Book Length

I’m embarking on Frank McLynn’s Richard and John: Kings at War. “Embark” seems a particularly fitting word because with Richard and John running to 600 pages in hardcover, I feel like I’m going on a long journey.

Certainly, the story of Richard the Lionheart and his brother John Lackland, the rapacious king from Robin Hood, is a tale that easily spans hundreds of pages. The raw material carries plenty of excitement, and McLynn’s crisp prose, event-focused narration, and discipline to stay with the subject makes his book a fast, absorbing read. (It also doesn’t hurt that the last 15% of the book is devoted to footnotes and so is “optional” reading.)

Nonetheless, a 600-page book is an unwieldy physical object. Read or not, the footnotes and all those pages have to be lugged around — in the bag, on the bus, held open with one hand while the other is busily engaged with lunch contents, back on the bus, back home, to bed, where the weight of the book alone makes it an inconsiderate bed mate. Although many bestsellers in recent times, including the Harry Potter saga, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and just about all of James Patterson’s books, are hefty, lengthy tomes, I would conjecture that there is a “golden zone” for book lengths where, everything else being equal, a book within “the zone”, or a range of pages, will sell better than books significantly shorter or longer. Books in the thousands of pages are intimidating and often carry too high of a price to make them defensible impulse purchases. Books much shorter than 150 pages look inconsequential and are pushed to the point of invisibility by their meatier neighbors when shelved spine-out. Books in between feel comfortable, yet solid, in hand and make for companionable travelers.

If only to have my hypothesis soundly proven wrong, I’d love to see some empirical studies on the relationship between book length and their eventual sales. (If pressed to make explicit my estimate of the “golden zone”, I would guess that for a nonfiction book, it is between 200-400 pages, while for fiction, it may be a wider range.) More interestingly, I’d like to know whether this relationship has been substantially weakened with the advent of e-books. After all, a 600+ pages book on my Kindle feels the same, in the bag, on the bus, at lunch, in bed, as a book of any other length. In the same vein, Amazon does not seem to think that the number of locations on an e-book is important enough of a determinant for a book purchase to make such information available for its born-digital books. What about publishers? Do you know of any general trend of publishers being more flexible on page/word requirements in contracts for e-books relative to print?

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