Were novels a side effect of being published in paper?

Were novels a side effect of being published in paper?

I love novels.

Let’s get that out of the way first, because what I am going to write next is not intended to degrade their value in any way.

It’s just that…I’ve read a couple of things lately that sparked me thinking about the development of the novel as a form, and whether it would have happened without paperbooks (p-books) being the primary method of distribution.

Let’s start before paper distribution.

Clearly, when people were orally telling stories, they didn’t do anything like the length of a current novel. Certainly, there were long oral poems, but we didn’t have this chapter-chapter-chapter structure, leading to 50,00 words or so!

When we first started writing down narratives, they were short. It was painstaking work to copy anything (and I presume that people at first traveled to where something was written, rather than vice versa…think about a carved stone or a cave wall).

When we got to the point of mechanical printing (which made it relatively easy), why wasn’t the standard length ten “pages”, or a million “pages”?

Why books that are roughly the same size?

My guess is that a lot of it had to do with logistics. Sure, there were short pieces available (pamphlets and such), but my thinking is that it was difficult to go to where you would get a book, very often, and getting a short book might not be worth the trip.

On the other hand, getting books to market (or to individuals) argued against very long books. If you had a million page book, how would you get it somewhere? For that matter, who could afford to buy it and store it?

Paperbacks, of course, standardized the format even more. In the USA, we can look at 1939 and forward as the real marketization of paperbacks, with originals coming in the 1950s or so.

With that format as cheap as it was (perhaps a tenth the consumer price of a hardback), traditional bookstores didn’t want to have them taking up the space in the store (as a former brick and mortar bookstore manager, I can tell you that you are always fighting the rent). That meant they had to find other places to sell them, like drugstores. One thing that made that possible? Spinner racks…stand alone racks that held several paperbacks. The books, though, had to fit in the little holders, so they had to be a particular size.

I haven’t gone back and researched all this, and I’m sure my readers will help me with the timeline and specifics if I am off above. I also don’t want to ignore the impact of serialized literature in magazines.

The key thing in this post, though, is this curious question: would we have novels if, say, digital existed before paper?

A novel feels right to me, but why should it? Is it just tradition that I want to read a story of that length? A tradition brought on through physical limitations of distribution, rather than esoteric influences of artistry?

If digital was first, would we ever download something that is 50,000 words all at once? Perhaps, instead, we would read the story in dribs and drabs, just going into read it as we wanted. Maybe you read a thousand words in a day…maybe you read ten thousand one day.

I think that would have led to much more open-ended situations, where we wouldn’t find these definitive endings (happy and otherwise) that we have come to expect from a traditional paperbook. If getting to “page” ten thousand was as easy as getting to “page” two hundred (although it would take longer), would we be upset if it just stopped?

I can think of a few equivalents to this.

One is comic books. I never liked “to be continued” stories, but stand alones didn’t really stand alone. :) You read comic book after comic book in one title. Suppose the first ten issues of Batman (after the hero had gotten a separate title) had all been published in one volume, and then you had to wait a year before the next one? I don’t think we would feel the same way about the character.

Television and radio are similar. Yes, we have TV movies and seasons, but we generally watch television (or listened to radio characters) on an open-ended, ongoing basis.

The other big thing I’d say is when I played role-playing games. We played a lot of them, but we were partial to Rolemaster. We played the same characters (unless they got killed) for years, I think, just visiting them every weekend. There was no end in sight, although there were clear “adventures” that had a start and finish.

So, I wonder: now that words have been freed of the need to be printed, trucked, centralized, and sold in person, will we still want novel length books? Will we begin to integrate open-ended stories into our reading lives, consuming them at our own pace, starting and stopping where we want? Will books change consistently, so that someone who read a book in 2016 gets a different story from someone reading the same book in 2017?

Was the novel a side effect of the distribution method?

I’ll be interested to hear what you have to say about this “thoughtabout”. :)

Update: thanks to reader Joe Bowers for improving this post.

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

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13 Responses to “Were novels a side effect of being published in paper?”

