Longer than an article. Shorter than a book. A niche for mid-length scholarship?

GigaOm just published a story titled: “What’s a book? It’s whatever you want it to be.” When I clicked on the link from my RSS feed, I was expecting some sort of story about authors innovating with form or an emerging technology that fosters new forms of interacting with texts. Not so much. Basically, the thrust of the argument can be summed up quite simply with one of it’s own paragraphs:

This kind of “format shifting,” in which a newspaper or magazine takes content that has already been published and reformats it for the Kindle or some other device, makes a lot of sense. That content can theoretically reach readers who might never have picked up the newspaper or magazine, or who missed it when it was first printed, or who want to read it in book form while sitting on their couch or at the beach rather than on a computer. And if the cost is low enough, they will be willing to pay for that convenience. (Matthew Ingram)

I’m pretty sure this is another instance of the media-outlet-who-cried-“book.” There’s really very little discussion about why repurposed newspaper/magazine content sold on a reading device might be considered a “book.” Because it comes on a Kindle? This sort of discussion isn’t going to get us very far, especially if “book” is going to have any cultural capital left, once the surface-deep media really starts to “challenge” what we mean by the term.

Maybe I’m being a little snarky. And it’s most likely that Ingram wrote the article with a perfectly appropriate title, which was then changed by an editor who either didn’t read the post very well, or just plain knew that “What’s a book?” is a headline that would get people clicking through.

Luckily, Ingram points out an important phenomenon in the world of publishing: long-form articles, or maybe micro-books, or something. I don’t know. What’s important here is that there’s a market for much longer, more involved pieces of writing out there that might not have been able to justify publication outside of an edited or single-author collection. Personally, I’ve always thought that there should be a market for this sort of genre, and now it seems that there might be. I loathe to consider how many great ideas since the beginning of publishing have not been able to find the very real audiences who would have taken them up. Too short for a book. To complicated or thorough for an article.

Mid-length texts (I just can’t stop thinking about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) could be a boon to all sorts of writing practices, but I’m thinking that collaboration might just be the aspect of writing that gets the biggest boost. But I’m not really thinking about co-authored texts. I’m thinking about manuscripts with a relatively “unfinished” quality to them. I want to have access to a manuscript that is more like a complex-gesture or a multi-faceted response to a larger text.

There are also implications for serialization (I’m looking at you, U of Michigan Press!) that haven’t been available before. I can imagine a book-length project, of which only the first chapter or section is released. Readers respond. Critics respond. With reviews. With site comments. Or with book sections of their own. And the author might choose to incorporate those textual activities into her next chapter. She might not. And of course there are other dangers here, too. Pandering to an overly-vocal audience. Bending to the will of aggressive critics. But I’m pretty sure those issues could be addressed in the same way that peer-review addresses issues of relevance and coherence already.

Regardless, I hope this form-length really takes off. We might be surprised at the sort of material some of our best thinkers/writers/scholars might have in the hopper. Have you got something?


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