A Book is a Book: What is a Book?
When you hear the word book, what comes to mind?
I know may feel like an odd question, since we talk about books so routinely that the answer seems obvious. But stripping away everything but the word itself, what does it really mean? Is there a length or a format that’s intrinsic to the definition of the word for you? Do you think about certain genres or physical sizes or design elements like covers?
I’m asking this because it appears to me that the “book” as a thing, and as something that encompasses the experience of reading, is changing rapidly and in varying ways. From the rise of audiobooks, which are essentially a performance of a story, to digital books, which take form in the device on which they’re read, to serials and non-fiction and poetry collections and myriad other collections bound within a cover or the four corners of a digital reading device.
I started thinking more about the nature of books when I started listening to a lot of audiobooks. Then there is this post that Book Riot linked to yesterday, which features “24 books to read in under an hour.” That’s right: AN HOUR. While I’m glad to see that the list is pretty meaty in terms of suggested material (Poe, Lovecraft, Gogol, Proulx, Garcia Marquez, etc.), many of these works don’t translate to me as books, so much as stories, or short stories, or novellas. And the infographic provides a handy picture of a watch for every “book,” with the number of pages and the number of minutes it supposedly takes to read. For example, you can read Kafka’s 27-page The Great Wall of China in 22 minutes, based on the average adult reading speed of 300 words per minute.
Last year, NPR featured 14 books you could read in the time it takes to watch the Superbowl. What is that, like three hours, give or take? The list includes The Great Gatsby, Frankenstein, and The Wasteland, which, last time I checked, was actually a poem. Kaetrin tweeted this post by Andrew Kortina, in which he talks about the way he gets around reading a non-fiction book someone recommends to him. He Googles for a Ted talk or NYT book review, figuring that he’s “cutting the fluff that exists because of an outdated economics,” namely a “minimum thickness requirement” that justifies a $20 price for a physical book. And I read Kortina’s piece alongside two recent articles from Nate Hoffelder, in which he references the change Amazon is making author payments in their KU program. Originally, Amazon paid authors based on the number of books that were borrowed and read, which appeared to favor shorter works, and they are now going to pay authors based on the number of pages that are read, which Hoffelder argues privileges longer works.
You can decide if you agree with the conclusions Hoffelder comes to about this change (or even the original payment scheme), but within KU, apparently some authors were deliberately writing shorter works and releasing them at a higher frequency to ostensibly increase the number of loans they got. One author Hoffelder quotes was apparently releasing a new “book” as often as every three days. Yes, that’s DAYS. Oh, and let’s not forget the new trend of YouTube channel to book, which follows the sensation of blog to book, both of which are variations on the ‘celebrity author’ phenomenon.
I use the term “phenomenon” intentionally, because works After, the One Direction story written entirely on Wattpad definitely seems like a phenomenon. So does the Book That Shall Not Be Named. And these works might be making a fortune, and generating another fortune in derivative works, but their popularity seems very specific and almost idiosyncratically specific. Like the proliferation of publishers bringing works of fan fiction into the commercial marketplace, sometimes as P2P. All of a sudden, stories become books, which allows them to be marketed and sold in easily recognizable ways.
I suspect that for most adult fiction readers, book has traditionally equated to a novel, or collection of essays, recipes, stories, or poems, or novellas – something substantial. Before I started reading Romance, I didn’t really think about books as much as I thought about novels, novellas, short stories, poetry, memoirs, plays, etc. With commercial fiction, though, it feels like everything is being packaged as a book these days, while simultaneously, what constitutes a book is changing in response to new ways stories can be packaged and sold.
I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing (some writers are always going to try to maximize their profit in the literary marketplace, while others are simply going to write what they want to write, regardless of how the market is evolving). I am not, however, convinced that Amazon is driving these changes, or that it’s all about changes to our patterns of concentration with new technologies. I think there are a lot of different factors at work, including the rise in self-publishing and the popularity of new storytelling formats (audiobooks, serials). And with these changes come a lot of opportunities for creative re-interpretation of something that could inspire more reading and more avid readers.
At the same time, I wonder about the future of the book, not in a digital v. paper sense, but in terms of how stories are told and commercialized, and how our rituals of reading may change. I know that since I shifted to digital and audiobooks, the way I read has changed. I can now read anywhere, and I can read for 5 or ten minutes at a time, which never used to be the case when I had to cart around, pull out, and find my place in a paper book. But I also find it incredibly frustrating when I buy a “book,” only to find that it’s really just a short story or even a novella. The market seems absolutely flooded with books, so many of which are relatively short works of fiction. It’s not that I begrudge authors using gimmicks and writing to trends – it’s more that I’m just not interested in most of the gimmicks and trends, and I find myself doing a lot of re-reading because I’m too lazy to take a chance on a book I may not enjoy, especially when I’m doing so much of my “reading” in the car, listening to an audiobook, or in snatches or minutes here and there. And I wonder how many authors are pushing themselves past their natural pace of writing because they feel pressure to deliver more work to the marketplace. Because as much as it kills me that Anne Bishop is only writing one Others book a year, when that book comes out, it’s an event for me, and I relish the time I spend reading it.
