The OF Blog: Why some people's complaints are a bit silly

Monday, March 30, 2009

Why some people's complaints are a bit silly

One of the recurring themes of any internet forum discussion is that of complaint over X. In this case, the complaint is over how some feel that with the recent announcement that the proposed "final" volume of The Wheel of Time will now be published in three 250,000 to 300,000 volumes. Some keep citing the deceased author's Robert Jordan's wish that the book be published in one volume. Some have even gone as far as to demand that Tor, the series' American publishers, publish a 800,000-900,000 single-volume book.

To illustrate the daftness of this idea, I have enclosed three pictures of the largest hardcover I own, Adolfo Bioy Casares' Borges, which clocks in at 1663 pages with medium-to-small font. Let's look at the images:



Notice how this book appears on my bookshelf next to the other books. The page numbers for the four books to the left range from 330 to 497 pages. To the right, one is almost 1100 pages, the other around 800. Notice how it dwarfs all around it. It is a "normal" height for a hardcover book, which would be necessary for it to fit on many booksellers' (not to mention possible patrons') bookshelves. Now imagine a store trying to fit multiple copies of that into the limited space they give SF/F releases in many stores. It would reduce the volume of books by at least one-half, perhaps up to two-thirds.



Here is the font inside the book. It's on the small side, but not too much. Likely 400-500 words per page. Multiply that by 1663 and the total for a 400 word/page book would be 665, 200 words. For a 500 word/page book (think tiny print here), it would be 831,500. Mind you, this is with smaller than average font.



This third picture shows me holding the book out. I have relatively large hands and I barely can grasp it and hold it steady. The book weighs well over 5 lbs., likely closer to 7 lbs. Whenever I open it, the spine creaks (and let me note that the camera can't show the reinforcement along the spine, with a ribbed effect) and that's with me being extra cautious whenever I read from this book. If I were to re-read it say 3-4 times, I suspect the spine would collapse.

If I wanted to show what a "normal" font-sized book of around 800,000-900,000 words would look like, I'd have to add the Richard Morgan book in the background on top of it and then try to palm the two books. Do you think my hand, large as it may be, could do that?

While I know the option some would say would be to print the book on Bible-like tissue paper, but that too would be very impractical due to production costs. Which brings the entire thing around to economics:

Can booksellers afford to wipe out twice as much stock in order to keep extra-bulky books on display for 2-3 months? Can publishers, who have been urging/coercing authors for the past 5-10 years to reduce the page count per book due to increased costs for paper and binding, afford to print a book at a loss in mass quantities, if the break-even point for a book this size would be in the $35-40 wholesale range at least, and likely closer to the $50 mark if it were produced in mass quantities? Would consumers balk at spending $45-50 for a book, especially in the middle of a deep global recession? Would said consumers throw a fit if the book collapses in the middle of their first reading due to the heft of the book and the way the consumer might handle it? Would slighter-built consumers have problems holding the book in their hands?

Sometimes, people get so passionate about something that the practical realities elude them for a while.

15 comments:

wotdom said...

i wouldn't mind paying $60 for that, compared to the 90 or 100 for three volumes. two volumes would be more fitting and ideal, but w/e

Adam Whitehead said...

Larry, I take your point but very, very few people have seriously suggested that a one-volume AMoL is even remotely feasible at this point.

The main argument is whether two volumes is feasible as opposed to three, and given the huge number of novels previously published in one volume at the 350-400,000 word limit, including previous novels not just by Tor but by Jordan himself and novels by Erikson published by Tor at the current time, it is clearly the case that they are. That inevitably leads to discussions over Tor's financial motives for splitting the books over three volumes and three years, and the bad light that paints on them for giving other, exceptionally weak excuses instead.

Larry said...

Adam,

I know, as I thought it might have been done at that, but I thought I'd just illustrate how big something would have to be for an 800,000 word single-volume work.

