Fat Books Are Dead. Long Live Skinny.

Russell Baker

Over the years, there have been a lot of great writers throw out a lot of great lines about writing.

The times are changing.

What was true then may be an absolute obsolete thought in the digital age of ePublishing.

The world of eBooks has taken on another face.

Russell Baker, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and columnist, was famous for saying: “Americans like fat books and thin women.”

Not anymore, they don’t.

Well, there still might be a penchant for thin women if you believe the full-page ads in fashion magazines which show off glamorous ladies with legs no larger than a good fishing pole in South Alabama.

But books?

Let’s think again.

Love Story: 131 pages

There was a time when authors felt compelled to write fat books because potential readers and book buyers would want at least 100,000 to 150,000 words in order to get their money’s worth.

No one wanted to plunk down $24.95 for a skinny book, take it home, and have it read before sundown.

People wanted to buy epics.

As my partner Stephen Woodfin told me, they wanted books like Twitter. They wanted at least 140 characters.

Take the novel home, read it for a couple of months, agonize over several generations, a couple of wars, an economic depression or two, an epidemic that shattered the lives of the community, a handful of affairs, and the laborious chore of turning a two-horse log corral into an oil empire. Once finished, readers could always use the book for a doorstop.

With eBooks, readers aren’t looking for epics with 140 characters anymore.

They have no idea how big, how thick, how fat the books are on Kindles, Nooks, computers, and iPads.

Of Mice and Men: 108 pages

Besides, everybody is in a hurry.

No one has the time or the patience to wade through oceans of gray type when a good book with great characters, great dialogue, a great plot, and a dynamite ending can be read and digested thoroughly on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Because eBooks are so inexpensive, today’s readers would just as soon spend $2.99 or $4.99 for a 40,000-word novel as a 100,000-word novel.

Besides, today’s writers are producing books for generations raised on television and video games. Attention spans aren’t what they used to be.





I believe that when you write a book, you should narrow your focus and not send your reader down the twists and turns of so many subplots that take so many more words and so many more pages.

Get into the story.

Tell the story.

Get out of the story.

And write another book.

The Old Man and The Sea: 104 pages

As far as I’m concerned, we need to concentrate on novellas, not novels. Some of the best stories ever written were told in 30,000 to 50,000 words.

Today’s concept for writers is simple. It is a three-step formula.

Shorter books.

More books.

More often.

The wave of the future has already begun. The fat books are dead. Long live skinny.

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  • Oh no!! And I just started reading Dr. Zhivago!

    • I took a lifetime to write. It’ll take a lifetime to read.

  • Jack Durish

    I always loved the scene in “Amadeus” when the emperor complains that Mozart has used too many notes, and the composer responds, “Which ones would you have me take out?” To me, a good story contains just the right amount of words, whatever that amount is. Who’s going to complain so long as it’s told well?

    • You’re right, Jack. The problem is, I’ve read books where an author takes two chapters to tell me what he could have told me in two paragraphs.

    • My favorite scene in that movie, Jack!

  • George Hamilton

    Thanks so much for this timely post. It makes me feel even more confident about my next novel, which is about half the length of my previous two at about 60,000 words.

  • I think the thing about it is that authors do not have to sacrifice quality in order to write shorter books. Rather, short books require the writer to use the fewest words possible to tell a good story. That economy of style is a good thing which will produce lean, taut reads for readers.

  • I agree! I don’t have the attention span to even WRITE a long book!

    • Give me a handful of memorable character, one plot, one subplot, and make me race to the finish line. And make sure it’s a short dash.

      • Now that I am becoming more chronologically gifted, it is also important for me to write short books because I have to re-read the entire book before I begin writing the next chapter. Otherwise, I can’t remember where I left off in the story.

        • I like that: chronologically gifted. *grin*

          • It’s the kindest thing I can think of to say about the ravages of old age.

        • I’m like you. With two novels working at the same time, I’m afraid I’ll write the right chapter in the wrong book and never know the difference.

    • Same here, Jo!

  • Awesome post. I totally agree. I believe that as long as a story is told well and told completely, word count does not matter. I’ll definitely be sharing this post!

    • Thanks, Jo. I believe that, in the past, too many authors filled novels with fine writing with non-essential scenes or characters simply because they were desperate to increase the word count. So often, those scenes and characters had very little if anything to do with the story or the plot.

  • Thank you 🙂

    • I appreciate your taking the time to read it.

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