Outdated Limitations

I love learning about industries outside of my own. There are almost always parallels to be found, and those parallels can make aspects of my work more clear because of their distance from my immediate concerns.

It’s rumored that the CD can play back 74 minutes of music because when it was developed, the president of Sony’s favorite symphony was Beethoven’s Ninth, which was 74 minutes long. He wanted to deliver a format that would play his favorite symphony in its entirety, and that determined the size of the now-ubiquitous (and outdated) CD.

Consider that this decision has resulted in a generation of music defined by a 74 minute cutoff. Songs have been scrapped from famous albums, left on the cutting room floor, because they wouldn’t fit within that framework. Likewise, songs that maybe should have been left on the cutting room floor have been added to albums to flesh out a collection that otherwise would have seemed too short in an age where 74 minutes is synonymous with ‘album duration.’

The history of music is one tale after another of technology guiding sound. The advent of 45s changed the amplitude and volume of the music recorded, and the rise of cassettes did the same. Each new technology brought with it different strengths and weaknesses, and the music shifted to adjust to these variables. Gig bands had to change their sound entirely once they started recording, because elements of their music wouldn’t sound right once committed to wax. Today it’s the same, whether the medium is magnetic tape, laser-etched polycarbonate, or 1s and 0s.

Just as music technology has warped and shifted and sanded and pruned the music we listen to, so has publishing technology changed the way we perceive and imbibe books, essays, and other written work.

For a very long time, a ‘book’ was a printed work of a certain length, and that length was determined by how many pages it was economical to print using existing technologies. Just as CDs were defined by the arbitrary length of a specific symphony, the length of books were determined by the economics of the physical vehicle used to deliver the words (the paper, ink, and book-binding materials) rather than the words themselves.

This state of affairs is changing fast. Today, print on demand technologies have made printing and delivering physical books far less costly, and as a result, a book can be nearly any length the author desires. The age of trimming down or fluffing up a book to suit the ideals of the printing process are behind us in a practical sense.

That doesn’t mean we’ve moved on in perception, however. We’re still in a transition stage when it comes to determining what length a book should be. Our experiences with books for generations has been the same length, same look, same texture and weight, and it will be some time before we can fully move on to new standards and learn feel the same nostalgia for a 70-page book as a 250-page book. It will likely be even longer before we can accept a book without weight, a book with interactive media, a book that doesn’t feel like a book. Eventually these things will become commonplace, and new standards will arise that kill our perception of how ebooks should be. It’s the nature of nostalgia to cling to things that remind us of moments in time. New technologies, and the work produced with them, lack such history. Initially, at least.

Like music, though, publishing will change. Like songs, the written word will adjust to fit the confines of its new technological reality. And like recorded sounds, this will be amazing in some ways, leading to new innovations and concepts and experiences, and in other ways it will kill the magic of what we’ve come to know. It will be uncomfortable and disconcerting. It will be a process some will work through while others cling to the familiar at the expense of their exposure to novelty.

I think there’s value to be had in both old and new, and I think many people share this feeling. You can see this in the analog movement in the music world, and a similar movement is happening within publishing, with a renewed focus placed on handmade and limited edition physical works. These throwback methods work best, I think, when paired with forward-facing digital editions, but there will be some who always prefer the old to the exclusion of the new, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s value in both tradition and innovation.

One takeaway from this is that there are limitations put on our work that exist only because of tradition, not because they’re practical anchors on our creativity. The length of books is a great example: many authors write books of about the same length because that’s the length of book we’ve grown up with. What if we wrote books that were 3,000 pages long? What if we wrote books that were less than a page long? What would that look like? What kinds of stories could we tell?

Consider that you may be operating under similar limitations, and that you may achieve a breakthrough if you’re willing to move past established convention and play in the wilderness. Consider that you may be a prisoner of outdated limitations, and that the only way to know whether you want to continue adhering to them or would prefer to establish new limitations based on different variables, is to step outside the walls and play.

Update: April 18, 2017

Around the time I wrote this I had recently finished writing my A Tale of More series, which was published in a very unusual way, and which was a blast to produce. That project was meant to be an experiment as much as anything else, but I can’t imagine having published it in any other way. Each book was 80-100 pages long, and they were published a week apart, in two ‘seasons’ of five books apiece. I was attempting to replicate something of what binge-watching TV shows accomplished, and for those who followed along in real time, I think it hit that mark.

Even now, I find people who read that series tend to appreciate the relative brevity of the books, as each complete work feels episodic rather than isolated. I don’t think that approach, or any approach, would work for every book or every series, but I love figuring out new variations on the standard approach to things. It’s challenging, but also immensely rewarding.