Make a long story short?

Make a long story short?

A writer named Leigh got me thinking with this

Amazon Kindle Community thread

While the thread is putatively about which device(s) you use to read e-books, the heart of the question to me is this: how should authors adapt their works to better suit the ways they are being consumed on digital devices?

I know, I know…some of you are shouting, “Not at all!” You don’t want e-books to change the way books are written.

The medium has always changed books. It would have been really difficult to get a 2,500 page novel published in one volume in hardback. It would probably have been broken into several books…which would have changed the way it was written. How about a five hundred page series romance? What about a great story that was sixty-five pages? Too short to be published on its own (usually), too long to be included with ten other short works.

I wrote waaaaaaaaaay back in 2009 ;) about how I thought this might be a good time to revive serialized novels. Some of the great literature was originally serialized (published a section at a time in a magazine), and you can feel the rhythm of that. I did start a blog to do that with the original Sherlock Holmes novels/short story collections. It’s never really taken off, but I still think that sort of thing could hit with the reading public.

The same thing is also true with visual media, of course. A story can simply be too complex for a single movie, and might become several movies…or a miniseries, perhaps.

So, let’s accept the postulate that the medium of delivery might affect the way a book is written.

How should writers change their works for the digital age?

I’ve made some mechanical suggestions, primarily to improve samples. For example, I’d move the author bio, acknowledgments, and so on, to the back of the book.

What about the book itself?

One hypothesis is that smaller bits are better, because people are reading catch-as-catch-can while in lines and such. I did that with paperbooks (p-books), but having books as convenient as your cellphone means that people who didn’t plan their days around having a book (or two) with them may do that as well.

If people read on backlit devices, like current tablet computers and SmartPhones, it may be that they just read for a shorter period of time. That could be both from battery life and from having a light shone in your eyes for long periods. :)

I think that’s not an unreasonable idea, but I always like to try and get data. Are you preferring shorter things now that you are reading e-books?

I could also see the opposite being true. I have a title on my Kindle that consists of 100 mysteries (most of them novels). I could never have carried around a single volume of a p-book with all that in it!

So, let me do a little data gathering and ask you some questions.

What do you think? Should an author write in short chunks to accommodate a “rapid shift” culture? Are you reading longer or shorter pieces? Do you think phones will become the main choice for reading e-books? Feel free to let me know.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

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10 Responses to “Make a long story short?”

  1. Becca Says:

    I actually read longer books on my Kindle, because it doesn’t hurt my hands like holding the book would do. And, since I don’t have the direct physical feedback as to where I am in the book, I find longer-length books less daunting than reading them in paper

  2. Roger Knights Says:

    Here are relevant comments I posted on Abhi’s “Kindle Review” site early in the year:

    One way for highbrow books to distinguish themselves, and for publishers to provide value to their authors, would be for them to include illustrations accompanying the text, perhaps in place of cover art. A hundred years back, this was standard. Readers sometimes got one per chapter.

    If Amazon were to stress (boldface?) the fact of a book’s being illustrated in its Kindle book-descriptions, this could maybe attract more buyers. It would be easy to test, by letting half the audience see the word and half not. Publishers should encourage Amazon to do the test.
    ————–

    Here’s another 19th century practice publishers should consider resurrecting in order to “add value” to their ebooks: Chapter-level tables of contents, or highlights of themes. I.e., under each chapter heading, and sometimes under each chapter title in the Table of contents, there were about six lines worth of phrases describing the incidents or things-to-think-about that occurred in that chapter. It was a useful teaser and a helpful refresher. Even nonfiction books had them, sometimes, iirc.

    A modern version should (perhaps) additionally make each of these phrases clickable, so readers reviewing the TOC could jump to the exact spot in the book they want to reread or get back to, and so skimmers could jump around most fruitfully.

    Again, publishers could / should nudge Amazon into highlighting the presence of such an “extra” in its book descriptions.
    —————

    Here’s another old-fashioned extra publishers should consider, at least for some of their books. Namely, incorporating a two-level “hierarchical outline” structure in their non-fiction works. This would allow citations to be made independent of page number, which Amazon has short-sightedly eliminated.

    Many classical works incorporate such outlines, such as the Bible. It is cited by book, chapter, and verse, not page number. Outlines are rarely so fine-grained as that three-level system, nor need they be.

    I’m not proposing anything radical. Books already incorporate a single-level hierarchy: chapter numbering. But it’s not terribly helpful. Even if there were no external spur prodding publishers and authors in this direction, adding a second level to the hierarchy would be a Good Thing. (I.e., it would provide a structured overview of the author’s material.)

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Roger!

      I have already avoided illustration editions, and while I think you are correct that they would appeal to some people, I would continue to do so. The images are not a plus to me (similar to audiobooks, I prefer to interpret the book myself), and the increased memory use is a negative. Since Amazon charges the publisher based on the size of the file, it’s likely to going to cost me more as well.

      MobiReference used to have two versions of the Classic Mystery Collection, one illustrated and one not. I believe the non-illustrated was $2.99, and the illustrated something like $7.99.

      Interestingly, they now appear to sell them both for the same price.

      The non-illustrated one is ranked #3,952.

      The illustrated one is ranked 112,327.

      http://www.amazon.com/Classic-Collection-collections-Illustrated-ebook/dp/B0026MS9EY/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1313888377&sr=1-1

      That’s just one example, though…it may be that other cases would be reversed.

      I also think that the way it says [Illustrated] in the title works well. I don’t know if that’s done by the publisher or by Amazon, though. Amazon does okay the word “illustrated” in titles, by the way. I do think Amazon should add some things to the book descriptions (clipping limit, for example), but if it’s a question of publicity, I feel that falls more on the publisher.

