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Dear Author

On the “specialness” of books

We’re all familiar with the assertion that books are “special,” and therefore deserving of different treatment than other commercial products. I used believe it myself. Until, that is, folks like Jon Sargent and Authors United started using it to justify crap like agency pricing and the shunning of Amazon. To wit, compliments of Authors United:

Amazon has every right to refuse to sell consumer goods in response to a pricing disagreement with a wholesaler. But books are not mere consumer goods. Books cannot be written more cheaply, nor can authors be outsourced to another country. Books are not toasters or televisions. Each book is the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual, a person whose living depends on his or her book finding readers. This is the process Amazon endangers when it uses its tremendous power to separate authors from their readership.

So does anyone actually believe that these authors don’t want to sell the most books possible – excuse me, the most new books possible? That if Amazon were still selling Hachette books and doing it alongside toasters and instant macaronic and cheese, that Authors United would even exist? Because I don’t.

Okay, so let’s break this down a little. Joanna Cabot of TeleRead articulates a good starting point for this analysis, I think:

. . . book production may not benefit from widgetization. But book SELLING does. This is the point many authors fail to realize—that you can’t conflate the two things. And when you separate them out, you can do each one of them better.

Yes, book production is, in large part, a creative process. Of course, ideas about what people will read – i.e. whether a book will sell enough to justify the publisher’s investment – also inform this process, and those ideas are related to how consumers will spend their money and how many books will likely sell. Just like selling books is largely a commercial endeavor, even though many booksellers will tell you that there’s an art to selling, and many readers have benefitted from a talented hand-seller. So the distinction isn’t quite as easy as Cabot makes it. Still, I think it’s important to note that when we get into discussions about selling books, we have to take into consideration the fact that publishers, authors, and retailers all want books to sell as many copies as possible. And one of the most coveted lists for an author to appear on is the New York Times Bestseller list, which doesn’t measure a book’s literary value, but rather how many copies are moving off the shelves.

Of course, a book that sells well may also be judged as one of value (a book like The Help, which is problematic in other ways, is a good example of how word of mouth and hand-selling can turn a book into a bestseller), but there are also huge bestsellers that continue to face derision (Fifty Shades, for example). Still, how many authors would refuse to have their books sold like other consumer goods if it would guarantee them a bestseller?

I think for me the real problem is that the whole “books are special” argument has become a hammer on the part of publishers and authors, where every reader is the proverbial nail. And we readers are being hit over the head with arguments about how we should accept agency pricing because books are special, or we should stop shopping at Amazon because books are special – or whatever the agenda happens to be at the moment. And underneath it all really seems to be the refrain that some books (or genres) are more special than others, and that we should all be in agreement on which are and are not.

If anyone should be deciding whether books are special, it should be readers. No, let me correct that. Anyone can believe that books are special. Authors, publishers, editors, cover artists, marketing advocates – whoever. But the only people who should be deciding for readers if and when and which books are special, are readers.

As a reader, what I see happening is that the books are special argument is being used to bolster the economic self-interest of publishers and authors, and, in many cases, to manipulate readers into using their power as consumers to a) turn a book into a bestseller, b) police reviews, often on behalf of an author who can’t stand his/her “baby” criticized by reviewers, c) pay more for a book than we otherwise might, d) participate in an author’s marketing process, perhaps by joining a street team or informally promoting a book to other readers, and e) perceiving our best interests to run parallel or entwined with those of the author and/or publisher.

Some of this might be harmless or even valid. A robust book market, for example, serves readers, authors, and publishers by providing multiple, diverse options. And reader loyalty can yield benefits like early access to content or free supplemental content that may be worth if to the reader. However, when readers are enlisted to act as foot soldiers for an author or a publisher, it may not all be so innocent, even if there is no bad intent.

Moreover, author and publisher interests do not always or even naturally align with reader interests. For example, it may be in Author X’s perceived best interest to place her books in front of Author Y’s books in the bookstore. That is definitely not in the interest of Author Y’s readers (or Author Y, for that matter). Publishers want to sell the most books at the greatest profit. Readers, on the other hand, want the most value for their money, whatever that may be (and the equation varies from reader to reader, book to book). We all pursue our own best interests — such is the nature of a competitive marketplace — but we don’t always acknowledge that those interests may conflict. And in situations where readers are being asked to participate in the marketing campaigns of authors, I think these potential conflicts need to be carefully considered.

