Let Business Books Get Shorter

“Fact: If all business books were edited to be 80% shorter, there’d be absolutely no adverse effect on civilization.”@counternotion

I see a day soon when there will be peace between business book readers and business book producers.


“Where’s the conflict?” you may ask.

Well, let’s look at both sides.

Readers want great ideas that help them solve problems. That’s what they have always wanted. They want inspiration. They want to see the steps. They want their worldview altered. As Kathy Sierra says, readers want to kick ass.

Producers want credit for the idea. That is what they have always wanted. Authors wanted credibility gained from the bound edition of their hard work. Publishers want to make money distributing these insights to the masses.

This sounds like a wonderfully uncomplicated case of supply and demand, but when you ask readers their biggest complaint about business books, they always lead with “They are too long” or “They have too much fluff” or “The only thing I need to read is the introduction.” While I also hear from readers that the quality of the ideas in the books sometimes disappoints them, this is not the primary grievance.

Producers already know this. Ask authors how many times publishers have asked for higher word counts. Ask publishers about the pressure to maintain price points by having to maintain page counts. Ask retailers about how much they dislike small books with narrow bindings that won’t sit nicely on their store shelves.

All of these pressures lead to artificially lengthened books. The modifications include larger font size, smaller trim size, and plays of all sorts with margins and spacing; all methods to maintain impression of substance–an idea important to publishers and authors alike. A friend of mine refers to issue of substance as ‘The Whomp Factor’ or the amount of noise the book makes when the book hits your desk. The louder the thud, the higher the publisher’s retail price and the author’s consulting fees.

If you don’t believe there is a disconnect over length in business books, we only need to observe that an entire industry segment exists to provide readers with only the main points of a book. Historically, the primary value of book summaries has been time saved as they have been traditionally expensive, driven by the same economics as publishers, but digital distribution is pushing prices lower with individual summaries at around half the price of the book itself. Or buy a subscription for a year and that price drops to one-tenth the cover price. Publishers have long lived with what they believe is a symbiotic relationship with summary providers. Publishers accept increased awareness for their books knowing a summary may cannibalize that same book’s sales.

I believe ebooks may be the place where both sides in this conflict can find peace. Without the physical qualities to judge a book, readers may be more open to shorter reads at similar price points if the material is good. And publishers may feel less pressure to maintain page counts in a world where that quantity changes based on the reading device.

The idea of shorter business books raises all sort of interesting questions.

  • Can you charge a similar price for a shorter e-book versus a printed p-book? (Yes, you can. Early publishers are ceded price too quickly)
  • What changes something from an article into a book? (The word ‘book’ is broken; I talk about that problem in this video)
  • Do book publishers start to compete with magazine publishers for the appropriate place publish to long form material?
  • Is there a duration dividing line for fee-driven and ad-driven business models in publishing?
  • What is the better way to measure length? (I took a shot at answering that one too)
  • Do you need book summaries if the book get shorter?

Reader want ‘books’ that deliver value for the time spent. The question is who is going to deliver that in the new era of digital publishing.

4 thoughts on “Let Business Books Get Shorter

  1. I think the business book/business magazine question is a critical one. We have a lot of thinking to do about what distinguishes the two, particularly in the minds of the readers. The price difference between a short business book and a business magazine can be substantial, and the content can be much denser and more valuable in the latter. (Can, not always.)

  2. Hey Todd,
    Books should not be islands. The answer lies in layers.
    We need to present our ideas as a series of layers in different formats for which readers can grasp our message.
    At Book Rapper, our summaries were designed to be read in 30 minutes. And then we wrote 26 tweets from this that were compiled into a 5 minute animation at Twit Rapper.
    Books therefore become only one layer in the puzzle. And the printed book may or may not be a layer in this sharing of ideas.
    The model I’m looking at for my next book is a 20 page printed book with a DVD in the back with a bunch of audio, video and other extra stuff.
    And, this will also be offered as a pure digital item.
    If the book publishers reinvented themselves as ideas merchants they’d easily create ways to stay alive. Otherwise they’re doomed.

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