[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Fat Books and Computers

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1991 and 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

One of the great myths about modern publishing is that people stopped writing short novels because of the advent of word processors — the implication being that the ease of computerized writing results in verbal diarrhea.

But that's simply not true. The move to fat books has nothing to do with word processors; the trend predates their introduction. Rather, it had to do with pushing the price of a paperback book over the one-dollar mark. Consumers seemed content to buy 40,000- to 60,000-word books when they cost 35 cents, 40 cents, 50 cents, 60 cents, 75 cents, and 95 cents (those being the standard paperback prices at various years in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s).

But when it came time to go over the magic one-dollar mark (prices jumped from 95 cents to $1.25 in one shot), publishers found resistance on the part of the buying public to paying that princely sum for a slim book. Fat books suddenly began selling better, because the greater quantity of words was perceived as a better buy (heft is easy to measure in the bookstore, after all, whereas quality of the prose and tightness of the tale becomes apparent only after actually reading the book) and thus, very rapidly, the standard length of an SF novel became between 80,000 and 120,000 words, and the ruinous tendency to overlong and padded novels was born.

The related, and equally ruinous, trend toward endless series, is likewise market-driven, and again has nothing to do with word processors. With books now costing a penny shy of $5, $6, or $7, consumers want an indication that the money won't be wasted, and so they look for the tried-and-true, rather than the innovative works that were originally the whole point of the SF genre.

If anything, word processors have substantially increased the quality, rather than the quantity, of published prose: they make revision so much easier than it used to be that there's no longer an excuse to say something's too much trouble to fix.

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