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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.
More Good Reading
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