Why so many long books?

by on December 15, 2006 at 6:26 am in Books | Permalink

A loyal MR reader writes:

Why are there so many well-padded books out there that really ought to be nice, long articles?

David Sucher has raised similar questions in the MR comments.  The answer is simple: most people don’t read the books they buy.  But they like the self-image generated by the book purchase decision, and they like to feel they are getting something for their money.  Driven by market demand, book publishers demand a certain amount of heft and sometimes this means padding.

Yes there is a tendency toward shorter "books," some of which are called blogs.  The price is lower.  Another loyal MR reader once wrote in praise of MR: "if I wanted to read something longer I would read a book or something".  Or not read, as the case may be.

Addendum: Note also that marketing expenditures are more or less constant, relative to the size of the book.  Higher marketing expenditures (definitely the trend) thus spur higher-margin and typically larger books, as suggested by the Alchian and Allen theorem (why buy a big ad campaign for book which sells for a penny?).  For those of us who actually read the books, as book choice goes up, the importance of marketing goes up, and the padding goes up as well.

1 michael webster December 15, 2006 at 8:45 am

Tyler, is your answer the same if question is why are there so many long articles, which should be short insightful paragraphs?

2 Peter December 15, 2006 at 9:47 am

The answer is simple: most people don’t read the books they buy. But they like the self-image generated by the book purchase decision, and they like to feel they are getting something for their money.

Wouldn’t most people eventually figure out that the longer the book, the less likely they are to finish it? Books aren’t cheap, especially hardcovers. “Self image” or not, I don’t imagine that many people buy books without intending to read them.

3 Anderson December 15, 2006 at 10:04 am

Isn’t the problem at the production end?

What’s better on a resume, having published an article, or a book?

What makes the author more money?

Axiom: inside every dissertation of any value, there is a crisp, concise journal atricle struggling to escape.

4 Bill Conerly December 15, 2006 at 12:42 pm

As a (soon to be) published author, I can tell you that a book does more of what I want from the writing than an article ever could. The book gives me more credibility, is easier to use as a platform for publicity, can be sold on my website or in the back of the room when I speak. If I give a copy to a client or prospect, it will sit on his shelf, not be thrown into his trash can.

The more difficult question is why I buy books after having had so many cases of finding that I should have just read the article from which it was expanded. Not sure. Maybe I like to see books on the shelf.

5 Anonymous Author December 15, 2006 at 7:01 pm

Here is a reason that may or may not apply to lots of cases, but I know applies to at least one, and I think the motives and incentives might apply in others:
1) in nonfiction, if you know a fair amount about a topic and care about it, it is FAR easier to write longer than shorter; thus, in many cases, the author WANTS the book to be very long;
and 2) even if the book turned in is far longer than the proposal said it would be, no one in the editorial end has the interest or energy or will (or has the time given production schedules in which the sales team is already out taking orders for books not yet written) to do what needs to be done, including ordering the author to get tough on herself, to make shorter.

6 william December 18, 2006 at 11:49 am

In order to get reviewed and get their ideas more widely discussed, a writer will typically have to write a book rather than an article. This results in a lot of books with great ideas but that would have been much better at half the length, including Freakonomics, The Shangri-La Diet, Blink, etc.

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