What Publishing Can Learn, Part IV

To begin, I should probably clarify what I mean by “Bullshit.” The capitalization here is purposeful. I’m referring to philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt’s notorious little book, On Bullshit, which was published in 2005 by Princeton University Press. It’s a 67-page stroke of genius. And I call it “genius” not because of the content per se; I’ll leave that to others to evaluate. It’s genius, rather, because of its diminutive size. What might the publishing industry learn from the form of this successful little book?

I remember well the first time that I stumbled across On Bullshit. I was trolling through the philosophy section of one of the bookstores here in Bloomington, Indiana, and there it was. It stood out from all the other volumes because of its compact size. They were weighty tomes: dense, intimidating — potentially intractable commitments. On Bullshit was something else: light, approachable — more like an enticing get-together than a long-term relationship. I couldn’t resist picking it up.

I’m sure the book’s success has had a great deal to do with the author’s reputation, the timeliness of his argument, and — let’s be honest — his decision to call the volume, On Bullshit. But I cannot help but wonder if its prosperity isn’t also and significantly attributable to its form.

There’s an analogous story to be told about economist Friedrich A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. It sold reasonably well in the United States upon its publication in 1944. Terrarium What really launched the book into the stratosphere, however, was its Reader’s Digest condensation, released in 1945, which reached five million subscribers. The condensation was later republished as a small, stand-alone volume with an impressive initial print-run of 600,000.

More recently, Penguin released an abridgment of Adam Smith’s 900-page magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations (1776). This charming little duodecimo volume, called The Invisible Hand, weighs in at a comparatively scant 127 pages and, like On Bullshit, costs just ten bucks. You could probably read the shrunken Smith in a couple of hours, if that.

People today are working longer for less, and they inhabit a media environment that’s more crowded than ever. We also have grown accustomed to “disaggregated” works, in which part and whole share a less necessary relationship than they did, say, 20 years ago. (Witness, for example the decline of the long-play album and the return to power of the music single.) If books are to continue to thrive well into the 21st century, then book publishers will need to account for, and respond to, these changing circumstances. And one way in which to accomplish this might be to release more inexpensive, “snack-size” books.

By way of conclusion, a caveat: my argument shouldn’t be confused for a one-size-fits-all approach to book publishing. I’m not suggesting that small books should replace large books, categorically. (Incidentally, what we have now is pretty much a one-size-fits-all approach, albeit one that, for adults, privileges the tome.) Instead, I’m interested in a publishing paradigm that would offer more choice than what we currently have — a paradigm that’s more sensitive to the diverse contexts in which people live their daily lives.



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  3. Mary M. says:

    The really remarkable thing about Frankfurt’s On Bullshit was that it had already been published, as a journal article in Raritan (I think) in the 1980s and was freely available on the Internet for many years when the philosophy editor at Princeton had the bright idea to puff it up into a book. I worked at Princeton at the time and thought we shouldn’t publish it because it wasn’t “new” and our mission was to disseminate new scholarship. But, after nearly 400,000 copies were sold, who but a dumbass could continue to defend such a high-minded position?!

    So, to me, the lesson from On Bullshit is not that publishers should produce more short books–they figured that one out a long time ago–but that people will pay for “content” in pretty containers even if they can get it for free in digital form.

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