For example, we’ve all seen examples of an author who reads a negative review of her book that – of course – she deems absolutely unjustified, and then encourages (directly or indirectly) her “loyal” readers to either shout down the review with positive reviews, or to directly challenge the reviewer, possibly creating a hostile and over-personalized stand-off over a book review. Or readers may be told that they will be locked out of an author’s Facebook page if they don’t buy a book. At that point, the book becomes more a weapon than anything else, and reader interests may actually stand in conflict to the author’s, even as the author is calling on readers to support his or her cause.

Of course, for readers, some books are special, but not every book is special to every reader. And not every kind of specialness is the same. However, that books can be many things to many people may be one source of their value. I honestly cannot think of an instance where readers have argued that there is no difference between a toaster and a novel. If anything, making that distinction seems to highlight the extent to which “value” is being conflated with “values,” such that valuing books is primarily a moral or ethical exercise that somehow determines the worth of the reader. In fact, the equation should be reversed: the economic value of a book may be estimated by the author/publisher, but its social, cultural, personal, or artistic value will always be determined by the reader, and that valuation will change from reader to reader and book to book. Authors and publishers cannot make readers value one book above another, or books in general above other things; in many instances the reader will even reject the equation between the price of a book and its prospective value. And there are books that some readers will argue have so little value as to be a detriment to the market.

This is not to say that books are unimportant or that they are not part of a society’s artistic expression. But importance and specialness are not the same thing. Importance is related to the way societies as a whole value cultural literacy, reading, and the availability of literature in the broadest sense. It’s not always about how much they’re loved or even valued by readers, even though the way individuals respond to books can be very powerful, even life-changing. Just as the discussions we have around books can be very powerful and significant in different ways. We can benefit intellectually from books, be enriched emotionally or psychologically, be challenged, educated, turned off, enraged, repulsed, or bored stiff by books. Without question, books also have a unique role to play as cultural artifacts, because they often speak to future generations about what the human imagination could conjure at any given moment in time.

For that alone, they are not identical to toasters or widgets. Reviewing books is not the same thing as reviewing a diet aid (I’m thinking of FTC regulation here), but neither is it the same thing as collecting keepsakes and chronicling all the firsts that parents do for their actual children. Books are unique as a category, and specific people have special relationships to specific books, but in many ways – now more than ever – books are also consumer goods, much in the way of computer games, magazines, toys, and other forms of entertainment people spend money to enjoy. In no way do readers owe any author or publisher a living, nor does the ability to make a living from writing and/or publishing automatically confer a special status anymore than the invention of a million dollar toaster does.

Can reading be special? Absolutely. Can some books be special to some readers? Absolutely. But as long as books are being made available within the stream of commerce, and their value determined at least in part by how much they cost and how many copies are sold, books are consumer goods. And really, I’m not sure I believe that any author or publisher wouldn’t want to be ranked #1 on Amazon, even if it meant being sold alongside a million dollar toaster.

So what do you think? Do you buy Authors United’s distinctions, and if so, why? What do books, reading, and talking about books mean to you? What book is most special to you, and why?

Does Length Matter?

Does Length Matter?


I was being equal parts careless and provocative, when, the other day on Twitter, I tweeted the following:

1088 pages is just too long a book no matter how skilled a writer you are. Agree or disagree?

Quite honestly, I was bored and looking for something to liven up my afternoon, feeling a bit mischievous, as well as, from a writerly and readerly perspective, interested in hearing opinions on the topic. But I really should to have put the first sentence in quotes, because it isn’t and never was my literal opinion.

So before anyone else takes issue, let me clarify that I don’t think book length is a factor that trumps all others – that would be a ridiculous assertion. Nor do I think that 1088 pages is some kind of magic number, below which quality and skill count and above which they cease to matter. That would be even more absurd.

