I started to have an interesting conversation with my wife the other day. At one time, the pair of us were heavily into music. We’d go to concerts at innumerable places, from coffee houses to bookstores to stadiums. We spent a ton of money on CDs and such. Although there were some areas of our music taste that did not overlap, we did share, and still do share, a breadth of musical taste.
Now I forget what sparked the conversation, but we talked about albums and the current technology changing the need for them to be of a certain size. Ever since humans started recording songs onto materials, from vinyl to 8-track to cassette to Compact Disc, the size of an album evolved to where it stands today. Albums are roughly 12 songs long and about 40 minutes. It varies a lot, but generally one expects 12 songs when they purchase an album.
According to peakvinyl.com, a standard 12 inch, 33 RPM vinyl holds 44 minutes of music. Given that limitation, it stands to reason that as vinyls became popular, the industry standard for album length would seek to fill that time limit. Fast forward and CDs almost double that with 80 minutes of play time. Yet, album lengths remained roughly the same.
Then comes the dawn of digital music in MP3/M4A formatting and other compression ratios. Essentially, the album at that point practically becomes obsolete. Looking in any store or online and one will continue to see albums with about 12 songs at about 40 minutes… huh?
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
What about books though? Do books share any similarities to music?
For a long time, there were only book presses. Size and length of books were determined by the need to be cost effective. It isn’t the same as a physical boundary, but it is reasonable to believe that the size of books were influenced in part by that need to be cheaper. Per page costs dropped to a certain point as books got longer. In other words the per page/per word costs of a novel are better than that of a short story or a novella. There can be much here to argue the need for publishing houses (aka traditional publishers) to keep those costs lower, but lets stick with size. In reality, books never needed to be one size or another due to technology, however technology has changed a few things.
At one time I researched story classifications based on length. In other words, how many words does something need to be to be called a novel? Sources varied a little on this, but essentially I found that books between 40,000 and 50,000 words cross over into being called a novel. Short stories were accepted between 1,000 to 7,500 words. Novelettes and novellas bridged the gap between short stories and novels. Less than 1,000 words? Well that is generally called a vignette, or the more modern accepted term of flash-fiction.
Easy enough right? The classification of a story being a novel or whatever is built off word count. Unlike music, as stated before, there is no physical boundary here. There had been nothing in technology that said that books needed to be X number of words in other to fit onto Y platform, whereas an album needed to be less than 44 minutes to fit on vinyl records.
So the short answer to the questions of books sharing any similarities to music is “no”.
Has anything changed with the evolution of books into digital? Since the advent of ebooks and on-demand printing services, has the length of a book shifted any, or is it reasonable to wonder if books need to be a certain length?
I would say yes and no. This goes more into the changes in publishing that allowed for the explosion of independent writers. Since stories never had to be any particular length unless one wanted their story classified as a novel, short story, novella, or whatever, it is near impossible to assert that ebooks ever changed that. With regards to accepted story lengths for genres, there is room to argue it though. This is where the “yes” comes in.
In that research on word lengths, I found a lot of information on how long stories should be to fit in genres. There are always exceptions, of course. An example of this is, according to information from Anne Allen, cozy mysteries should fall between 55,000 and 70,000 words. Thrillers? 80,000 to 100,000 words. The list goes on. These are what industry standards developed. While these lengths might have been accepted for varying reasons, it would stand to reason that with the explosion of indie writers, that no longer need be the case.
More to reason though, because of the change in printing cost, digital availability, etc, shorter stories, from novellas to vignettes, are more easily distributed. To me, this is the biggest change afforded through technology short of the ability for indie writers to exist more freely. The question will remain though, will shorter stories ever gain the prominence that novels had for so long? Does it even matter?