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So Many Words, So Little Time
by Moira Allen
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Recently, I came across a collection of Louis L'Amour westerns at my favorite book source (Goodwill). My mother was a huge Western fan, so I grew up with shelves stocked with Louis L'Amour, Ernest Haycox, Luke Short, Max Brand, and even Zane Grey. So I thought I'd take a trip down memory lane, and brought the stack home.
It wasn't long before I'd read them all. Some were good, some were so-so, but what struck me the most was that all were short. That stack of 15 or so novels from the 1960's took up no more space on the shelf than four or five modern novels. Not one was more than 200 pages, and most were less. Looking at my collection of fiction, I realized the same was true in other genres. My beloved Agatha Christies, for example, rarely top 200 pages, whereas a modern mystery novel may run to 300 or more.
A glance at the word-counts of the list of books at the end of Victoria's column (as well as the more extensive list on CommonplaceBook.com) shows that I'm not imagining things. Books are getting longer. Much longer. Oh, sure, War and Peace comes in at nearly 600K words, while Gone with the Wind is over 400K -- but remember when those were the exceptions? Once upon a time, the Lord of the Rings trilogy took up way more shelf space than its contemporaries; today, it's practically flash fiction compared to some series.
A few decades ago, publishers felt they were taking a huge risk with a huge book. A book had to be on a par with Gone with the Wind to be considered "publishable" at such a length. A look at the list of word counts on CommonplaceBook shows that most old favorites came in under 100,000 words, with 70K being a typical length. Today, a typical novel is at least two or three times as long as one of those vintage L'Amours.
Now, it's certainly possible that reading tastes have simply changed over the years, and that today's readers want longer books. Except... at the same time, we're being told that adult reading is steadily declining. A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center showed that over 25% of adult Americans hadn't read a single book in the preceding year -- not in print, not electronically, nada. The number of non-readers has increased three-fold since 1978. (In 1978, 42% of adults read 11 or more books in a year; today, only 28% read that many.)
And what else has increased two-fold to three-fold in the same time-frame? The length of the average novel! Do a random search on science fiction/fantasy novels on Amazon by date, and you'll find that in the 1960's and 1970's, a novel exceeding 200 pages was extremely rare. Do a search on sf/fantasy novels published in 2013, and every single novel that comes up is at least 300 pages, with the majority exceeding 500 and some topping 600.
Books are getting longer, and adults are reading less. Hmmm. Coincidence? Or correlation? (Correlation, by the way, simply means that two pieces of data may be related; it does not imply a cause and effect.)
Now, I can't imagine reading only 11 books a year; my average is closer to 250! But I have to admit that the stack of slim L'Amour novels by my chair was much more inviting than the stack of thicker, newer volumes. Correlation: I read all the L'Amour novels; the newer volumes are still sitting there. (Simple math: If books are, on average, twice as long today as they were in the 1970's, even an avid reader will read half as many books today, because our reading speed hasn't changed -- and one book now takes as long to read as two books did in the past.)
Quite simply, a novel that is less than 200 pages represents are far smaller investment of time than a book of 500 pages (or worse, a 500-page novel that is simply #4 in a never-ending series). It's less of a commitment. If you're the sort of person who can put down a book that isn't holding your attention, that's great -- but a lot of readers can't, or won't. That makes it even more daunting to pick up a book that is going to require a significant investment of one's time and emotional energy.
Today, perhaps more than ever before, time is at a premium for everyone. Everyone I know (including me) is trying to cram more and more tasks into the same amount of time. Companies are asking employees to take on workloads that were once allocated to two or three people. Time-saving devices have simply resulted in the ability to do more things in the same amount of time -- with the result that we're now often required to do more. Nowhere do I hear people complaining, "Gee, I have so much spare time on my hands, I just don't know what to do with it all!"
Correlation: We are also surrounded by quick, easy forms of entertainment. Entertainment options have become like fast food: Easy to obtain, quick to absorb, perhaps not terribly good for you, but enjoyable in the moment. We have access to hundreds of quick-to-play games on every electronic device imaginable. We can download movies and shows to our phones. We can watch an infinite array of snippets and short videos on YouTube and other platforms, or simply scroll through endless collections of cute cat photos. Our social lives revolve around Facebook and Twitter.
The form of entertainment that requires the greatest investment of time -- the greatest commitment of a scarce resource -- is reading. And yet, the more we are surrounded by quick sources of entertainment, the more authors and publishers seem committed to putting out ever-longer books. Today, an opus of 500 or even 1000 pages is more the rule than the exception. Publishers argue that readers don't feel they are "getting their money's worth" from shorter books. And yet, if the statistics are telling the truth, more and more adults simply aren't reading at all. Worse, the statistics are suggesting that adults who used to read aren't doing so any longer.
We're always hearing that one of the "reasons" people aren't reading so much is the "competition." Books, we're reminded, are competing with all those other sources of entertainment out there -- the games, the videos, the movies, the cute cat photos. So -- let's assume for a moment that this is actually true. If books are competing against videos and games and cat photos, how can we make books better able to compete? The answer doesn't lie in trying to turn books into something other than books (i.e., to turn them into multimedia experiences that attempt to mimic games and videos). But it does, perhaps, mean recognizing that time is our scarcest commodity these days -- and the more readers perceive that a book is going to take "too much time" to read, the more likely that reader is to pass it by.
A final point to ponder: Many of the world's best-loved books come in at less than 100,000 words -- and those books are still being read today. It's also worth noting that many longer books, like Great Expectations, were originally serialized, so readers were confronted with a chapter or two every week rather than a single, massive tome.
Publishers are notoriously slow to change -- but we authors are constantly claiming, today, that we don't need publishers, really. So as authors, if we truly have all the control we keep saying we have, then one thing we can certainly control is how many words we put out there. If would-be readers are shaking their heads and saying, "so many words, so little time" and turning to the next funny cat video, perhaps shorter books -- short, good books -- may be one key to winning them back.
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.