Why best-selling books are getting shorter

A study based on lists published by ‘The New York Times’ indicates that the average length has fallen 51.5 pages, which represents a decline of 11.8%

A bookstore in Spain.
A bookstore in Spain.Álvaro García

There are second-hand bookstores that sell books by weight; it is a curious, indisputably scientific way of valuing volumes. What is not so common is to value books, not by their weight, but by their length. That could be considered by measuring their spine (for example, 1 millimeter = 50 cents) or, even by simply counting the number of pages. After all, one of the most characteristic physical variables of a copy, in addition to its volume or weight, is its thickness: if it has few pages it’s a small book, whereas if it has thousands, we’d say that it’s a brick.

A report prepared by Wordsrated, an American non-profit organization dedicated to discovering relevant data about the world of books and publishing, has collected data suggesting that length matters. What they discovered is the unbelievable case of the shrinking best-seller. In the last decade (from 2011 to 2021) the average length of best-selling books in the United States, according to The New York Times lists and including fiction and nonfiction categories, has fallen 51.5 pages on average (from 437.5 to 386), which represents a decline of 11.8%. The probability that a book of more than 400 pages will enter the best-seller list fell by 29.5% in those years: hard times for the thick tome. On the other hand, to give an idea of the transience which dominates the publishing market, those books which joined the best-seller list in 2021 spent half as long as those chosen by the public 10 years earlier had.

“Overall, reading is on the decline,” says Dimitrije Curcic, director of research for Wordsrated. “Our main hypothesis was that the attention span of readers (and people in general) is shorter today.” The cause of this scattered and diminished attention is the barrage of stimuli that we receive in the current technological environment, mainly through social networks, applications, emails and audiovisual platforms, multiple channels that compete for our attention. Some have called it “infoxication.”

“It’s not that people’s attention wanes, it’s that they steal it from us,” Curcic says. “Because of that, I think average readers are less likely to commit to a longer book; rather, they choose something they consider more interesting and that’s realistic to complete. Audiobook sales were excluded from the research for precisely this reason; listening to a text being read is compatible with other activities and does not monopolize attention. In electronic books, the perception of length can be different; it is not appreciated a priori, a book in EPUB format is a weightless digital ideal.

The healthy tome

Buying a thick book, from the perspective of Homo Economicus, is cheaper, just like buying a five-liter bottle of olive oil: it offers more entertainment time for the same price. To gift a book in a physical copy, with volume, a hard cover, and many pages usually comes off better. In addition, length is not the only parameter that influences the purchase and reading of a book. Another issue to take into account is advertising, and many of these long titles are usually editorial investments supported by large advertising campaigns, such as in the case of Spain’s Planeta awards. “A hunch I have is that, in addition, people are now more inclined to stop reading books when they are not interested. There is no longer the moral obligation to finish the books that you’ve started,” says Álvaro Manso, spokesman for the Spanish Confederation of Guilds and Associations of Booksellers (Cegal). We live in fluid times in this aspect as well, and people jump from book to book the way they jump between partners in the dating scene.

“What I also see is that there are certain readers, such as those of best-sellers, who are more focused on the plot and tend to prefer longer books,” says Manso. “Those who read more literary books do not require much length; those writers’ job is often to polish the text as much as possible, which produces shorter books”. There are readers who prefer a very long story, a wide world in which to immerse themselves and become familiar with the characters, not leaving it for months (as in a TV series). Others prefer shorter volumes that allow them to access more stories, more authors, to be more agile in their exploration of the literary landscape. It has once been said that short story books don’t sell very well because readers are too lazy mentally to immerse themelves in 10 different universes in a single book, one per story.

“The novel has an incredible advantage over other storytelling formats, and that is its incredible plasticity,” says bestselling author Juan Gómez Jurado. “A day can last three words or three chapters. Years can go by in a sentence, or we can spend 5,000 words counting a couple of seconds when a bomb explodes, as I did in Reina Roja. The only thing that matters, really, is that the choice should serve the story in the best possible way.”

The longest book in the world

It is difficult to say which is the shortest book in the world, the one that requires the least time and attention. The shortest story is held to be The Dinosaur (“When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there”) by Augusto Monterroso, but by itself it does not amount to a book. Regarding the longest book, there is a certain consensus in pointing out In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust, which, although published in seven volumes, can be considered a single work of 9,609,000 characters (counting the spaces). For this reason, it was awarded the Guinness World Records Prize for the longest novel: this year marks the centennial of its final period and the death of its author.

In addition to thick books, many publishers are opting for collections of small and refined books. Publishing short books allows the publisher to be more up to date, almost journalistic, and reach readers concerned about contemporary problems. “We can be agile and improvise the programming a bit, like a guerrilla “, points out Isabel Obiols, of the Spanish publisher Anagrama. Although, at the same time, we want them to be books that do not get out-of-date immediately.”

At times when attention is atomized, these short and small artifacts are an alternative that, moreover, allow us to boast of having read many books in a minimum amount of time in lives now devoted mainly to updating social networks, preferably with photos of healthy breakfasts and sunny mornings on the beach.

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS