Harman offers his thoughts on the virtues of short books, with a mention of the conversation he and I had in Cairo about the constraints of the Atari and how they relate metaphorically to book authoring.

The flavor of the genial teasing seems to be “haha, getting lazy there, aren’t you?” But in fact, it is harder work to compress what you know into smaller and smaller spaces—like miniaturizing weapons.

I think Graham’s right. I’ve certainly felt this way with my own books, although they started smaller and then swelled before settling.

Unit Operations is about 80,000 words. But Persuasive Games weighs in at 140,000. That’s a lot. When Nick and I set out to write Racing the Beam we had a compact book in mind, but I don’t know that we fully understood why we were right until the book was published. It’s 60,000 words, and I can’t imagine it being a word longer. If anything, we could have condensed in certain places.

The benefits of shorter books are not just condensation and clarity, as Harman notes, but also appeal. Don’t underestimate the importance of price and physical size in the success of a book.

For example, promoting Persuasive Games on the Colbert Report certainly helped sales, but it’s hardcover, discounted price tag of ~$30 still turned off general readers.

By contrast, Racing the Beam is a slim volume that costs only $15 from Amazon in hardcover (MIT Press does make beautiful books). While I think the writing is very good, I’m sure that the approachable size and price have a lot to do with that book’s success. Not to mention the fact that I often hear or read comments about it like, “I just finished…” or “I just reread…” Those are acts we authors take for granted but shouldn’t. Even though many business and popular non-fiction books are light on ideas (one idea repeated over ten chapters), there’s a reason they usually weigh in at 40-50,000 words. And why they cost under $20 in hardcover at disount.

For another lesson on size, consider Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s excellent new book Expressive Processing. It’s a longish book, around 125,000 words. Still, that’s 15,000 words less than my Persuasive Games, but Noah’s book is considerably thicker, all due to the large margins he chose for layout reasons. I think this was a mistake. The heft and intimidation of such a tome will surely affect its adoption.

Like Graham, I’m focusing on shorter books these days. My forthcoming book Newsgames, which I wrote with my graduate students Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer, is about 65,000 words. The book of short pieces on games that’s tentatively titled How to do things with videogames is 50,000 words. Alien Phenomenology will likewise weigh in at 50,000 words.

Yet, just as I began to think that 50k was as short as I could go, I read Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, which I estimate is no more than 25,000 words. And it was a satisfying read. Certainly one of the appeals of the books in zerO’s new series is their size, and I find myself really wanting to write a book at that scale too in the near future.

published December 30, 2009


  1. Mark DeLoura

    Great thoughts, Ian. It reminds me of the value of constraints on art. Tighter constraints force a person to be more creative and more focused. I find when I don’t have a length constraint on an article I’m writing, my text can get flabby, and the message less clear. My writing habit is generally to write as much as comes out, and then go back and clean up the text to tighten it and fit within any length constraint. It definitely benefits things even if it is kind of a pain in the butt. 🙂

    Thinking about a similar concept in the context of videogames is intriguing. Generally that editing process doesn’t seem to be done… the concept being that more must be better so why would we cut things out unless, say, we were running out of time on the production schedule?

    Fun thoughts for the day Ian, thanks for making me think this morning 🙂

  2. Neils Clark

    My most difficult compression job was wrapping the child psychology/gaming issue into 1800 words (which the editor took to 1600 or so).

    With public scholarship, it gets too easy to work yourself into a panic over the fidelity of ideas. It’s like opening a package of cheese you’ve tenderly aged. Everyone’s eager to sample something so presumably mature, but when preparing it for the guests nobody’s going to notice the aromatic irregularities than you.

    Maybe I’m just strange.

  3. Jeff Watson

    I used to teach screenwriting; in my intro class, I’d tell my students that screenplays were more like haiku than they were like prose. This was just another way of getting at classical screenwriting rules like “show, don’t tell,” and “start as late as possible; get out as soon as possible.” Later, when I got into programming, I realized that a screenplay is actually more like code than poetry, and I got a fair bit of mileage out of that analogy with my students, especially those who had CS backgrounds. But the best thing I ever heard in this regard — and the thing that has bearing on this post — is a quote that is sometimes ascribed to Orson Welles, and it applies just as well to screenwriting as it does to academic writing, novels, or code: “The enemy of art is the lack of limitations.”