Shorter books and short attention spans

Oct 7, 2014 | Writing A Book

A couple of weeks back, I was having an email exchange with Jeevan Sivasubramaniam who is Managing Director, Editorial at Berrett-Koehler Publishers. We were discussing a particular manuscript, but one of Jeevan’s comments really stayed with me. He said:

“Books are getting waaaay shorter.”

That resonated with me. I’ve thought that for a while. Then I got to thinking. “Are business books getting shorter?”

Business best sellers are about the same

I took a look at recent New York Times business best sellers. They’re not getting shorter. Even after I eliminated Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century because it was an outlier at close to 700 pages, the average was about 350 pages.

But these are all books by traditional publishers. Publishers, like other people, tend to keep doing what they’ve always done until their ship hits an iceberg.

There seem to be more short books

It does seem like there are more short books. Some are ebooks. Others, like Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, are single-topic, laser-focused books.

I think technology is one driver of this trend. If you want to write a short book today, you won’t have to fight to convince a publisher that it’s a good idea. But what about attention span?

Short attention spans may be driving the move to shorter books

Jeevan, and many other people, believe that our attention spans are shortening. Jeevan sums it up by saying that books are getting shorter “to keep up with readers’ ever-lagging attention spans.” I’m not so sure.

First off, I’m not convinced by the data that purport to show that attention spans are shortening. I’ve seen figures for average attention span as low as five seconds. If those numbers are right, no one would ever read past the headline in a blog post.

Readers’ willingness to read all the way through a book has always been an issue. When I started writing, we heard that most people who bought a business book only read the first chapter. That has nothing to do with attention span and everything to do with discipline.

The distracted lifestyle may be the culprit

We live in the age of the distracted lifestyle. Job demands are escalating. “Always on” is the default situation for many of us. Our lives are filled with screens that clamor for attention, constant background noise, and the faint vibration of a phone demanding attention.

It’s hard to read in that situation. The survival mechanisms our brains developed to instantly concentrate on a faint rustle in the bushes, now pull us away again and again and again from that book we want to read.

The bottom line

Even though we’ve seen short books in the mix for decades, I think we’re seeing more and more of them now. They may be the only kind of book we can read if we’re living a distracted lifestyle.