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The Attention Economy: Shorter

Image – iStockphoto: Kristina Jovanovic

Hemming in the Tension

When I tweeted up the author Anne R. Allen for writing [1] that “Word count guidelines have been trending down in the last decade,” I found our colleague Hugh Howey checking in from a galaxy far, far away to say, “Slaughterhouse Five, Frankenstein, and Fahrenheit 451 are three of my favorite sci-fi works of all-time, and each is around 50K. The problem part of most novels is the boring middle bit. Best to just leave that part out.”

He’s right, of course, as is Anne Allen, and we went on to discuss (briefly!) the problem some big-name authors run into in this regard, too. I call it the Clancy effect. Once they’re established as a publishing house’s majors, the editorial touch gets lighter, often more pixie dust than anything else. Typos are caught, we have to hope, but developmental work (“structural” edits to your British neighbors) goes out the window.

That can go to anybody’s head, and many of us can name an icon whose work got leggier and sadly shapeless as the big career flabbed on.

Too Much Entertainment

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

At London Book Fair last week, another element of this issue came into sharper focus as I moderated a panel for the Byte the Book organization, which looks at the industry from the digital vantage point.

While the session was titled “Publishers Go Prospecting: Finding Hidden Treasure in Your Content [4],” I’d worked out with our four fine panelists (from the BBC, Penguin Random House, Vodafone, and Hodder Education) an approach that would take us past the obvious issues of spelunking for good backlist titles. (Bring Up the Bodies, as Hilary Mantel might say.)

We looked at today’s mushrooming level of competition for reading time from really fine television and film. After all, you may have felt the first really deep tremor of storytelling’s new cinematic leadership in February when Amazon Publishing created its Topple Books imprint [5] in direct collaboration with Amazon Studios and the activist-filmmaker Jill Soloway (Transparent, I Love Dick, Six Feet Under).

Tom Goodwin

As the futurist and corporate strategist Tom Goodwin told me [6], “Book publishing is not in the ‘text industry.’ It’s not in the ‘reading industry.’ It’s in the ‘what do people want to spend their time doing? industry.’”

And that’s where the rubber is going to increasingly meet the shortest road possible.

Listen to Howey and Allen, watch your family’s time-management patterns, notice how Netflix knows you won’t hang out for the next episode if they roll full credits, so within seconds they’re cranking the next installment into view.

Is there an exception? Subscribers to Audible who get one credit monthly for an audiobook are known to favor the longest listens because they feel they’ll get more for their money that way. How much would you like to bet they make it through 20+ hours of Ayn Rand? And even then, downloading Atlas Shrugged is an economic decision, just in terms of financial rather than time economy.

One of the things for which we admire such writers as Joan Didion is their remarkable economy.

Hell, it’s great in conversation, too. Nicolas Roche, the new chief of the Bureau international de l’édition française [7] in Paris, perfectly answered in one line my question of how foreign rights sales of French books are going these days: “It’s harder to sell a book to the English than it is to sell a car to the Japanese.”

Boom, huh?

My most recent lean discovery is Go [8] by Kazuki Kaneshiro in its muscular translation by Takami Nieda [9] for Amazon Publishing’s AmazonCrossing translation imprint. Only 161 pages in print. And that reminds me to tell you about the excellent World Book Day offer of nine free terrific translations [10] available through Tuesday Pacific Time (April 24) from AmazonCrossing, do take advantage of it, More than 1.7 million pages of these nine books have been read at this writing during the limited-time offer.

And my provocation for you today is this: wrack your brain (quickly, efficiently) and tell me the most impressive relatively shorter read you can recall.

As I write this, I’m en route to Athens for the opening of UNESCO’s World Book Capital on Monday, World Book Day, and I’ve checked: The Iliad runs to about 155,700 words in some English translations, The Odyssey 123,500 or so. I think Cliff’s Notes first appeared in Thessaloniki about eight months after Homer started selling.

I can imagine the poet telling his editor the same thing we journalists say to ours: “But I didn’t have time to write short.”

Your turn: Tell us your favorite short work. And how conscious are you of your reader’s time and obligations and other media temptations as you write? Are you feeling yet the server-hot breath of electronic entertainment on your neck?

About Porter Anderson [11]

@Porter_Anderson [12] is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [13], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He and Jane Friedman co-own and produce @The Hot Sheet [14], the essential industry newsletter for authors. Anderson previously was The Bookseller's Associate Editor for The FutureBook [15] in London. Formerly with CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media–he has also been a featured writer with #MusicForWriters [16] series. More on his consultancy: PorterAndersonMedia.com [17] | Google+ [18]