Is it me, or are most non-fiction books too long?

Sometimes, I see an industry that doesn’t seem to make sense, and appears to be crying out for someone to disrupt it. This is usually a sign that there’s some quirk of that industry I don’t completely understand. If the staff of city law firms and banks are working such long and exhausting hours, their staff can’t be doing great work. If I work even one mentally demanding day than runs longer than even 10 hours, I’ll probably struggle to be on top form the next day, let alone some of the crazy stuff that city firms are known for. So why can’t I do what a tech company would do: start a rival company that offers sensible hours and a pleasant working environment, and use that to poach all the most talented staff, and steal all the business?1

Here’s another one: why are most non-fiction books so long? From the outside, it seems like if you want to read about a subject, you often have two choices. You can read an article or two online, and they’re probably about 1,000 words each. Or you can read a book about it, and the book is probably about 80,000 words2. I’m simplifying a bit, of course, but why isn’t there more stuff in the middle? I like to read about lots of different things, so I don’t really want to have to make an 80,000 word commitment in advance. Why are there so few popular non-fiction books that are 20-40,000 words long?

I often discover a new subject, get excited about it, and buy a book about it. Then part way through it, I realise I’ve overreached. I was willing to dedicate some time to this subject, but not this much. Now, I’m a bit stuck – the author has probably structured the book in such a way that you need to read the whole thing to get the full picture. Does the sunk cost force me to plough on, despite my waning interest, or do I abandon the book, and never fully understand the picture the author was trying to paint?

I’ve just been through my Kindle, and here’s a list of books I started in the last couple of years, but never finished:

Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics, All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class, The Growth Delusion, The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting it Wrong, Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Search for a Perfect Meal in a Fast-Food World, What Works - Gender Equality by Design, Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, No!: The Power of Disagreement in a World that Wants to Get Along, The Penguin History of Latin America, Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The science behind drugs in sport, Nothing To Envy: Real Lives In North Korea, The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, When Money Dies, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone.

I feel bad looking at this list, because there are many interesting and important subjects here that I would love to know more about. How do people cheat at sports? What’s life like in North Korea? How can you design work environments to reduce gender biases? What the hell is quantum gravity? What happened in the Congo wars? Why don’t some people believe what science tells us?

My failure to finish these books also isn’t neccessarily any critisicm of these particular authors: there’s just so much to read, and so little time. These authors could have written shorter books that were perhaps a third of the length, which would have been perfect for me. But perhaps they weren’t aiming their books at me. Why are non-fiction books the length they are? If every book really was the length that the subject demanded, or the length of the story the author wished to tell, wouldn’t we expect a wider distribution of book lengths, including lots more short books? Why does that 2,000 word scientific paper suddenly need a 100,000 word book to explain it to the general reader?

I asked the internet, and it has some fun answers I hadn’t considered. For example, if your book is too short, you can’t write the name of the book on the spine:

Of course, a printed book probably needs to be at least 100-125 pages in length. Less than 100 pages and it becomes difficult for a printer to print the title of the book on the spine. That means your manuscript must be at least 35-40,000 words long.

That makes sense if you’re buying your books in a bookstore – if it’s too skinny, no one will see it. I know bookstores still exist, but I haven’t bought a book in a bookstore in years. Is physical size alone still enough to dictate how long books need to be?

Here’s another good one, that suggests you can work out length of the book based on what you want to do with your book. Why isn’t one of these options “to explain a subject I know about, in a way that other people can understand?”.

  • Is it a magnum opus and the cornerstone of a high-priced speaking event?
  • Is it for kudos / status / authority?
  • Is it a business card?
  • Are you gifting it to clients?
  • Does it need to feel weighty?

I could speculate at some other reasons. Perhaps the economics of shorter books just don’t work for authors, given the time they need to put in and the price they can sell at. Perhaps there’s just no clear publishing path: an article goes in a newspaper or magazine; a book goes in a bookstore; where does a 20-40k word book go? It is even a book at this length, or does it have to be an ebook, or a really long article online?

Perhaps customers make some association between length and quality. “This book is longer than this other one, so it must be better”. I might hold out hope that a shift towards digital books might disrupt a market that traditionally depends on the physical appearance of a book, although that doesn’t seem totally guaranteed, and doesn’t seem to have happened yet, especially when physical books often seem cheaper then Kindle books on Amazon (I assume Amazon have significant influence on the way this market plays out).

There is perhaps an alternative explanation: how much time do you need to spend with a subject for you to properly absorb it, and for it to get under your skin? Sure, you could read a shorter book in a quarter of the time, but would you remember any of it later? I think my answer is that I’d rather listen to the perfect short pop song3 twice back-to-back than have to suffer though a song that overstayed its welcome with tedious solos and gear changes. I tend to think most songs should be shorter. Most films should be shorter. And yep, most books should be shorter. You don’t ever want your audience to be desparate for the end: surely it’s always better for them to finish, still unsated, and want to go back to the start and relive the whole thing again.

I’d like to start a company that persuades non-fiction authors to write shorter books. We’ll hire the best and most agressive editors in the world, and trim every book until there’s not a single superfluous word to be found. Our books will sell so well that soon every other author and publisher copies us. Thus vindicated, and rich, we retire to a desert island, comfortable in the knowledge that we will never run out or mojitos nor perfectly formed, short, non-fiction books. Who’s with me?

I admit, I can’t completely rule out that I just like buying books more than I like reading them. But there’s no mojitos at the end of that version of this story, so where’s the fun in that?

  1. I once sat on a table of city lawyers at a wedding, which gave me a clue to the answer to this, of sorts. Short version: it seems big companies don’t tend to hire a law firm or bank based on some objective measure of the quality of service they provide – there are lots of other things to consider, like the reputational cover the firm provides. 

  2. Sometimes the article and the book are even by the same people: consider David Graeber’s excellent short rant, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant”, and then the follow-up book from a few years later, “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory”

  3. Dreaming of You by the Coral is a mere 2 minutes and 20 seconds, not an ounce of fat. I have listened to it more than twice.