Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, May 18, 2009


I’m going to be traveling for the next week or so, so posting will be light to non-existent, but before I go I want to take belated note of this thoughtful post from Sebastian Mary (or maybe it's sebastian mary) over at if:book.

Let's look at books for a moment. While in the early Wild West publishing days of the 18th-century print boom works were produced in a bewildering array of formats (elephant folio, pamphlet, poster, flyer, handout along with more familiar books) in today's mature publishing industry there is an inverse correlation between the size of the print run and the variation in the book's dimensions. In other words, the more mass-market a book, the more likely it will be to conform to the average book dimensions: 110-135mm wide, by 178-216mm high. This is the easiest size to produce inexpensively, and sell at a price point the market will bear.

Yes, and (though seb. mary doesn't say this) the Kindle and other e-readers constitute a move towards absolute standardization of dimensions. Here’s the next paragraph:

Length is determined as well, by manufacturing constraints at the top end, and the fixed overheads of printing at the bottom. Bookshops are crammed with full-length books whose contents could just as well be communicated in a short essay, or even in the title alone: I'm thinking of Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, but a glance at the self-help or business shelves of your local bookshop will show you plenty more. And yet to make economic sense they have to be padded out for publication in ‘proper’ book size. But to conclude from this (as many unwittingly do) that long-form books are necessarily the best, rather than just the most familiar, way of communicating ideas is mistaken; and to assume that this practice will transplant to e-readers, imagined as a kind of iPod for these long-form essays, is just wrong.

Right again, and interesting, because in the matter of word count e-readers are creating vastly greater flexibility, even as they necessarily standardize dimensions. The other day I realized that I didn't have a copy of “The Monkey’s Paw,” the classic scary story by W. W. Jacobs (no relation), and discovered that I can download it all by itself from Amazon — no need to buy a whole collection of stories just to get that one. On the other hand, one of the reasons I got a Kindle in the first place was because I didn't want to lug around big fat books like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.

Or let’s consider Brandon Sanderson, the fantasy writer charged with completing Robert Jordan’s ultra-massive Wheel of Time series: he has recently decided to split what was to be the last volume into three books, and one of the reasons for this is the problem of printing and binding books beyond a certain size. And anything even associated with Robert Jordan is, well, beyond a certain size. But if e-reader publication was the norm, that wouldn't matter at all — you could put the whole four million words of the series (that’s what it’ll amount to by the time Sanderson’s done, near enough) into a single file if you wanted to.

There are also some interesting possibilities for serial publication, but that’ll have to wait for another post on another day.


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