But even with two 350-400K works, that's pushing profitability margins. It's been noted elsewhere in the past about how publishers in general are balking more at books over 200K words and Sanderson's blog entry reinforces what I had heard before. For most people (I guess epic fantasy fans are an exception! :P), a book that goes over 500 hardcover pages is HUGE. While I know WoT has a large audience, there were quite a few remaindered HC copies of the last WoT book. Publishers lose a ton of money on remaindered books and to risk even a 20% remainder rate (which is fairly low these days, if I recall) on a book that would cost about $25 to produce and another $5-10 to pay for the shipping back to the publishers to be pulped would be tantamount to risking one's livelihood.

The Witchfinder said...

What I'm having problems comprehending is why the story - or any story, really - needs to be 750k words to begin with. I realize there are plenty of loose ends to tie up, but does Sanderson HAVE to do it at the normal plodding Jordan-esque speeds? I feel certain that a professional author (and that, Sanderson is not, though even he should be competent enough to keep it somewhere around the 500k mark), could wrap this behemoth up in a satisfactory means with far less pages at their disposal.

And so, being the cynical bastard that I am, I keep seeing my mind's eye those gluttonous and greedy Tor executives wringing their stubby little paws together as they scheme and plot on how to suck the once-plentiful teats of the Wheel into shrunken, black and barren little prudes, howling in glee as they dance their profane little jigs on the bones of the man they once represented.

And then I realize I really don't care. I do, however, quite enjoy this internet-drama. It makes my quiet shifts at work all that more entertaining. Keep it up! I want FOUR volumes!

Larry said...

Ha! :P

I'm a bit more sanguine about all this due to years of having email conversations with authors and others in the industry. I know enough not to judge a work until it's complete and then I can feel free to rip it mercilessly to shreds. Until then, I wait and just stir the pot every so often.

That book I'm holding in that pic is quite good. Too bad it's not available in English :P

Jonathan M said...

To my mind the issue isn't really a commercial one. If that Borges biography came out in English it would have a magnificent hardcover and would sell for probably about $50. If it had some good reviews behind it, I think most book shops would pick up a few seeing as literary biographies probably sit on the shelves quite a bit anyway.

To me the issue is more cultural. Give that Bricks n Mortar bookshops have limited space, how many good books are forced off of those shelves in order to make sense for works such as that Borges book or, more infuriatingly, the final volume of WoT? Given the choice between 750k words of Jordan corpse-humping and say half a dozen books including, for example, the Bacigalupi collection or the Knife of Never Letting Go, which is a book-shop owner more likely to go for? what does this mean for someone new to the genre whose local bookshop is their first encounter with what is out there?

In a very real sense, the growth of fat fantasy is all about the appropriation of shared cultural spaces. If you put out a successful series of 1000 page books then you're crowding out all of your competition. By the time Martin and Pratchett have kicked the bucket and their franchises completed by someone else you'll be able to fill an entire shelf with nothing but the works of those three authors and that's not good for anyone except their publishers.

billectric said...

Witchfinder says, "...howling in glee as they dance their profane little jigs on the bones of the man..."

Now, that's some good phrasin' there, I gotta tell ya. Hehehe!

Adam Whitehead said...

Larry, yes, that is Tor's spectacularly unconvincing excuse as well. But they're keeping the older WoT books, which are way past the 'unprofitability' margin, in print and they are actively still pushing Steven Erikson's works, which are pretty much all way past that point as well.

Tor's inconsistency on the issue is what is causing the problem for so many fans. If Tor said they were splitting all of Erikson's new books and having to let the old WoT books go out of print for being unprofitable, that would be one thing, but they are not. If this was a debut novel by an unknown author it would also be a different situation.

But this is the eagerly-awaited latest volume in their flagship series which will sell literally millions of copies by itself. The notion shops wouldn't stock it if it is merely the same size as some of the previous volumes alreay taking up their shelf space is utterly ludicrous.

Brandon's explanation for the situation is very clear: Tor wanted a book this year and the only way to get one out this year was to split it in three. If Tor hadn't insisted on that we'd be getting two volumes published in mid-2010 and mid or late-2011 instead. I don't really see why Tor felt the need to issue some very feeble excuses otherwise.

Larry said...

Jonathan,

Interesting point. Yes, I could see some stores (but perhaps not the "big box" ones) keeping a copy of a book such as this on display. While I think there is some truth to the idea that the BFFs are like kudzu vines that choke out all around them, even those multi-volume works aren't being marketed as much these days in the stores - that's all for Meyer and Friends, based on the past few visits I've made.

Adam,

What I said wasn't a regurgitation of Tor's press release, since I've known about the economics behind this for a while now, based on conversations with a few in the industry. Keeping a book "in print" just means it's available in stores; you probably want to argue that WoT is a strong backlist entity for Tor. Yes, to some extent, but considering that in most stores you don't find all 12 volumes (counting the prequel) on the shelves, maybe one paperback copy of the last four at best, that means the series now occupies less space than it used to. As for the Erikson argument - for virtually all consumers, it can only be purchased as a tradeback, which is a more profitable venture for publishers (and the reason why the rumor of the next WoT book being out as a tradeback rather than as a HC had some legs to it).

As I've said elsewhere, there are questions as to whether or not it'll "sell enough." Production costs obviously are higher considering currency issues, paper costs, etc. and I think it'll be interesting to see what the initial American print run will be. KoD was 1 million; it would not shock me if the next one is 500K to 750K.

After all, remainders are a BITCH for publishers to deal with here and if 300K WoT books were to be returned at cost to Tor (say $20 wholesale for a 600-700 page book; $30 for one larger than 1100) and pulped...that'd be a nice potential million eaten away by that, no?

Gabriele C. said...

So there will be 3 books with the first out in 2009 and people bitch about it. It there had been 2 books with the first out in 1010, people would bitch about the delay and start all sort of ugly comparisons with DwD. ;)

Though I have to admit, Sanderson's post sounds a lot more convincing than TOR's press release.

And if you want to 'punish' those money grubbing publishers, don't buy the book and get it from the library instead. Though chances are you'll have to wait in the quere until 2010 then. :P

Gabriele C. said...

queue*

Can I haz typo B-Gone, plz? :)

Larry said...

True dat - to your points as well as to your typos :P

keele864 said...

Great post.

As I don't have much to say about Jordan (I haven't read him since sixth grade), I'd just like to say I wish more Bioy were available in English. I read The Invention of Morel and it was great, and there's not much more. And the only English biography of Borges is that controversial Williamson one - whatever his virtues, I somehow doubt Williamson knew Borges as well as Bioy did.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Witchfinder, how can you posibly say that Sanderson is not a proffessional writer? You may not like his writing, but the fact remains he is professional. His Mistborn series is very, very good.

Book size doesn't matter from my perspective. It is the story that is important. As long as the story is well told, then I will be happy.

The economics of the situation along with the instant gratification generation out there makes things like this difficult for writers. It is what it is and as long as the content is good, who the heck cares how long it is or how many books it is in? You're going to buy it or them regardless.

Anonymous said...

Interesting why people insist 2 books would be feasible.

Let's say final word count is 800k. Probably underestimation but let's go with that. Split it in half. That's 2 books of 400k.

We have then 2 books which are larger than publishers like(300k words is bigger than they like!) AND we would have split it in arbitary point. We could end up with book that is split in point where it doesn't make sense to be split.

You read, you come to end, you go "wtf? That was that?" as it just...Stops. Doesn't have proper place for where you can end part 1.

It's highly unlikely there's going to be convinient cut point in around 400k words(or 450k if final script would be 900k). We would also get no book in 2009 and final ending would STILL be in 2011.

Bohoo. Cry me a river.

 
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