Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The problem with books, according to Sam Harris

First of all: they're too long. Harris explains:

I love physical books as much as anyone. And when I really want to get a book into my brain, I now purchase both the hardcover and electronic editions. From the point of view of the publishing industry, I am the perfect customer. This also makes me a very important canary in the coal mine—and I’m here to report that I’ve begun to feel woozy. For instance, I’ve started to think that most books are too long, and I now hesitate before buying the next big one. When shopping for books, I’ve suddenly become acutely sensitive to the opportunity costs of reading any one of them. If your book is 600-pages-long, you are demanding more of my time than I feel free to give. And if I could accomplish the same change in my view of the world by reading a 60-page version of your argument, why didn’t you just publish a book this length instead?

The honest answer to this last question should disappoint everyone: Publishers can’t charge enough money for 60-page books to survive; thus, writers can’t make a living by writing them. But readers are beginning to feel that this shouldn’t be their problem. Worse, many readers believe that they can just jump on YouTube and watch the author speak at a conference, or skim his blog, and they will have absorbed most of what he has to say on a given subject. In some cases this is true and suggests an enduring problem for the business of publishing. In other cases it clearly isn’t true and suggests an enduring problem for our intellectual life. . . .

[W]riters and public intellectuals must find a way to get paid for what they do—and the opportunities to do this are changing quickly. My current solution is to write longer books for a traditional press and publish short ebooks myself on Amazon. If anyone has any better ideas, please publish them somewhere—perhaps on a blog—and then send me a link. And I hope you get paid.
Did Harris find my blog post called "6 ways blogs are better than books," specifically #1 and #6, and steal my idea (which I, of course, took from other people)? Probably not. Most readers have had the same realization. The question is who has the courage to publicly admit it, and act on it.

I'm currently reading a book that has done both: Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better. It was originally released exclusively as an eBook, and was later released as a dead-tree book. One of the blurbs is by Matthew Yglesias, calling it "a great innovation in current affairs publishing — much shorter and cheaper than a conventional book in a way that actually leaves you wanting to read more once you finish it."

In the book's introduction, Cowen makes an odd argument for his decision to release it in exclusively digital form:
I meant for [the ebook version] to reflect an argument from the book itself: The contemporary world has plenty of innovations, but most of them do not much benefit the average household. (2)
So, publishing it as a digital book only (until it became so successful that the dead-tree version was a no-brainer) made sense because it didn't help many people! OK. That argument is even more innovative than the book's short length.

But then Cowen realized that eschewing paper was a problem. He writes:
Some readers . . . were frustrated with the Digital Rights Management systems embedded in nearly all published electronic content. These systems mean that you can't pass around an eBook like a paper book. Libraries don't necessarily own eBooks forever; it's possible for the publisher to flip the switch and literally take them back — debate on this topic is raging. Paper books are easier to give as gifts and easier (sometimes) to use in the classroom. On top of all that, Amazon.com, B&N.com [Don't try typing that into your browser. He meant bn.com. — JAC], the iBookstore, and related services do not yet reach into every corner of the globe. Paper books can get to remote places a little more reliably. Personally I like reading books on trips and dropping them somewhere creative, in the hope they will be picked up by a surprised and delighted future reader. (2-3)
I'm convinced by those and other reasons to keep paper books around for good. So I hope Sam Harris is wrong to say that "[t]he future of the written word is (mostly or entirely) digital." I see little reason why authors and publishers can't heed Harris's advice to make books shorter while still publishing paper books. Harris says readers won't be willing to pay for a 60-page book. Well, I paid for Cowen's book, which is 109 pages. It's just 89 pages without the endnotes and index. I think Harris is underestimating people's willingness to buy a reasonably priced, well-supported nonfiction book that gets to the point in 100 pages, as opposed to a 300- or 400-page book that might be even more rigorously supported but also includes more repetition — and will be much less likely to be read in its entirety. As my mom, Ann Althouse, more succinctly put it in her message to writers (particularly one writer who scolded her for not reading every word of her book):
You pad. I skim.
IN THE COMMENTS: My dad, Richard Lawrence Cohen, says:
I don't follow Harris'argument about pricing. Long books are the pricing problem, because they cost much more to print and readers are reluctant to pay an equivalent percent extra to make up for it; thus the tendency of long books to have small, light print and thin paper. Meanwhile, if a book is only 100 pages, you can still charge almost as much as for a 150-page book and save a lot of the printing costs. The relatively higher price on the short book creates perceived value in the reader's mind, justifying the expense. We're all accustomed to paying $15 for a paperback anyway, and page-counting isn't a top priority; the page range consumers accept at that price is pretty wide. It's a mistake to assume that the reader is glad to have more pages for the money; the extra pages are a chore. It's a welcome relief to be able to get the message fast.

1 comments:

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

As our culture's tastes change, writers and publishers will have to accommodate. For me, reading a long book is now a special event; it has to be something that will change my life, not just something to while away a month. It's a hurdle for me as a reader when a book is over 300 pages (and I've written some myself). (In related news, I'm beginning to find it boring to listen to more than one song in a row by the same musical artist -- an effect of Pandora etc.) I don't follow Harris'argument about pricing. Long books are the pricing problem, because they cost much more to print and readers are reluctant to pay an equivalent percent extra to make up for it; thus the tendency of long books to have small, light print and thin paper. Meanwhile, if a book is only 100 pages, you can still charge almost as much as for a 150-page book and save a lot of the printing costs. The relatively higher price on the short book creates perceived value in the reader's mind, justifying the expense. We're all accustomed to paying $15 for a paperback anyway, and page-counting isn't a top priority; the page range consumers accept at that price is pretty wide. It's a mistake to assume that the reader is glad to have more pages for the money; the extra pages are a chore. It's a welcome relief to be able to get the message fast. Ann is totally right about padding. There are innumerable books whose contents can be sufficiently appreciated from the chapter titles and jacket copy alone. There are hefty, publicly intellectual books whose contents can be sufficiently appreciated from their titles alone. (I once wrote a blog post with a list of some, but I'm too lazy to search for it.) Most of the text then serves as proof that the writer has worked for his money, and as overload for the ambivalent reader.