If you’ve read any of my King’s X books, or even just the product description page at Amazon or Nook, something unusual might have jumped out at you.
These books don’t end. In fact, even the fourth book, the one where the story finally comes to a shocking and explosive conclusion, still doesn’t really “conclude” as much as open up a new direction for the next big story to begin.
So, why? Why write books in a format that traditionally only works for television shows?
The quick answer? Because it’s fun! King’s X is ideal for this format. A sprawling epic that’s part “Braveheart” and part “The Maltese Falcon.” It’s huge. It would take us all most of lives to read, much less write. But serialized, with one big story arc spanning 4 episodes at 99 cents each, readers can enjoy a mighty saga in substantial but fast paced episodes, rather than devoting a month to reading one book. From there it’s up to me and the books to keep people coming back for more.
The longer answer is a little more technical and starts with “because now we can.” Now we can offer high quality, 25k word books that end in cliffhangers, at a completely reasonable price and not go out of business.
Wait…we couldn’t do that before?
No. Not really. Not until just recently. Not until the e-reader happened.
I was in a Barnes and Noble recently and picked up a non-fiction paperback that was just barely a hundred pages. $16.95. Seriously. I put it back on the shelf.
Of course, there are reasons for that cost. Some of them have to do with the cost of printing, and some of them are just unfortunate realities of the publishing business.
But authors and (small) publishers are no longer bound by those realities. The thing that makes short books for reasonable prices suddenly possible is, you guessed it, the ebook.
The publishing industry has always changed over time and particularly around the advent of new technologies. The “scratched rock” gave way to the more easily portable “notched stick.” The discovery that berry juice caused indelible stains on your loin clothe eventually led to the cave painting. That boom died out with the introduction of the scroll. Monks stopped hand-copying bibles after the Gutenberg press, etc… The ebook is part of a long line of evolutions.
But the publishing industry has gone through some non-technological changes in the last few decades, too, and not all of them particularly positive.
It wasn’t that long ago when short books were very popular. Look at books up through the 1970’s and you’ll see a lot of great, short books. One reason why people liked them was that they weren’t a daunting commitment of time and money. “The Great Gatsby” is a good example. Short and sweet.
Inevitably, the same thing happened to publishing as has happened to most other things. Big corporations took over. I’m not writing this to bash big corporations, but you know… there is kind of a discernable pattern of things getting worse after the big corporate takeovers. Where you have big corporations, you have strict adherence to profit margins, stock values and… you know the drill.
Bottom line, massive selling blockbusters look good on spreadsheets. So, starting some time around the 80’s, the book industry, like the movie industry, became focused on blockbusters. Because of this, books began to look the same. Not all books, of course. You can always find good books if you look for them. But the books you see at Costco or at your local Safeway, absolutely. I’m speaking in generalities here, but basically new books began to look, feel, and read like the most recent big hit. Editorial tastes began to homogenize. Agents and authors began to pander to increasingly narrow tastes in or der to earn a living. Book length also tended to be the same, not because 75-100K word books are necessarily better, but because any more would cause extra expense to print. And any less would still cost just as much and therefore anger customers who are used to getting “more book” for their $25 dollar hardcover, or their $16.95 paper back.
This was not really a good thing.
Enter, the E book. And possibilities. Writers with more freedom to write, and readers with a wider variety to read.
Seth Godin has a popular blog about the new realities of business and culture in the 21st century. He’s very good. Here’s something he recently said about this very idea it a post called The Market has no taste.
“When it comes to art, to human work that changes people, the mass market is a fool. A dolt. Stupid.”
That’s not to suggest that you or I are stupid because we are part of the mass market. He’s saying that, because of the way that market works, it necessarily reaches for the lowest common denominator (or at least as low as it has to in order to sell to the most people).
Personally, I don’t think people who read books like that sort of thing.
He goes on to ask…
“…Would we (the market) benefit from more pandering by marketers churning out average stuff that gets a quick glance, or would we all be better off with passionate renegades on a mission to fulfill their vision?”
Now, of course there’s nothing particularly “renegade” about episodic cliffhangers sold at affordable prices.
But there is another, kind of outside-the-box reason they exist.
Because suddenly they can.