.”

Having had my first experience of publishing a book over the last year, I’m fascinated by his approach.

Being of a geek-ish disposition, I was as delighted when my publisher issued the Amazon Kindle version of Me and My Web Shadow as when I got the first hard copy in the post. Since I got an iPad I’ve been reading a lot of books on it – I love the convenience of being able to buy and read books instantly, to carry several different books when I travel without extra weight in my bag and the ability to read in the middle of the night without having to turn on my lamp.

So, as a consumer, I’m an e-book fan. As an author, I’m more wary for now. I don’t have the kind of “direct relationship with my readers” that Godin has built up over the years. The book was aimed firstly at people who would not be likely to be regular readers of my personal blog, for a start. It’s also been useful to have been published by a reputable publisher like A&C Black, not just for distribution but for the association with the brand: it’s legitimising in a way.

For a first time author expecting reasonable but not stellar sales, the incentives to self-publish may be growing. One of the most interesting approaches to self-publishing I’ve seen recently is Ian Ozvald, who publishes The Screencasting Handbook as a kind of serialised PDF and Wiki membership.

While I was in the final stages of getting my hardcopy book published, Ian was publishing his own online. Around the time that my book hit the shops and I got my modest first-time author’s advance, we had earned almost exactly the same from our respective labours.

The technical barriers to publishing your own e-books are lowering all the time,. (a new iWorks update will let you publish in the EPUB ebook format straight from your word processor) but finding readers may be harder. Godin’s last book, Lynchpin has sold 50,000 copies, while his blog readership is 438,000. I’d imagine he would be able to sell more books online at a lower price and increase his revenue. How will it be before more mainstream authors follow his pioneering lead?

Beyond how I will publish my future books (I’ve got a couple in the pipeline at the moment that will be destined for publishers, I hope), I’m really interested in the different e-book publishing models that will emerge. There’s bound to be some interesting new ways of making money out of e-books (e-book advertising is already in its way) and independent e-book led publishers trying out new ideas. I expect we will also see e-book publishing beign added to the repetoire of other media owners, businesses and brands, whether to add a new revenue stream or find a new way to win attention.

For all sorts of reasons, the publishing industry and e-books is going to be a really interesting area to keep an eye on the next couple of years…

iPad first impressions

iCrossing UK colleagues falling for the iPad (via @shortlisted)

Like most of the world, it seemed, I was perfectly prepared to offer an opinion on the iPad without having ever seen one. Like most of the pre-launch “analysis” I’m not sure I added much of value to the discussion around it, other than to caution that we will have to wait and see what its real impact would be.

Apple’s newest product became a kind of proxy war for all sorts of other interests: DRM, death/survival of publishing, Mac v PC (yawn) etc etc. Cory Doctorow’s discussion of why we should not buy iPads was both typical of this slew of writing and stand out brilliant. It got me thinking, it made me hesitate for a moment about buying one…

Now? Reader, I bought one. And all the hypotheticals fell away, and it became about being a user – and that’s a whole different matter…

Online media: Finding balance between stock & flow

I’m grateful to Lloyd Shepherd for the point to a post by Robin Sloan called Stock & Flow. Recalling studying for his degree in economics, Robin recalls:

There are two kinds of quantities in the world. Stock is a sta­tic value: money in the bank, or trees in the for est. Flow is a rate of change: fifteen dollars an hour, or three-thousand tooth picks a day. Easy. Too easy.
But I actually think stock and flow is the master metaphor for media today. Here’s what I mean:

  • Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind peo ple that you exist.
  • Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interest­ing in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people dis cover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

Over the past few years I’ve thought of hurly-burly of daily online interactions as being very different to the bigger content artefacts I’ve created. In the case of the e-books I wrote for iCrossing, at times they felt a bit like avatars, going off into the world doing their own thing under creative commons…

I’d meet a client and the e-book was already there engaging with various people. It was an eery feeling for someone who’d never been published much before anywhere, your thoughts-as-content travelling the world causing things to happen, people re-using them in all sorts of ways (translating into Chinese, incorporating in textbooks in India, using it as an appendix to a business plan, to name just three).

One challenge is trying to balance out investment of your energy and effort in flow/stock. Interesting especially if you are fitting these things around a day job.

Blog posts are a bit of both really aren’t they. Sometimes they simply let people know you’re still there – hello! – and other times (and you’re not always sure when) they become stock, a focus for a conversation, a defining statement about what you believe, a new turn of phrase that captures an important wisp of the the zeitgeist.

Generally, I walk an erratic personal media path, subject to wild swings into stock or flow. When I was writing my book on personal reputation online last year, I was all stock creation. It took me over to the point of madness. Other times, perhaps toward the end of last year I was living too much in the Twitter stream without much time for reflection, time for creativity to take shape.

As Robin puts it:

And the real magic trick in 2010 is to put them both together. To keep the ball bounc ing with your flow—to main tain that open chan nel of communication—while you work on some kick-ass stock in the back ground. Sac ri fice nei ther. It’s the hybrid strategy.

Balance. Equilibrium. Great idea, so hard to get it right…