I guess what I’m really saying is that for all the ways in which I now have more opportunities to read – via different formats and modes – there are ways in which reading feels much more mundane to me, when it used to be a pleasure I anticipated and coveted. That’s why reading was my choice above so many other forms of entertainment. And now that reading is becoming enmeshed with other forms of entertainment, I feel like I’m now chasing the unique pleasures reading consistently used to deliver to me — the attention I had to pay to the words, the passages I would re-read and think about before moving on, the time I spent contemplating a particular plot point or, in the case of non-fiction, an argument or observation. Those are rich pleasures for me, and nothing delivers them like actual, literal reading.
There are a lot of readers who seem to be experiencing some kind of malaise, and I wonder whether it’s connected, at least in part, to the way the book is changing, diversifying, and becoming more linked with other forms of entertainment. For all the ways in which this is a good thing, is it diminishing some of the uniqueness, and some of the unique rituals, of books and reading?
In libraryland when we have this conversation, a book is often referred to as kind of idea/information container. There are many kinds of containers with different conventions, some with distinct avenues of distribution. To think about it in this way helps librarians evaluate how to help patrons access the idea/information they are looking for.
I definitely have preferences about the kinds of containers I prefer. And my preferences differ based on the kind of idea/information I’m looking for and why. How I want to experience the idea/information is big part of how I choose what I do with my time. I’m not terribly affected or concerned if those ideas were first expressed in a different container.
For me, when I think book, I am most often thinking novel or non-fiction or reference book as is/could be published in print. I include category length works (50,000 words +) as “books”. Novellas I call by their name and to me they don’t qualify as a book unless they’re in a collection.
That said, I love that in Calibre I can break-up a collection of novellas and list them individually so I can rate each one individually and list the date I first read it.
I really dislike when authors (because this is something I see mostly in self-publishing) don’t indicate a story is a novella, particularly if it’s priced as much as full-length books. I really appreciate when the word count is included in the blurb. I enjoy novellas so it’s not as if that would deter me from buying. I just don’t like feeling tricked. My expectations for a story can depend upon the length.
I have tried audio books, but have concluded most are not for me. Or maybe I just need to listen to books by authors I don’t read in digital or print as the narrators never sound the way the author’s voice/characters’ voices sound in my head when I read.
I love to read. And though I now do so mostly in digital, the act of reading is something I love. Listening to a book doesn’t engage my brain the same way as reading one does. So it’s not even that I don’t like the narrator’s style so much as my mind tends to wander even if I’m engaged with the story.
I read books – only very rarely shorter stories. I have been reading electronically since 2008. Most of the review sites I check everyday have page counts or word counts – and I check them automatically when I am on amazon. I usually will not look at an item if it is under 130 pages or so. I will read shorter works when I am glomming an author and that is all that is left. I will skip reviews if the page count is under 130 pages – unless it is a loved author. On many review sites now they have book reviews where the page count is 21 pages, or 60 pages or so – even blog tours of books which are 29 pages long. I completely ignore them.
Having said all that, the movement to the electronic format allows authors to sell their shorter works, which I believe is a good thing for the author and the reader – even if I have no interest in them myself.
Yeah- what she said :-)
For me “book” conjures an image of a stack of paper with a cover slapped on it. From my perspective, no matter what the actual format, if the work would be sold alone if it was in that format, its a book.
“Call of Cthulhu”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, and “Second Variety” all get sold in paper as part of collections normally, so I wouldn’t call them books.
It’s not a perfect definition. “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is sometimes published alone and sometimes as “& Other Stories.”
I don’t think the format or length has as much effect on my perception of reading, as much as the pricing and ease of buying. Don’t get me wrong, I love free and cheap ebooks, but the book I picked up because “it looked promising and, hey, it was only $0.99”, doesn’t have the same level of appeal as something I’ve been waiting to come out in paperback, or waiting to come out, or caught my eye while browsing in the book store or a library book sale. There’s no anticipation or thrill of discovery in most of my ebook purchases.
With my reader hat on, “book” generally equals “novel” in my brain, whether it’s a digital or a print book. I’ve got digital works of varying lengths all queued up to read in my mighty To Read list, but only the things that are novel-length parse to me as “books”. The rest of them get mentally filed under “stories” or “novellas”.
If it’s audio, it’s either “audiobook” or “audio play” or just “audio” (in the latter case, given that I listen to Doctor Who audios from Big Finish and those are full-cast productions with music and sound effects, I can’t really call those audiobooks even if I listen to them in audiobook format).