  1. Joe Bowers Says:

    “With that format as cheap as it was (perhaps a tenth the consumer price of a paperback),”
    Hi, Bufo, I think you miswrote (?) here, as I believe you were comparing paperbacks to hardcovers, I may be wrong.

    As for the extended length you are considering, that brings to mind all the extended series, trilogies and longer, that seem so prevalent in sci-fi/fantasy. I think the “Wheel of Time” series is over twenty books. It makes me reluctant sometimes to acquire a debut by an author, as I have no idea how long (how many sequels) the story might become. Not sure how relevant that is to your topic, just my first impression.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Joe!

      I appreciate the good eye on that! I’ve corrected it and credited you for the help.

      The longest series where I’ve read everyone is Doc Savage…181 adventures, although I read some in omnibus reprints. As we saw in the post on books from 1913, series books have been popular for some time. I think they don’t generally tend to form a “super novel”, although there may be continuity. Although the first Oz book is my least favorite of the original series, I think, I would still read those books in order (since events in one book may be referenced in another, even though each story is complete).

  2. Joe Bowers Says:

    After a bit of research, I must correct myself, the Wheel of Time series is, apparently, fourteen books, plus a couple supporting volumes. Still, quite an investment of time and money!

  3. Zebras Says:

    I wouldn’t called novels a “side effect” of the distribution system. I would say their format was “massively influenced” by the distribution system. Length as you pointed out was definitely dictated by the size that could be bound, and the fact that often, as you said, displays needed sizing consistency. Sometimes, you would get a book that appeared the same size as many others, and either the print would be much smaller, or much larger, so that it would take up the approximate same number of pages. These rules only seemed to be broken when the publishers sensed they had a guaranteed bestseller.

    I think already novels are changing based on e-distribution. New writers don’t have to fit a cookie cutter size, and even if they can’t convince a publisher to produce their book, they can publish it themselves now.

    I’m not sure how I feel about your concept of open-ended stories (I did some role playing myself btw). We all do seem to focus on having a satisfying ending to a book. Publishing has definitely gotten more series oriented. I personally hate most pre-planning of series, as it makes me think the publisher and/or the author are just looking to make a quick book by dividing up a story. My favorite series, was not originally planned as a series. The author wrote one very long book to begin with originally to prove to herself she could write a book, and when it was shopped around, she got like 4 offers in as many days, however, then they almost didn’t want to publish it because it didn’t fit any mold, etc. etc. The sequels each had there own someone satisfying endings until the most recent. The most recent had a serious cliffhanger, and I’ve heard that many of the readers threw the book against the wall, knowing they would have to wait about 2 years to find out what’s next.

    When I got my first Kindle I re-bought these for the Kindle, and I dip into reading small amounts here and there, like you mentioned, and its like visiting with family for a few minutes in between other reading.

    Sorry for babbling on like this. You’ve definitely chosen another good topic to get us all talking!

  4. Ed Foster Says:

    I think paper was one of a number of factors that effected the standardization of the novel as the primary literary device. Too small, and it would not seem substantial enough to warrant the cost of publication and distribution, too large and it would either be too expensive or too wieldy. But I think there are other factors as well.

    The average novel takes somewhere between (guessing here) 4 and 8 hours for the average person to read??? It maybe that we have trained ourselves to expect that length to finish a novel, 2 or 3 good evenings curled up on the couch, or a good lazy day at the beach, but I think it is also related to our attention span. There is something inherently comfortable in the 50-60 thousand word novel. It takes you just long enough to read that you can fully engage with the story and the characters, learn enough about them to develop a fondness for them, and have enough plot to keep a reader interested and reading.

    Surely serialized stories are nothing new, and are probably a truer translation of the oral story than the traditional novel is, and it would be interesting to see, if over time, digital publication does lead us back to more of the never ending kinds of stories you mention.

