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.