So what do I actually think on the matter of length? Mostly that each book should, in an ideal world, be exactly the length that best serves its author’s vision, whether that length is two hundred pages or two thousand.

Skill does count; it counts a great deal. Nonetheless, book length is a factor in my reading decisions. Although I have enjoyed long books, unless I’ve gotten a strong recommendation from a trusted source or have read the author in the past, I tend to shy away from them when I make my purchasing decisions. Here are some of the reasons why.

Attention span is a factor, but not the only factor.

In high school and college I had a higher tolerance for long books and my attention span isn’t what it used to be. This makes me sad because I wish I could concentrate as easily as I once did.

In my case, I suspect this shortening attention span is primarily due to web browsing, but I also think a contributing factor is the shortening of the average romance in the early 2000s, which was one of the things that conditioned me to expect to spend less time with books. Back in the 1990s, I loved many longer books, so I have no beef whatsoever with readers who prefer them.

This type of conditioning is one of several reasons I think it’s good that longer romances are showing themselves to be viable in the marketplace now.

But while the change in my attention span has had an effect on my interest in reading longer books, I think that to equate a preference for shorter books solely with an inability to concentrate is a fallacy.

Reading speed is also a factor.

My reading speed isn’t super fast. It took a significant dive when I switched primary languages. I regret it more than I can say, although there is a silver lining in that a side effect of is that as I read, I’m more conscious of the sound and rhythm of words now than I was when I read faster.

Still, this means I’m typically lucky to finish a book a week, and even a two hundred page book doesn’t get read in one sitting.

Why am I bringing this up? Because I don’t think the ability to concentrate or deal well with the boring parts of a book is the only factor in why longer books feel like a greater investment for some of us than for others. Time is an additional constraint, because we all have a finite amount of it.

I also think reading speed and attention span can affect each other. Before you pride yourself on your ability to stick with a relatively slow feeling book and assume it’s all due to your attention span, you may want to consider how much slower that same book may feel to someone who only reads at half your speed.


One of the more controversial statements I made in this same Twitter conversation was that longer books mean a greater likelihood of flab. I’ll get to what I mean by this in a moment, but first, let me say that I do understand that each reader is going to define flab differently. Given the subjective nature of reading, it is impossible for what each of us considers flab not to also be subjective.

So let me give one example of what I consider flab. Take the following two sentences.

(A)  William rose up.

(B) William rose.

Personally, I think the word “up” in the first sentence is flab, because it’s not like William could rise except other than up, not do I think the word “up” adds anything to the style of the sentence. Others may differ, and that’s okay.

By my statement that longer books are more likely to contain flab, I don’t mean that any longer book is going to be flabbier than any shorter book. This would be a completely ludicrous statement.

Here’s the point I was trying to make though.  Even many of the best writers will sometimes overlook what given more time they would choose to delete: words they consider superfluous. And I have long thought that all other things being equal, the longer a work is, the more often this is likely to happen, which means that on average this holds true. I could very well be wrong on this point, though.

If a book takes three times longer than most books to read, I want it to be as good as three average-length books put together.

This too proved to be a controversial statement, which surprised me even more. All I meant to say by this was that in the same way that I have to consider whether I’m going to get my money’s worth out of a book, I also have to consider whether I will get my time’s worth. I will generally only put in three times more time (or money) if I expect to get three times more out of the reading experience.

Does this mean I shouldn’t read long books?

Someone suggested so to me, but I don’t agree. Why? Because as Jane’s post about the reader’s ever-changing hard limits suggests, most readers have dislikes that can be overcome.

Just about every reader I know has some kind of strong preference, whether it be for genre, setting, heat level, character types, tropes, style of language, and length is just one of these.

And maybe I’m wrong, but I would venture to guess that just about every reader has had a reading experience which persuaded him or her to suspend at least one of these preferences and enjoy doing so.

It’s certainly true of me. Those books that overcome a preference to the contrary of mine often end up among my very favorites.

So authors, I hope you write books of the length that best serves your vision. And readers, I hope you weigh in below. Do you have any preferences when it comes to the length of your reading material? If so, what are they, and how do they influence your purchasing and reading decisions?