Do readers prefer longer or shorter books?

Big pile of books

I saw this article from The Guardian:

Books are steadily increasing in size, according to a survey that has found the average number of pages has grown by 25% over the last 15 years.

A study of more than 2,500 books appearing on New York Times bestseller and notable books lists and Google’s annual survey of the most discussed books reveals that the average length has increased from 320 pages in 1999 to 400 pages in 2014.

According to James Finlayson from Vervesearch, who carried out the survey for the interactive publisher Flipsnack, there’s a “relatively consistent pattern of growth year on year” that has added approximately 80 pages to the average size of the books surveyed since 1999.

The literary agent Clare Alexander agrees that long books are more portable in electronic formats, but points out that much ebook reading is focused on genres such as romance, crime and erotica. For Alexander, the gradual increase in size is evidence of a cultural shift.

“Despite all the talk of the death of the book because of competition from other media,” she says, “people who love to read appear to prefer a long and immersive narrative, the very opposite of a sound bite or snippets of information that we all spend our lives downloading from Google.

This would have surprised me. All along I’ve been told short stories are back in style because of declining attention spans and people reading from their phones, on smaller screens unlikely to be suitable for a 500 page turner. Therefore, the argument goes, quit writing those 300 page stories and instead sell 15-40 page short stories at 99 cents a pop.

But longer stories also sell better, according to Mark Coker at Smashwords:

Longer books sell better than shorter books.  This finding is consistent with each of the prior year’s surveys, though as I mention in the presentation, this year’s finding comes with a lot more caveats.  In a nutshell, I suspect the rise of multi-author box sets, often at deep discount prices, is probably throwing off the data this year, and as I discuss in the presentation, some of the dynamics will cause it to understate impact of longer books and some will cause it to overstate it.

I think this is what’s happening: Casual readers who would rather watch TV or play video games prefer shorter works, because they can finish a book or short story in an hour or less and feel like they read something to completion. But passionate readers prefer a story they can connect to, and more often than not shorter works don’t do that in fiction. Now that doesn’t mean shorter is worse: Animal Farm, The Notebook, The Alchemist, The Old Man and the Sea, MacBeth, are all examples of shorter works which told stories most readers still remember today. Animal Farm and The Alchemist are considered among the best fiction works ever written. That said, some of the best-selling works are longer and it does mean I believe a well-written story is more important than a short one, even if some are emphasizing shorter over quality.

As readers, do you prefer shorter or longer works?

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Do readers prefer longer or shorter books?

  1. If we’re talking fiction, and fiction written well, definitely longer books. I don’t like to get into a good story and have it end so soon. There are notable tomes that could have used some cutting, in my view, such as Moby Dick, The Pillars of the Earth, War and Peace, most of Michener’s sagas, to name a few. Still good stories, but there’s a temptation there to speed-read through the slow parts.

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    • Agreed. I like short stories and am in fact completing one now for a contest. But I see short stories as its own form, and for book series as a substitute and not a replacement for full-length novels. There’s a reason the best sellers list is not full of short story collections!

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