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.


14 thoughts on “What The Heck Is A Book Anyway?

  1. Absolutely, Jaye. This is a perfect post. I’ve always wondered who ‘created’ such an arbitrary set of rules – they force us into ‘uncreative’ boxes. I’ve been reading a lot of YA over on Wattpad – because it’s short and sweet and very tragic. Young kids are every bit as into tragedy as I was with Romeo and Juliet.

    • The trouble with rules. After a while everybody is following them blindly and people stop questioning them. It’s time now to question EVERYTHING that is “accepted wisdom” in publishing. The publishing industry has been terrible in the way that it’s hobbled and homogenized story forms. Time to rectify that, too.
      And I agree with you about Wattpad. Many of the stories read like diary entries, touching and sad and sometimes brutal. It’s wonderful that so many kids are finding their voices.

  2. I am a professionally trained text technologist, librarian and bibliographer, and let me tell you, this is THE question of the hour. What is a book? What, even, is text? It sounds very theoretical (and for some, it really is) but it is a valid, topical question because of the points you made. Just as the “two spaces after a sentence” rule arose because of the typewriter, not typesetting, what we know as a “book” is really a conglomeration of text formatted into familiar formats. From paper size to binding restrictions, so much of publishing history has been shaped by practicalities and cost, not the intrinsic nature of the medium. The difference between a novel and novella is completely arbitrary, based on marketing needs of the publisher; in fact many classic novels are what would be called novellas today. As an academic I’ve looked at the nature of serialized fanfiction online as well multi-volume printed and bound Victorian erotica, and I’m pretty comfortable in saying that a “book” is more what we want it to be than a set rigid rules defining its shape. Can a 5000 word short story be a book? Absolutely, if it is wrapped around art and other media that enhances/expands the story. I’m not prepared to give a definition of a book in this era, but yes, you are totally correct in asserting that the old rules do not apply. Great article, thanks!

    • Thanks, Kim. It’s funny, the other day I caught myself stuttering over how to define what it is I do. I don’t write ‘books’ anymore. Maybe someday I’ll want what I write to be bound and printed in a book, but as for creating books? No. I just write stories. I do create ebooks, as far as formatting goes, but can we actually call ebooks books?

      Personally I’m digging the free-wheeling nature of digital publishing. Some fascinating forms are going to come out of it.

      • You know, that makes me think about why I started referring to myself as a “storyteller.” Even my non-fiction writing (I host a blog about/for atheist grievers) is, to me, about telling a story. The books I write (under a pseud) are not “books” in my mind’s eye, they are stories. I’m comfortable calling ebooks books because of tradition, but that is just a very large bucket category we use for lack of anything else, I think. Even my graphic design work is about telling a story, really. What is the evolution of the term “novelist” then? Hmmm.

  3. When I first switched to ereading rather than paperbacks, I was delighted to discover so many novellas from the indie writers. I love that length. Novellas are meaty without being weighty. I can be absorbed in the story without it taking over my life. I know the economics of making novellas just weren’t there in the paper age. I’m so happy for this new way of reading.

    • I feel the same way about short stories, Margaret. I used to buy magazines just to get the short stories inside. Now for around a buck, I can feed my habit quite handily. It makes me happy.

  4. A book… hmm. Something that you pick up that has words in it that engages you for better or for worse that expands your knowledge whether it be of the story being told or the academic text explaining a theory or suggesting how to get to a theory, or even if it enables you to learn how to spell a little better, or place a comma or full stop in the correct place; as opposed to the wrong place!

    Don’t suppose it matters much to the reader whether that ‘book is 5, 500 or 5,000 pages long. to the reader a book, I suppose, is whatever they want it to be, whether in print or on a screen on an eReader .

    • Exactly, Tom. The problem has been one of economics. Readers have been getting whatever has been most economical for publishers to sell. Digital completely changes the notion of what is economical and what is not. Readers will benefit from the changes.

  5. A physical book is a container for ideas. It’s the cardboard box of the intellectual world. The value wasn’t in the pulped wood product and ink. The value is in the ideas. The thing that people are having a hard time with in the digital era is that as we free those ideas from their container, different kinds of ideas will end up in different containers. The replacement for the physical book isn’t just the ebook. Sometimes it’s the web, sometimes its an app and sometimes it’s something else entirely.

    Let’s talk about stories. Those the things, fiction or non-fiction, you read from beginning to end, primarily as end in itself (you’re not trying to learn a skill, pass a course, or make money). Stories are the things best suited to ebooks and, as you point out, will be freed from the economics of physical book publishing. Different strategies are needed in the digital world.

    Here’s some things I’m fairly sure of in the marketing of ebooks (I said marketing, writers are responsible for their own literary values):

    1. Publish as frequently as possible (Don’t be George R. R. Martin).
    2. Prefer the shorter version of any story (If you can tell the story in 20,000 words or 50,000 words, choose the shorter version)
    3. If you can write series, write series.
    4. Figure out what your sales hook is (That’s the end of the word of mouth recommendation, “You have to read this book, it’s …”
    5. Create a repeatable process for going from story idea to finished ebook and then optimize it.

    • I love it when you comment here, William (even when you yell at me). Yes, exactly. As for your marketing advice, I will second, then paraphrase and repeat: MAKE YOUR STORIES ABOUT SOMETHING. GIVE READERS SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT. I would really love to see people get beyond the same ol’, same ol’. Economics are no longer an excuse to “play it safe.”

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