B is for Book

This post is part of an ongoing series, the Author’s Alphabet. Click on the tag below to read more in the series!

B is for Book.

Continuing on our theme of obvious alphabet letters… But what exactly do we mean by a “book”?

B Block

Once upon a time, a book was a physical object that consisted of printed pages bound between covers. In the modern world, those pages were usually printed on paper, but the quality of the paper could vary from rag cotton (high end) to newsprint (low end). The covers could be clothbound (hardcover) or cardstock (paper) with yet more varying degrees of quality.

In the past, there was a wider range of “book.” There were, of course, the stone tablets of Sumerian cuneiform (although many people would argue those were “documents” or “records” but not books.) There were scrolls of papyrus or parchment or vellum. Books could be written out by hand before the invention of movable type.

And now, the range of “book” has expanded in other ways. Books may be electronic files, suitable for reading on a computer or a specialized e-reader. Books may be audio files, intended for listening, and a hot debate rages on whether listeners have “read” a book. (I’ll spare you a preview of the R is for Read section that I’ll never write—I personally believe that “reading” requires eyes looking at words, either in print or on a screen. Nevertheless, audiobooks maintain many of the characteristics of print books, with regard to how they are marketed, sold, and used by consumers.)

For years, students have relied on book summaries to grasp the essentials of a book—Cliffs Notes or Monarch Notes or other study guides. And others have opted for cinematic adaptations of books, although such movies often change major aspects of the underlying work. (Grapes of Wrath, anyone? Where the movie ends with the Joads arriving optimistically in California, their fortunes on the cusp of positive change?) At some point in the future, “book” might be stretched to mean movie or summary or game or…any number of other things.

“Book” also has a flexible meaning regarding the length of the work in question. In common parlance, a “book” of fiction usually means a novel, a full-length story. It’s distinguished from a short story, novelette, or novella. But the definition of those other forms is up for grabs, according to context. Lacking an industry-wide standard for defining length, a variety of genre special-interest-groups have set their own definitions. Those definitions are almost always used for the allocation of awards. For example:

•    The Horror Writers of America (“HWA”) states that “short fiction” is a work of less than 7499 words. “Long fiction” is a work from 7500 words to 39,999 words. A novel is more than 40,000 words.
•    The Mystery Writers of America (“MWA”) states that a short story is a work from 1000 to 22,000 words. A novel is more than 22,001 words.
•    The Romance Writers of America (“RWA”) states that a novella is a work from 20,000 to 40,000 words. A novel is more than 40,000 words.
•    The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (“SFWA”) states that a short story is a work of less than 7500 words. A novelette is a work from 7501 to 17,499 words. A novella is a work from 17,500 to 39,999 words. A novel is 40,000 words or more.

(All of these definitions are subject to change; some organizations debate the categories much more frequently than others.)

But do these distinctions matter?  When traditional publishing remained an author’s only option, length of a work was important. Various publications, usually magazines but sometimes print anthologies, would consider short stories, novelettes, or novellas, but mainstream publishers traded almost exclusively in novels.

(In fact, most mainstream publishers traded almost exclusively in novels longer than 40,000 words. Some publishers, like Harlequin, maintained precise page limits for its books, manipulating margins and type size to guarantee a specific number of pages in each category of romance. Those limitations allowed the publisher to buy large quantities of paper and cardstock in advance.)

The growth of self-publishing, though has expanded the options for publishing shorter works. Most self-publishing results in electronic files. Those electronic files are being read on devices such as phones and tablets, where an increasing number of readers has expressed a preference for shorter works. Moreover, the delivery cost of electronic files is low (compared to printing, shipping, and warehousing print works), allowing entrepreneurial authors to set low price points for shorter works. While a print publisher could not effectively market a short story for $0.99, an electronic publisher can do so without a problem. In fact, the ubiquitous $0.99 for a music file on iTunes conditioned many readers to expect similar low prices for short fiction.

These shorter works bear many of the characteristics of full-length novels. They have cover art and back-of-the-book blurb descriptions. They can be grouped in series, resembling trilogies or longer collections of works. They have an independent presence at vendors; each short story, novelette, or novella is displayed on its own page, with its own metadata.

Enough with laying out the options. What about you? How do you define “book”?

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