    I do hope that one of the effects of the transition from paper and ink to electrons and clouds is the acceptance of different length works by consumers. The Amazon “Kindle Singles” seems like a great idea to me. Ending a story when you are finished rather than at some arbitrary number seems like something that should catch on over time, and is one of the places where the digital world should really challenge traditional thinking.

    Another compelling post, sir.

  5. Evan Says:

    Hi Bufo, interesting post.

    As I started thinking more about the form of the modern novel and whether it’s a product of artistic intent or practical limitations (paper size, availability and so on as you mentioned) it seems clear to me that it’s a function of both.

    You mentioned serialization as a distribution method for content, and most likely we think of Charles Dickens first when talking about stories published that way in the 19th century. The Old Curiosity Shop and it’s ill-fated waif Little Nell is a story that ran in 88 parts over the course of two years and was wildly successful at least in part due its structured cliffhanger breaks.
    From here on I’m just speculating, but it seems to me that The Old Curiosity Shop would have been a very different story if Dickens had intended to publish it as a complete piece. I assume it would have been impractical and prohibitively expensive to produce large numbers of books that would have run nearly eight hundred pages as modern copies do.

    It may also be helpful to think about other forms of content as well; movies and television in particular. Television shows are mostly broken into discrete 42 and 22 minute chunks. (Here I’m assuming most of your readers are well-adjusted members of the 21st century and tend to consume TV with DVRs and streaming services like Netflix) This old-fashioned convention of length would seem to be dictated by the cost of producing shows and how much advertising is needed to pay for them as well as the need for broadcasters to keep to set schedules.
    Still, much TV content is episodic and often follows larger story arcs that satisfy our desire for longer stories… just like the serialization of stories published in the 19th century. So, here again the form of the content is dictated by both artistic vision and by practical limitations.

    The availability of affordable books in the 20th century and the adoption of smaller, less expensive paperbacks mostly removed the practical limitations on the length of a novel, but here artistic limitations intrude. Essentially the length of a modern novel is a function of the skill of the author. Can the author keep us engaged? Does the story merit the length of the work? I think of all the copies of Gravity’s Rainbow that Pynchon sold in the 70’s but I have yet to find more than one or two actual human beings that made it all the way through its 305,000 (!) words.

    Anyway, there are a lot of unfinished thoughts here, but I’ve got some reading of my own to do. (One of Greg Bear’s novels that comes in at a tidy and compelling 500 pages.)

    -Evan from NY

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Evan!

      I wrote a piece about older serialized fiction a few years ago:


      That one might have some other examples you would find interesting.

      I would say that each Harry Potter novel stopping (but not concluding might have been different if digital had been the mainstream when J.K. Rowling started writing them. I’ve always been amazed at how each of the books in that series aged in tone along with the characters (and some of the readers, although many of us started reading them when we were already adults). I have no doubt that the end was envisioned by the time the first book was published.

      However, what if Jo Rowling had just published the first Harry Potter “chapter” on line, and then just added chapters as they occurred to her? That would have made for a very different structure, I think.

      Some vidoegames are like that. There may be a number of missions and an overall goal…but a player can wander forever in an open-ended world, if they want.

      Like the Gravity’s Rainbow reference, by the way!

      Are the length of novels based on the skill of the author…or what the publisher will buy? That’s where indie publishing will change what happens. I don’t think the average publisher is going to buy a 10,000 “page” novel from an unknown and publish it as one piece: they are, if interested, going to break it down into different books.

      We can say the same thing about movies…while there have been some experimental pieces that are more than five hours long, the multiplex shrinks from ones that are more than three (although they aren’t completely excluded) as a matter of economics: more showings in a day means more money. I suppose you could charge audience members $25 for a five-hour movie, but you wouldn’t get many takers. :)

      • Evan Says:

        You’re right about Rowling having mapped out Harry’s future well in advance, and there are certainly advantages to writing a series that way. On the other hand, one of my favorite YA series I shared with my boys is Philip Reeve’s Hungry Cities that started with Mortal Engines, a one-off novel that he never expected to revisit let alone be be the hit it was.

