In 2009, Philip Greenspun observed the following:
The pre-1990 commercial publishing world supported two lengths of manuscript:
1. the five-page magazine article, serving as filler among the ads
2. the book, with a minimum of 200 pages
Suppose that an idea merited 20 pages, no more and no less? A handful of long-copy magazines, such as the old New Yorker would print 20-page essays, but an author who wished his or her work to be distributed would generally be forced to cut it down to a meaningless 5-page magazine piece or add 180 pages of filler until it reached the minimum size to fit into the book distribution system.
What got me thinking about this again was the publication of my former colleague Stephen O'Grady's book, The New Kingmakers. (Grab a copy now. It's free. Really. Right now. I can wait. Back now? OK.)
It's relatively short at 50 pages but, as Stephen wrote me on twitter "between Race Against the Machine & the Kindle Singles model, i didn't see the point in stretching to meet artificial expectations." (Race Against the Machine is another recent non-fiction book by MIT's Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson. It weighs in at 98 pages.)
For their part, Kindle Singles and other "e-singles" are apparently increasing in popularity. As noted in Laura Hazard Owen's post "Why 2012 was the year of the e-single":
In February, I reported that the company had sold two million Kindle Singles; as of September, that number was up to 3.5 million, and Amazon just expanded the program to the U.K., where it will include new entries by bestselling British authors as well as most of the American Kindle Singles.
And The New York Times generated lots of buzz with its beautifully executed "Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek" feature.
That said, I expect the business models, especially when publishers are involved, will need some shaking out. Owen also noted that "With most Kindle Singles priced at $1.99, that’s only $7 million or so — and Amazon only takes 30 percent of it, making the revenue basically a rounding error." For conventionally published printed works, I suspect the economics will be even more challenging in most cases. Nonetheless, as e-books become ever more mainstream and reader/buyer expectations become less anchored by traditional publishing forms, I expect written works to start gravitating towards their natural lengths. (Although, realistically, as anyone who has been exposed to the endless over-length series in genre fiction will tell you, there will probably always be certain incentives to use more words rather than fewer.)
This discussion is especially pertinent to me because I'm in the process of wrapping up a book on cloud computing that I'll be publishing through Amazon's CreateSpace. I fussed around a fair bit regarding the "proper" minimum length for the book. At the end of the day, the book is going to hit a fairly conventional 60,000 word, 250 page or so length but it probably didn't need to. I don't really see anything in the book as filler, but I might have done some things differently if I weren't determined to hit a 50,000 word or so minimum target.