The Web promotes pithiness

Ever noticed that Malcolm Gladwell books read like magazine articles stretched out to book length?  Gladwell is naturally pithy, spent a lot of time writing for periodicals, and so his natural rhythm seems to be 7,000 words — but he writes for an inflexible genre that requires 70,000.

Similarly, ever noticed that pop song lyrics often peter out?  The first verse is clever, the second trite, the third nonsensical.  This pattern has been true for decades, even in famous anthems like Strawberry Fields Forever.  (If you haven’t noticed this before, listen to a few songs, and be amazed.)  The problem is that the pop format is standardized, running about 2.5 minutes, structured something like verse 1, verse 2, chorus, verse 3, bridge, chorus.  If the songwriter’s idea doesn’t fit, then, for commercial reasons, he needs to add filler.

A great thing about the Web, still in flux even now, is to shake up these standard formats.  Things can run as short or long as needed.  Especially shorter.

This is counterintuitive.  The Web made it free to publish an infinite number of words, so one would think we’d get longer books, articles and other media.  Instead, the opposite happened.

There are three reasons it turned out this way.

  • Web search, e.g. Google, reduced the need for well-defined content categories.  This created an opening for new ways of communicating.  The question a book agent used to ask — “what shelf would this book idea go on?” — became less relevant.
  • In a world flooded with content, the value of pithiness went up.  You now have instant access to thousands of times more content than you can ever consume.  The scarce resource is not money or content, but time.
  • Fulfillment costs went to zero, so the barrier to pithiness went down.  When selling a traditional book, most of the cost went into printing, binding and shipping.  To have a meaningful amount left over for the author and publisher, you needed to charge $20 for the end product, which required delivering something big enough that readers would feel they received good value.  That whole paradigm is going away.  If the author can communicate the same idea in 20 pages, and sell online for $3, everyone is happier.  The reader saved 90% of his money and 90% of his time.  The author collects $1 or more per copy, about what he would have received for a paper book.  Everyone wins except the traditional intermediaries, the publisher and bookstore.

As an example, I built a business selling 8-page research papers into a market that was accustomed to 40 pages.  Rivals had no more content than I did, but were stretching what they had into the longer format for essentially historical reasons.  Readers aren’t dumb.  They read mine, found it had higher information density, and was thus more useful.

Similarly, Amazon is a great place to publish novelettes and shorter nonfiction, resulting in a better product than stretching to fit the traditional book format:  more succinct, faster to read, less dreck.  This means happier readers, which in the long run means sales, and thus happy authors.


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