        So I guess the question for 2013 is: Would Reeve’s Mortal engines been a very different work had he been able to publish Mortal Engines on a whim with the bar to e-publishing as low as it is? Definitely. (’nuff said, no spoilers) ;)

        Oh and yes, lengthy movies were an issue mostly for economic reasons; when Lawrence of Arabia was released it (among others) had an intermission built in. Artistically it works nicely, but many theaters refused to take it and those that did cut it down after its first run simply because they needed to get more showings in per day.

        Again, a your blog’s a pleasure.


      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Evan!

        I haven’t tried that series…I’ve sent a sample of the first one to my Kindle, and I’ll give it a try. :)

  6. Evan Says:

    PS- And of course long-form serialized stories are still with us; just look at Harry Potter and all the knock-off fantasy series it spawned. That’s a lot of words.

  7. liz Says:

    “Side effect” has negative connotations, indicating that novels are an undesired result of the invention of the printing press. I’d suggest “evolution” instead, since that word has connotations of improvement and development. Novels aren’t the only lengthy written-word document that arose from the easy availability of printing – non-fiction works such as biographies and science-related works became longer as well as more available to the general public due to the relative ease of printing and the reduction of price of copies that brought. This enabled a larger population to learn about history and science.

    Even works such as the Bible were available on an extremely limited basis for ages due to their length, but the printing press made it a book for the masses, rather than a document that was disseminated by the few.

    OK, enough of the past – what about the future of the novel? I believe that rather than regressing to a serial-style publication without relatively defined beginnings and ends, there’s a chance novels will evolve into something quite different. Imagine if a person from a pre-printing press era (who could read) were to receive a modern novel – what would he think of this “novel” thing? (pardon the pun) His experience so far has been with short stories which were passed on orally with various modifications which had been introduced over time. The book would be a fuller story that is available to him on demand via an item that never was in a bad mood or forgot parts of the story; if he lent the book to a buddy (who also could read), the buddy would have access to exactly the same story. That’s revolutionary, really. So imagine what could develop over the next couple of hundred years … or even in a shorter period of time. Our minds might be “blown” (as they like to say) by what future folks will find to be standard.

    Could go on for quite a while, but I do appreciate the stimulating questions you frequently pose!

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, liz!

      I’m glad you used the word “connotation”, because there is no negativity suggested in the denotation. Many medications have had positive side effects, and sometimes become approve for those other uses. A side effect is simply something that the medication does in addition to it’s intended use, positive or negative. Avastin comes to mind, for example: licensed for cancer use, I believe it is also shown to have a positive effect on macular degeneration. Viagra has positive effects on some pulmonary misfunction, I believe. That’s why we sometimes see the phrase “adverse side effects”, rather than just “side effects”.

      The Bible is always a great example of the impact of Gutenberg’s innovation…and my understanding is that it wasn’t a random choice. :) It was important, from a commercial viewpoint, for people to perceive the new movable type, mass market device as having a positive social impact, and not one that challenged the status quo. Of course, as Nate Silver cited in

      The Signal and the Noise

      it also perpetuated one of the great typos of all time, the “Wicked Bible”. It left out the word “not” in “Thou shalt not commit adultery”. If that had been a single, hand-done Bible, that error would not have been disseminated widely.

      As to minds being blown, well, I’ve found that I doubt that would be the case for many people. If we start at a point where people encounter novelty (which could be true in pre-printing press days), I think many people are extraordinarily good at ignoring what doesn’t fit into their paradigms. If a literate person encountered a story form that was unfamiliar to them, I don’t think they would go into a mind-sputtering “That does not compute” state. :) I think they might tend to say, “interesting” or “That’s not a story”. In the latter case, they don’t have to abandon their current concepts, and that’s what prevents the “Norman coordinate” reaction.

      I wrote what I think was (unintentionally) one of my least engaging posts on this topic:

      A Missouri Humorist’s Internet Report

  8. Will genres disappear? « I Love My Kindle Says:

    [...] Were novels a side effect of being published in paper? [...]

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