Books Might Be Getting Longer, But We Don’t Have the Data to Know for Sure
Late last week The Guardian pondered what is basically the infographic of research questions: Are books getting longer?
The story, which was fed to The Guardian by a pr firm, is:
Books are steadily increasing in size, according to a survey that has found the average number of pages has grown by 25% over the last 15 years.
A study of more than 2,500 books appearing on New York Times bestseller and notable books lists and Google’s annual survey of the most discussed books reveals that the average length has increased from 320 pages in 1999 to 400 pages in 2014.
According to James Finlayson from Vervesearch, who carried out the survey for the interactive publisher Flipsnack, there’s a “relatively consistent pattern of growth year on year” that has added approximately 80 pages to the average size of the books surveyed since 1999.
This is a relatively meaningless question; it’s like asking how high is up. I was going to ignore it, but after it crossed my social networks for the third time yesterday I decided to point out the flaws in the data set which render the discussion moot.
But before I do that, I want to address one point made by the pr flack who was hired by a publisher to get The Guardian to write about the publisher (Chris Meadows of Teleread also argued this in his post):
For Finlayson, much of this shift can be explained by the industry’s shift towards digital. “When you pick up a large book in a shop,” he says, “you can sometimes be intimidated, whereas on Amazon the size of a book is just a footnote that you don’t really pay all that much attention to.” The rise of digital reading is also a factor, he adds. “I always hold off buying really big books until I’m going on holiday, because I don’t want to lug them around in my bag. But if you have a big book on a Kindle, that’s not a consideration.”
Yeah, that’s just nonsense. eBooks have only had a measurable impact on book sales for the past five years or so, and that’s just not long enough for ebooks to have become the leading cause of book bloat. And then there’s the fact that those in book culture who manage the best seller lists and the notable book lists are also more likely to be paper book fetishists who love longer books simply because they’re longer.
So no, digital is irrelevant here, but that’s not so important because the data we’re discussing is also insufficient to the point of nonexistence.
This whole discussion is based on a survey of 2,500 titles out of tens of millions of books published over the past fifteen years. That’s just a drop in the bucket, and it’s not even a representative drop. Instead the data set is based on best seller lists, where there is a known selection bias.
And almost as importantly, the source of the data is questionable. Vervesearch describes itself as an "SEO and content agency". In other words, they’re a marketing firm that specializes in boosting a company’s profile by getting press to write about said company, and link back to the company’s website.
Have you ever seen an infographic which mentions a specific company as the source? That infographic was made by a company like Vervesearch for the very purpose of boosting a client’s SEO rank.
And Vervesearch had the exact same financial motive for starting this discussion. The facts didn’t matter to Vervesearch nearly as much as the ensuing discussion and links to the client, so there’s no reason for us to trust the accuracy and validity of the original data (even if it were a large enough data set).
If you want to discuss whether books are getting longer, please do us all a favor and find a better source of data.
One way to go about it would be run a database search on, say, Amazon’s book listings, sort by publication year, and find the average book length for each year. This would be time and CPU intensive, but the data does exist and can be processed into usable form.
Google Books might be another source of data.
P.S. If anyone does run that query, please let me know what you find. My curiosity has been piqued.
image by Wonderlane