Shorter versions of books

In his book Conscientious Objections, a collection of essays, Neil Postman asked a challenging question that was astonishing coming from a writer—and then proceeded to answer his own challenge.

Why are books so long? Do the weighty thoughts of authors require it, or is it the economics of the publishing industry? Suppose there was a severe paper shortage, so that all books were restricted to a maximum length of fifty pages; would it not be possible for authors (at least of non-fiction) to say what they had to say in that space? Perhaps not for all of them. But most of them could, at least after some practice. The possibilities of such a situation are pleasant to contemplate—the cost of books would go down, the number of books we could read would go up. The improvement in the general quality of writing would be significant.

The following two essays represent my attempt to say, in the most economical way, what I had to say in the two books I wrote prior to this one. If you have read those books, these short essays may be ignored. If you have not, you should be able to get my points in the twenty minutes or so it will take to read each of the essays. [Emphasis added]

More astonishing still is that the two books he summarizes are already among the most economical I’ve read, with Amusing Ourselves to Death clocking in at 175 pages and The Disappearance of Childhood at 150 pages. And these books contain some of the most important thoughts I’ve ever read.

But important thoughts in unread books are buried treasures, and with so many books to be read these days it’s likely those treasures will never be unearthed by their natural audience. If you’re lucky a friend will urge you to read one, and out of a mixture of trust and courtesy you’ll stick with it long enough to have your interest engaged. Otherwise you could search endlessly for exactly what that book contains and never encounter it.

Postman’s answer to his own challenge is a possible way out of the dilemma. If the core of a book could be presented in an essay that took twenty minutes to read and digest, maybe five minutes to skim, maybe one minute to capture your interest—then readers could graze more widely, and the grass would be much more nourishing as well.

While I was thinking about this, the penny dropped: what if writers would accompany their books with a summary essay that was well written, substantial, comprehensive—and free? A grazing reader might easily give you a minute of their time to take a look. Some might be intrigued enough to spend five minutes skimming the piece. Some of those might be enticed into reading and digesting it. At that point many readers might decide they’d read enough—but would also be satisfied with how your piece had rewarded their attention, might recommend it to others in their social network, might even look at other things you had written or put you on their list of writers to keep an eye on.

And some few of those who read the essay would be intrigued enough to want to read the entire book. Pay for it, even. These would be the natural audience for what you had written. And the only cost of reaching them (aside from the extra work a summary essay requires) is losing out on sales to people who aren’t part of your natural audience anyway.

I don’t really have time to write a book. But I might write one anyway, just to test this approach. This particular book would be aimed at people who want to become musical performers, telling stories about our own adventures to illustrate the lessons we’ve learned. The summary essay would be freely available, a very short standalone work with all the vital information contained in the book. The book itself would not cover new ground but the same ground in significantly more depth.

And although I’m not sure this particular book would support it, I think that anyone taking this approach should consider creating a second book of extras, e.g. sections that didn’t make it into the final book, related writings, any other goodies you can think of—akin to the extras one finds on a DVD these days.

So, the idea is: freely distribute a very short but complete work that summarizes your book. Sell the book itself, to people who know in advance that they want to read the book. And sell a separate book of extras to those readers who loved the book so much that they want to get their hands on more of the same.

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3 thoughts on “Shorter versions of books

  1. One reason why that wouldn’t happen is that it is much, much *harder* to write briefly and succinctly. In my mind, a thick non-fiction book implies a poor writer or non-existent editor. It is, of course, not always the case, but more often than not it seems to be.

  2. I think Mystie is most likely right. I read On Writing Well by ZInsser a few months back and my take-away was to be mindful of ways to cut words from my writing, no matter what I was writing. I think of it like a game now when I write posts or emails. What can I get rid of? What could be said in shorter phrasing? Sometimes I feel more successful than others. Sometimes I don’t care. Sometimes I’m quite pleased with the results, it’s more pithy than I thought I could put it.
    Anyways, interesting thoughts here.

  3. I would like to suggest that the time that it takes to read a worthwhile book is sometimes important to the prosessing of the ideas that it contains. If it is too short, one would easily breeze through it and miss the pondering that helps to make those ideas one’s own.

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