With my writer hat on, it seems disingenuous to me to think of the shorter things I’ll be releasing as “books”. Thanks to those above who’ve mentioned putting page counts or word counts into blurbs. I’ll try that on future releases of mine. :)
Also @library addict: ooh, thanks for that remark about Calibre letting you split up novella collections. That sounds like functionality I need to explore!
@Angela – Jane wrote a post about how to split anthologies using Calibre, iirc. I haven’t done it yet, but it looks useful.
I think it is for me. I miss the days when a release from a favorite author was, to use your word, an event. Occasionally a book that I anticipate that much comes along, and reminds me of that.
@cleo: Oh awesome, thank you! I’ll look for that post!
A book for me is basically defined by length. I have been reading primarily in digital format since 2008, so even if I had any ‘physical’ image of a book before that, its worn off now. Anything, say 50,000 words or greater, seems like a book (about 2500 kindle locations, I guess :D). Shorter seems like a novella or short story. A collection of short stories or poetry would feel like a book.
Interesting, I guess my attitude to non fiction books is a bit like Andrew Kortina’s. Although I spend quite a bit of time reading non fiction, it is typically in the form of news articles, blog posts, sometimes long form articles. If I am looking up a specific topic, I would google it and go to relevant websites. I rarely turn to full length books. I would say I read maybe 3-8 non fiction books a year? I read a lot more fiction books. Yet in terms of hours a week spent reading fiction and non fiction, quite a bit is non fiction.
This discussion on how the methods and rituals of reading affects our experience is fascinating. For me, new opportunities to read has been an unmitigated plus, because it has supplemented my previous opportunities and not replaced them. For books I am anticipating, I save them and will still only read them in big chunks, in ‘pure reading time’, and so I still get the “pleasure I anticipated and coveted” experience you describe. The kind of books I am willing to read on the go are either ones that I expect to fall in the ‘decent but not great’ category, or are rereads. Similar, my audiobook listening, which I only discovered in 2014, has not displaced my existing reading- it just allows to me get some additional time in while commuting or doing laundry or whatever. Though I must admit I mostly listen to audiobooks which I have already read, because otherwise I completely lose track of what is happening.
Fascinating discussion. As an author of romance novels, I’m thrilled that folks can buy my books at a fairly reasonable price, and read them as eBooks. I read romance novels mostly as eBooks myself. And sci-fi books also are great on my kindle.
But when I’m reading non-fiction, I prefer to have an actual paperback, since I love to underline and write notes in the margin, to facilitate what I call my “conversation” with the author, when words read make me think new thoughts. I don’t have the inclination to learn how to do that on my kindle. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t feel it would be the same.
I, too, have been disappointed to buy a romance, eagerly begin to read, then realize I’m done with it in record time. I don’t consider novellas as books…more like extended short stories. Conversely, I read a sci-fi book last year that was over 100,000 pages, and I felt it was sorely in need of major editing, to make the story tighter and more enjoyable.
I guess the main thing is that people are reading…no matter what genre or format. With the woeful statistics of how few adults even bother to read even 1 book during a year, we need to encourage more people to view reading anything and everything, as an enjoyable escape from the stress of modern life.
@Angela Korra’ti (Highland): Linky! :) https://dearauthor.com/ebooks/using-epub-split-create-individual-books-collection-box-sets/ (I use this regularly; it’s easy and very effective).
Count me in as somebody who thinks of the book as a novel, or looooong non – fiction. Short story is a story in my head. Not a book. I took a little bit to adjust to thinking of ebook as book, but now I definitely do think that way and had been for a while. Great post and great discussion.
@Kaetrin: Ooh, thank you kindly! I shall explore this; I’ve got a boxed set ebook I’d love to split up into individual files!
I hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but when I consider the way I talk about what I’m reading…
“Honey? Do you know where I left my book?” usually refers to my kindle. That’s actually a much shorter conversation than, “Do you know where I left the book I was reading?” “Which one?” “The Ilona Andrews, not the Robert B Parker.”
But when I talk about what I have read, I find myself using the term “story”, which now I think about it, is how my grandmother referred to a Soap Opera. “I missed my stories last week, what happened?” (My grandmother was also a voracious reader, so I think she, like me, just enjoyed stories.) But retuning from my digression, I think that I tend to talk about, “the last story I read” if I am not referring to a book by name.
But I will frequently refer to books by name. “Have you read Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series?” And I will also differentiate whether something is a book or a short story or a short story collection or a novella (I don’t get any more specific than that, since I can’t keep the lengths straight) because that seems fair.
And as someone who loves short stories and seeks out anthologies, I love that ebooks have made it easier for authors to publish their short stories. I used to have to hunt down anthologies when we traveled; I love how easy it is now to find the short stories I love.
I’m not sure this was especially coherent–my brain was jumping around a lot. :)