What Is “A Book” Anyway?

Completely inspired by Devin Faraci’s EXCELLENT article at BadAssDigest – in which he ponders the definition of what exactly a “movie” is in this age of Netflix, Amazon Prime, DTV and TV Episodes getting big screen presentation –  here’s my thoughts on the state of books as I see it.

Many of you know me from my own writing (I have to assume that’s why you’re even bothering to read this) and that I’m a staunch supporter of independent publishing. That is, not merely self-publishers, which makes us sound like DIY hacks. We are independent – we do it OUR way and are not reliant on the support and clout of a traditional publisher. Some of us, myself included, are doing alright by publishing independently. I call that success. If your writing is paying the majority of your bills, where I’m from that’s success.

In his article, Devin raises an interesting point as to what a movie really is. The lines have become increasingly blurred. Like him, I remember when you had TV and the Movies. Those two were very distinct. Then you had TV, Movies and Web Content. Again, my experience here is exactly the same as his.

Now it’s different.

In my own home, I can think of multiple ways of getting content. Netflix, Sky On Demand, Youtube, Satelite TV, Bluray, DVD. Netflix offers entire series in one hit. I couldn’t have watched Breaking Bad if I’d had to wait for every episode to air. I binge watched the entire series from start to finish. Sky On Demand offers the same experience (we recently watched all there was of The Blacklist and are now enjoying the sort-of-trashy-but-good Revenge using the service). I also recently sat through True Detective, and I think that show serves as an excellent example of what Devin is talking about.

It’s essentially an 8 hour movie. It’s an anthology show, meaning that each season will feature a new story, a new locale and array of characters. So each season you’re getting a COMPLETE story. It’s long-form storytelling at its very best. I watched the first 4 hours over a couple of days. The last 4 hours I watched in one blast because it had me hooked.

And there’s Devin’s other point – can you call something a “series” if it’s available in one hit? Does that then make it a movie?

There’s a definite correlation between the state of visual media and that of “books” in my opinion. In an age where there’s no fixed page count when it comes to e-books, I don’t think the old system of classifying a work as a short story, novella or novel really counts anymore. I’ve noticed that Amazon have moved away from such descriptors too.

Short works that would have normally been thrown in the short story or novella category are now arranged by how long it will take someone to read them. Amazon’s Short Reads on Kindle are arranged in categories of 15, 30, 45 minutes, 1 hour, 90 minutes, and 2 hours or more.

So there’s that. And here’s another thing to think about – when you publish a work as a serial, as I’ve done in the past, it may only be novella length but you have no choice but to list it as Book # of your series.

For instance, some of my Far From Home titles are no more than 15,000 words long, yet are listed as Book # in the series. This is misleading if you think of a “book” simply as a novel, because you’re expecting 200+ pages. But if you consider a Kindle book as something that has no physical form (let’s forget about paperback editions for now) then what truly defines a book? If it has a beginning, a middle and an end, is it not a complete book in its own right?

If you’re writing serialized fiction, you have to ensure that not only do you have a beginning, middle and end, but that you also have enough of a hook to ensure readers will return for the next installment. Even if it’s only 100 pages long, I would argue each of these installments are books simply because they offer everything you get in a novel, including in most cases the same complexity in character development and plot lines.

Another point to make is that I understand why Amazon has chosen to stick with listing series titles as books. You can’t really have Episodes because it’s too close to what you find on TV. You could have Parts but that’d be confusing in the long run. To ensure series titles are navigable, they’ve stuck with calling each part, whether it’s 50 pages or 500, Books. Again, this doesn’t help in preventing readers from expecting a “book” in the old-school classification of the word, but it does ensure your readers can finish book 2 and find book 3 easily. In short, it makes good business sense.

Traditional Publishers are stuck in the old system of accepting Fantasy novels that are between 120-150,000 words, for example. They won’t consider anything under 50,000, that’s for sure. But the fact of the matter is, if your novel comes out at 50,000 words and it really doesn’t need another 70,000 words added to it, what’s the issue? As writers our work is coming out at the length it is, whatever the case may be.  And we are publishing it at that length because, when all is said and done, the page count no longer means what it used to mean. It’s still a gauge for readers as to how long it will take to read (see the Short Read categories above) but it’s not a mark of quality.

Later this year I will return to serialized fiction (can’t reveal the plot details yet, sorry) and I’ll be writing them whatever length I like. I will aim for a minimum of 10,000 words, but if they only come out at 15,000 words I’m not sweating it. The one after that might be 25,000. It no longer matters. The word “book” doesn’t mean what it used to mean.

When I publish them, each installment will be a “book” which will eventually get collected into an omnibus.

A book is just a written work. It might be read over 6 hours. It might be read in 90 minutes. But it no longer needs to be a “novel” in the traditional sense to qualify as a “book” anymore. Writers and Readers will argue about this for years to come, until we reach the point where the argument no longer matter.

However I think there’s something we can all agree on: a book should definitely blow your socks off, regardless of how long it is. That will never cease to matter.

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