James Patterson – who has more than 325 million books in print, and 36 New York Times bestsellers – has unveiled a bold new idea for the book industry. It is time, he says, to start writing (and selling) short, cheap fiction with can’t-stop-reading plots. He and his stable of writers are aiming to turn out two to four such books a month, to be released by his publisher, Little, Brown.
How short? The goal is to write novels of under 150 pages that can be read in one sitting. How cheap? The idea is to keep them under $5.
Patterson, in a recent interview with The New York Times, said the new book format – called BookShots -- would be “like reading movies.”
There are, of course, skeptics. Some of the push-back is economic: one of Little, Brown’s rivals told the Times that “tiny books don’t stand out in the store” and can be hard sell.
That may well be. But in this age of shrinking attention spans print formats of all kinds are evolving rapidly. From 2003 to 2012, the number of long news stories fell by 50% in the Washington Post, 35% in the Wall Street Journal, and 25% in the New York Times. And the amount of news people are getting through bite-sized online nuggets and smartphone alerts is exploding.
Some of the criticism goes to literary impact. The Independent noted that this new line of books from Patterson – who is derided by some as an author of airport-bookstore books – is “likely to find even less favor among the literary elite than Patterson’s full-length novels.”
The truth is, however, that Patterson’s new emphasis on brevity is, in many ways, a return to fiction’s roots. It harks back to the days when short stories were scooped up by an eager public – when there were great short-fiction magazines, like Short Stories, which published Rudyard Kipling and Bret Harte – with the advertising slogan “Twenty-Five Stories for Twenty-Five Cents.”
And many great authors wrote short masterpieces – from Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and Bartelby, the Scrivener (reader-friendly alternatives to the whale-sized Moby Dick), to Henry James’s Daisy Miller, to Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Patterson clearly appreciates – as some of his detractors may not -- that in the 21st century the written word is in a fierce battle for audience and “mindshare.” Today, the competition is not just television and movies, but Netflix and Amazon Video binge-watching, YouTube monologues, and the endless flood of Facebook updates and instant messages.
Patterson has, better than almost any living writer today, kept people around the world reading for pleasure – and now he has a new idea for doing it. People who care about books should hope that he succeeds.