Book Length

I’ve been reading books (especially paperbacks) since the 1960s, and I’ve noticed a significant trend since then – one that no one seems to have commented on. Books are getting thicker.

Back in the 1960s paperbacks were cheaper because inflation hadn’t hit. Typical paperback prices were under a dollar. Back in the early 1950s paperbacks had cost a quarter, but the price had edged up over the years. If I really looked I could find brand new paperbacks for $0.45. Most of the science fiction I bought then cost $0.60 to $0.75. My first copy of Frank Herbert’s Dune cost 95 cents !! The first book I bought that cost over a dollar was 2001, at $1.25. (But at least it had pictures)

But most books back then were thinner, too, which also kept the price low. There were new paperbacks with fewer than 100 pages. A 300 page paperback was a rarity. Novels were thinner, and they sold a lot more anthologies.

Flash forward to today, when Dune costs something like $7 for the inexpensive edition. It’s still in print, but I suspect that is due, in part, to its thickness. Look at the sizes of paperbacks. They typically run to 300 pages or more, and could double as doorstops. And then you have those Robert Jordan bricks of paper.

You can see the effect it has had on the industry. I use science fiction as an example, because I’ve read it so long. Back in the fifties through early seventies you had a lot of books by people like Fredric Brown, Robert Sheckley, etc. – collections of short stories that, bound together, still made a thin book. Novels by Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke were relatively thin. More recently, Brown and Sheckley aren’t in print. Asimov and Heinlein’s last books are thick tomes, and Clarke’s newest books are pretty thick, too. You don’t see A Fall of Moondust or The Sands of Mars in print anymore. I don’t think it’s because of advances in science making the books obsolete – it’s the thickness.

Therre are plenty of other examples. formerly thin books are bundled together today into thicker books. So you have Alan Dean Foster’s Star Trek Log series bundled up, and multiple-copy Doc Savage and Tarzan books.
Why is this? What changed in the book industry to make it more efficient or cost-effectibve to publish bricks instead of smaller books?

And I think this has affected the books themselves. Nobody can print thin works anymore. Heinlein added a ton of material to The Worlds of Robert Heinlein and it turned into Expanded Universe, which is still in print (due, in part, to the fact that it’s publishable). They didn’t reprint Larry Niven’s thin late 1960s The Flight of the Horse, but they included almost all of it in the impressively thick 1999 Rainbow Mars. Unless they publish a thick omnibus volume, I don’t think I’ll ever see a republication of Fredrib Brown stories. Nobody publishes anthologies anymore unless they’re really thick.

CalMeacham writes:

> Unless they publish a thick omnibus volume, I don’t think I’ll
> ever see a republication of Fredrib Brown stories.

Are you not aware that NESFA Press has fairly recently published a collection of all of Brown’s short stories (From These Ashes) and a collection of all of his novels (Martians and Madness)?

NESFA is one of the many small presses dedicated to reprints, but Cal is right about books getting longer. Guidelines for a novel length when I was starting out was about 70,000 words; nowadays they want 80,000+.

My guess is that it’s a function of the cost of books (you can see similar trends in other areas, such as movies and Broadway). As the price goes up, people want more for their money. If you’re paying $25 for a hardcover, you want something that will give you plenty to read.