      Amazon also now requires added material when publishers using their Kindle Direct Publishing do public domain books…and one of those options is ten or more new illustrations. I wrote about that previously:

      http://ilmk.wordpress.com/2011/04/10/new-guidelines-for-public-domain-content/

      I’ve done the kind of “hierarchical outline” you suggest. :)

      If you go to this one

      http://www.amazon.com/Bufos-Frequently-Kindle-Questions-ebook/dp/B002E1A45O/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1313889580&sr=1-1

      and do Look Inside, you can see the table of contents with the breakdown…it is clickable, as you suggest.

      I think your suggestions are good, and as you can see, they are being employed already by some publishers. I’d say the one place we disagree here is whether Amazon should standard publicizing features for everyone, or if the publishers should bear that responsibility. I can see how it’s potentially to the advantage of Amazon and of the readers for Amazon to list pluses…but I’m not sure that’s where I want them spending their resources. They would, of course, have to verify any of the statements, or risk push back if it wasn’t true.

      • Roger Knights Says:

        “I’d say the one place we disagree here is whether Amazon should standard[ize] publicizing features for everyone, or if the publishers should bear that responsibility. I can see how it’s potentially to the advantage of Amazon and of the readers for Amazon to list pluses…but I’m not sure that’s where I want them spending their resources.”

        Amazon could minimize its costs by:
        1. “Turking” the work, as it has done before when it used to moderate readers’ book reviews. (I.e., outsourcing the job on a piecework basis to online contract workers.)
        2. Charging publishers $5 to do the certification, and putting a little “certification” icon into the book description.
        3. Allowing publishers to certify their own works, under penalty of fines or reduced royalties for any books that turn out to be falsely certified. (Readers would be given a button to report any falsely claimed features.)

        Amazon would benefit in the long run if it could give its customers a more reliable buying experience, as you acknowledge, by certifying features of its offerings. I.e., its reviewers could go beyond minimally certifying the existence of an active TOC and chapter headings by giving each Kindle book a “grade” on half-a-dozen formatting metrics, and an overall grade that is their (weighted?) average. This would provide some sort of quality-encouragement (if not quality control). The publisher would pay an additional $5 for this service; an additional “rated” star-icon could be posted in the book description if done.

        Amazon’s being forced in this direction already, by having to “vet” direct publishing offerings to ensure that they aren’t spam (i.e., mere retreads of already-existing public domain works or purchased texts sold to multiple non-author “authors”). If it’s already having to search inside the book to filter out offerings that taint its brand, going a little further won’t be that much more expensive.

  3. Laura Says:

    To me, the thing I would most like to see change is the navigation. Some books don’t even have a linked TOC! The location numbers really don’t help me at all, but I would like to be able to “flip around”, particularly with nonfiction. With fiction, at least a linked TOC, but it would also be great to be able to flip one chapter at a time to, for example, gauge how long till the end of the chapter without having to go page by page.

    • Roger Knights Says:

      I agree. here’s an e-mail I sent to Kindle-Feedback:

      Publicize and/or reward books that employ active tables of contents and chapter headings

      E.g., from now on I suggest that you indicate, in “Product Details,” whether or not a Kindle book has an active table of contents and “live” chapter headings (ones that enable use of the left and right arrow keys to get to the next and previous chapters). (If you don’t have data on some or all of the books you’ve already listed, you could omit this indication-notice.)

      These features are virtually essential for serious non-fiction (where one jumps around a good deal or reads only in part); and they’re sometimes convenient even in lightweight fiction, especially if one rereads it or gets into a discussion about it. Short story collections benefit from active TOCs, etc., too.

      When there is a choice among editions, as often happens with popular classics, I’d always prefer to get one with an active TOC, etc. (I’ve sometimes been mislead by disingenuous classic-publisher claims about “table of contents included” when it is not active; so it would be consumer-friendly to provide the facts about this from an impartial source.)

      Another way to encourage the inclusion of these features would be to penalize their omission financially, or reward their inclusion. I.e., by adjusting the royalty rate.

      Perhaps both methods of encouragement should be employed.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Laura!

      That’s good advice for the publishers. It’s up to them to provide those features, and some do. Many books I have do have those “chapter marks” where I can flick right to move to the next chapter. That doesn’t tell me how many “pages” there are, though…unless the book has page numbers mapped to a physical edition.

      I’m not sure why the location numbers don’t help you…I find those quite helpful, personally. They are a finer measure than a page…unless it is an image, there are usually more locations than there are pages.

  4. Man in the Middle Says:

    I’ve recently been testing various lengths in reading Kindle books offered for free. After reading a half dozen short stories, I have yet to find one I wanted to even keep in my archive afterwards, let alone review favorably. The Middlewife agrees, and we just this week agreed not to download any more short stories or novellas.

    Side note: we are being offered a lot more “free” Kindle books lately, but also having to sift through a lot more junk to find anything worth downloading. At this point we are mostly looking for reasons to reject newly-free books, so skipping anything less than a full length effort is easy.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Man!

      That’s interesting….thanks! Getting just one short story (as opposed to an anthology or a collection) is certainly more of an electronic thing than a paper thing. If there had been a tradition of buying single shorts in paper, I wonder how that might have changed your experience with the e-texts.

  5. Lady Galaxy Says:

    I rarely read paper books at all anymore because my eyes just can’t handle the print in most hardbacks, and I definitely cannot read paperbacks. Length is a tricky thing. I subscribe to both the AP US News blog and The NY Times news blog. I find I like the AP better because the articles are shorter. Sometimes I find myself getting bored with the really long NY Times articles and I end up going back to the articles list about halfway through most of them. I definitely wish all books had interactive tables of content because I’m one of those “whole to part” thinkers who prefers to read the first chapter, the last chapter, and then the chapters between. That’s hard to do on a Kindle.

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