The Narrative and the Container

Compact disc length – approximately 75 minutes long – was first determined by the idea that one should be able to listen to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony without pause. (See Steve Knoppel’s Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age) That’s it.

We tend to think of the rock/pop album as 12-14 songs, and this is precisely why. Of course there are numerous exceptions to the rule, such as EPs and double-CD records. But I cite it as a jumping off point for a discussion about books and their containers. In an early marketing meeting for Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 at FSG, editor Lorin Stein addressed the book’s length. How do we package a 1,000 page novel? This prompted talk of the physical limit for binding a trade title, which is apparently around 1,200 pages. (Even a 700pg hardcover is unwieldy, as anyone who’s attempted to read one on mass transit or lying in bed can attest to.)

The decision was made to release the book simultaneously in hardcover and a 3-volume paperback slipcase edition, priced equally. Want to read the book primarily on the subway? Grab the slipcase. Something for the library shelves? Hardcover. 2666 becomes illustrative for another reason – Bolaño wrote it with the idea that it be published in five parts, one per year, so as to bring consistent money for his widow and children. If you’ve read the novel, you know this is somewhat preposterous. The sections vary widely in length, from 80 to 400 pages. Releasing the parts annually would have been very difficult to maintain public interest and sustained sales.

The American edition, from November 2008, has sold over 100K copies between the two editions.

As reading habits change, how will our books change? The internet has ushered in an increase in disseminated short-form reading, as we jump from social network updates from friends, news articles, blogs, reviews, etc. Interconnected texts delivered in varying lengths seem one possibility, brilliant short shorts seem another.

Short fiction: The most obvious corollary to the “death of the album”/rise of the single in music. The perfect short story now can be easily distributed to readers online. When I do like a New Yorker short story (like Jonathan Franzen’s “Good Neighbors”), I link/Twitter/Facebook/email the online version to friends. Personally, I hope Lydia Davis’s work will find a new audience on the web.

Multimedia texts: That title’s a bit of a misnomer. I don’t mean the old sawhorse “hypertext fiction,” but merely those (primarily nonfiction) with a surfeit of supplementary graphics, graphs, photography, etc. The internet is an inherently visual medium, and these texts are well-suited. Take, for example, a WWII history. You can outfit the text online with flash-based interactive maps, links to new scholarship, etc.

“Just in time” Delivery: When I worked for a dotcom putting out high school curricula online, we were a big fan of “just in time” delivery. The students are taking Lesson 3 while we’re writing Lesson 4. Some writer is going to make a killing doing this. A chapter a day for some suspense novel until it’s done.

As you can tell, this is still pretty inchoate in the ol’ brainpan. I’m sure there are plenty of other genres and ideas that may fit. What do you think?

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1 Comment

Filed under industry, writing

One response to “The Narrative and the Container

  1. I actually LOVED using multimedia texts, so to say, when teaching. For instance, I taught “Of Mice and Men” – at home, the kids read it (or mostly did, you know 1/2 of them just cheated), but at school we used maps, old archived photographs, old news headlines and such that I found on the Internet – it made reading the book more real, so to say. If publishers can actually market products like that, all put together nicely, it would be amazing.

    And I also love the short fiction being marketed. It’s a great way to get an unknown author out and publicized. It’s like singles on the radio – you hear one song, you want the whole album.

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