“Busy people can be daunted at the prospect of having to read a 300- or 400-page book.”
Those are the words of Chris Anderson, the director of the TED conference. Given how TED has popularized the 17-minute video, this sentiment is not surprising. A couple years ago TED brought that condensed sensibility to publishing and launched TED Books. They were the first to use Amazon’s Kindle Singles, a program designed for original works of 10,000 to 30,000 words, which fill the space between an essay and book. Amazon VP Russ Grandinetti said at the time,“Our goal with Singles is to allow compelling ideas to be expressed at their natural length.”
What Amazon and TED clearly believe is that e-books are going to remove the fear publishers have of needing to deliver specific minimum page counts. The variety of screen dimensions across an ever growing number of reading devices and the ability for readers to adjust font size in this new e-world makes the page infinitely variable in size and measuring page count pointless. Each electronic “container” now dictates the form the book will take, much like pouring same amount of water into a champagne flute and saucepan create very different results. So what do we use instead?
I wonder if the daunting “400-page problem” that Anderson suggests leads us to a better solution. Maybe minutes and seconds is the best measure of book length in the digital world. Music and movies, which migrated to digital formats years ago, consistently provide the duration of the piece and there are already signs of this standard being associated with the written word.
The curation website Longreads, which directs readers to quality long form writing, provides, along with the title, author, source, and synopsis, the number of words contained in each piece and an estimate of the time required to read. It does not seem much of a stretch that with small evolutions in our reading devices we could measure the actual speed of the person reading and customize those times to match to the individual.
Seeing those time estimates will change our perceptions of reading as an activity, for better and worse. I already have an improved and altered sense for the time I spend reading, and I do sometimes avoid pieces because of the word count exceeds my day’s quota. Smart book publishers will help readers get over the attention anxiety by providing time estimates for each chapter (“You can read this book in ten easy installments of 17 minutes each!”) — something that is available as an easy plug-in for blogs and others forms of online publishing, like the choice that Medium has made to display “read time” next to article titles. Or maybe our device will tell us how much time is left in a chapter as a replacement to our old method of paging ahead to find the chapter’s end.
This shift from page count to word count will be another casualty of the physical book that will be lamented. Purists will see this as another horrible concession, wishing we returned to an age when books were shown proper respect.
We are going to start saying, “This is a four-hour, seventeen-minute book? That’s absurd!”
But what if this shift is a way for books to better fit into our a world where we measure in smaller and smaller slices of time? The book hasn’t changed, only the way we relate to it. And what if instead of choosing another 47-minute episode of Mad Men from iTunes, that reluctant reader picks up a book, knowing she can finish five more chapters before going to bed? That seems like a good trade-off.