Wednesday 23 Jun 2021 | 07:07 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 23 Jun 2021 | 07:07 | SYDNEY

We buy books by the pound


Sam Roggeveen


5 October 2011 17:31

Philosopher Sam Harris, writing for the Daily Beast, observes:

When shopping for books, I’ve suddenly become acutely sensitive to the opportunity costs of reading any one of them. If your book is 600-pages-long, you are demanding more of my time than I feel free to give. And if I could accomplish the same change in my view of the world by reading a 60-page version of your argument, why didn’t you just publish a book this length instead?

The honest answer to this last question should disappoint everyone: Publishers can’t charge enough money for 60-page books to survive; thus, writers can’t make a living by writing them.

Why can't publishers charge for a 60-page book if it accomplishes the same thing as a 600-page version?

I think the answer is pretty clear. When it comes to buying books, consumers adopt a version of that old saying from the tailoring industry: 'never mind the quality, feel the width'. Like Harris, most of us are time-poor, so we're reluctant to invest in books that will take us a long time to read. But we also think charging full price for a book of only 60 pages is a rip-off. Pretty irrational, but there it is.

As an author, once you're in 60-page territory, you're better off referring to your work as an essay. A 60-page essay makes you look weighty and serious; a 60-page book is just stingy.

(BTW, the entire Harris essay, about the future of publishing, is worth your time.)

Photo by Flickr user Horia Varlan.