What The Heck Is A Book Anyway?

This post doesn’t seem to be about ebook formatting, but it is, sort of.

wattpadIn the evenings, here of late, I’ve been taking my formatting-fried brain over to Wattpad. Browsing, snooping around, skimming stories, seeing what the kids are up to. It’s fascinating, actually. I suggest anyone who writes YA and wants to know what matters most with kids today, spend a few hours on Wattpad. Thousands, maybe millions of young people are pouring their hearts out on the virtual page, using stories as social activities and developing communication skills via the written word.

It’s a free-wheeling, free-for-all, and I’d say the majority of writers on Wattpad not only don’t know the “rules” of writing, but don’t really give a shit that rules exist. (This appeals to my inner-anarchist.)

Every once in a while I run across a kid who is struggling to be a “real” writer, as in one day he or she hopes to write something that others will willingly pay to read. They are interested in the “rules.” They seek feedback and ask questions.

One question–“How many chapters should a novel have?”–started me thinking about the nature of fiction. I was tempted to reply, “As many as it needs,” but with a bit of thought, what I really wanted to ask was, “Why do novels need chapters?” Seriously. Who established the rules in the first place?

A lot of conventions in fiction–the rules–have come into being for reasons that have nothing to do with storytelling. Flash fiction, short stories, novellas, novels, series, serials, poetry–those are story forms. But where do the length and structure “rules” come from? Printing and shelf space. It’s about costs, profits and loss.

Novels became the preferred method of storytelling (for publishers) not because it’s what readers wanted most, not because it was what writers wanted to write the most, but because it makes the most sense economically. It is expensive to prep, print and ship a book. It is expensive to shelve and sell it in a bookstore. The publishers have focused on the story form that made the most economic sense. “Standard” word counts for genre fiction don’t have anything to do with storytelling–it’s all about the size of the paperback. Poetry “fell out of favor” not because of a dearth of poets or people who love poetry, but because of economics. It takes a long time for a poet to build enough of an audience to make it economically feasible to print-publish their poems. We’re talking years. If a bookstore has to choose between a book of poems that might sell one or ten copies a year and the latest Twilight rip-off that will move hundreds of units in a month, which makes more economic sense? Shelf space is valuable real estate.

Ebooks, all digital publishing (blogs, websites) for that matter, don’t have to take into account the two major economic factors that have driven (and limited) traditional publishing: shipping and shelf-space. After the editing and cover treatment, formatting an ebook is a hell of a lot cheaper than setting up a print run and binding a book. Another factor that affects print, but is a non-issue in ebooks, is “too-thin” and “too-thick.” Readers have been trained, so to speak, into the mind-set that a “proper” sort of book is a certain thickness. Word counts and page lengths are constructs of printing, not storytelling. If a story can be told well in 30,000 words, it is only the demands of print that insist it must be padded to a minimum of 60,000 words before it is economically feasible to publish. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s no reason to limit a story’s length. Ebooks make it possible for people other than Stephen King to publish a 500,000 word novel.

I’ve published two of my short stories as singles. They only sell a few copies a month. It doesn’t matter. They’ll be available for as long as I want them available (or until the zombie apocalypse). If I were a poet, I’d be e-publishing them as fast as I could compose them. Why not? Shelf space is essentially free. I own a fairly large collection of eddic poetry. I’d love to see a resurgence in the form. It’s perfect for ebooks. Print publishers might turn up their noses because of economics, but there is an outlet now for the storyteller who enjoys the challenge.

I think it’s time to chuck some of the “rules” of storytelling. Especially those rules that came into being because of the economies of print and shelf space, and NOT because of storytelling. The kids on Wattpad have the advantage. They haven’t been tainted by print publishers. They don’t know enough about the rules to worry about them. As a result, they are coming up with their own story forms and structures. Not all will work, but I predict some interesting new ways to tell stories will eventually emerge.

So. I promised this post would sort of have to do with ebook formatting. Instead of a conclusion or a how-to, a question: “What is a book, anyway?” Modern publishing has defined the “book” and the fiction forms that go inside them. Digital publishers don’t have to abide by those definitions. Size and space and frequency and sell-by dates–all those are moot considerations. They do not matter. As fiction writers AND as ebook producers, we can make our own rules. Theirs no longer make sense.