Is Longer Better? Books, Twitter, and Engagement

One of the truisms of new media is that if you want your content to have an impact, you should keep it short. It’s a handy rule of thumb, but not an iron-clad rule. Tl;dr doesn’t always apply. Sometimes, in fact, longer is better.

Best Sellers by Tier, Mark Coker, Huffington PostFor a case in point, see Smashwords founder Mark Coker’s recent Huffington post article, “Do E-Book Customers Prefer Longer or Shorter Books?” In it, he offers data showing that bestsellers on Smashwords run long, and that “readers go out of their way to search out and purchase longer e-books.”

I doubt that readers actually seek out length per se—figuring that out for an e-book takes some effort. The key, rather, is that longer works tend more often than shorter ones to produce the kind of engagement that prompts readers to recommend them to others.

What long books are good at is creating a flow of thought or, if you prefer, a world, that absorbs the reader into it. Length is not an impediment to this end, but (almost) a requirement.

One of the defining characteristics of Twitter is its severe restriction on length, with a maximum of 140 characters per tweet. Though you might think its brevity is the key to its success, I don’t think that’s quite true.

A single tweet generally won’t draw you in. It only does so to the extent that it is part of a flow of thought, whether that’s a collective Twitter stream or an individual’s ongoing tweets. The brevity of a tweet makes it accessible, but frequency of tweets is what builds engagement.

I’d stop short of suggesting that length is necessary to engagement, though. It’s possible to build engagement through a short form, but it’s much harder. Both time and artistry are required. As Pascal told a correspondent, “I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short.”

The lesson to draw from this, I think, is not that longer is better. The important thing is focus on engagement. Don’t ask whether your content is too long or too short. Ask instead whether it’s connecting with the reader.

5 Things I Learned from Self-Publishing

A Printing Press in 1568If nothing else, self-publishing is a learning experience. You learn not just about the process, but yourself. It’s not for everyone, certainly, but don’t count yourself out as a self-publisher until you give it some serious thought. Thanks to e-book and print-on-demand technology, the risks are low and the potential for rewards—though not perhaps of the kind you’d expect—high.

Now that I’ve mostly finished my first self-published book, the New-Media Survival Guide (only the print edition remains to be done), I’ve had time to identify a few initial lessons from the experience. Some of what I learned I knew already, some surprised me. I’ll have more to share later, but here are my first 5 lessons.

1. Don’t count on making money. As Seth Godin says of non-fiction book publishing, it’s an organized hobby, not a business: “The return on equity and return on time for authors and for publishers is horrendous. If you’re doing it for the money, you’re going to be disappointed.”

I knew this already, in the most casual way, and money was the least of my motives in making the effort. But I can see now that if you want a direct monetary return, your chances of making anything substantial are slim.

Although that conclusion might at first glance seem discouraging, it’s in fact quite liberating. Once you accept that you won’t make much money, you’re free to enjoy all the other rewards of self-publishing—the satisfaction of building something substantial of your own, the technical knowledge you gain, the benefit to your brand, the value you share with your readers, and much more. For me the process was great fun, and well worth the time and effort.

So, you might ask, if I’m not in it for the money, why, instead of giving it away, am I selling it (for the bargain price, I might add, of $2.99)?

Well, first, for the experience. I can’t really explore all the dimensions of self-publishing without selling the book. Second, it somehow feels more genuine to charge for it. If you pay a small but measurable amount for my book, it makes for a more meaningful exchange. Giving it away just wouldn’t feel the same.

2. Self-publishing is both easier and harder than it looks. I’d be the first person to suggest that if you have the slightest interest in self-publishing, you should do it. It’s really not that hard. Armed with, say, Carla King’s excellent three articles on the topic in MediaShift, a helpful primer like Mark Coker’s Smashwords Style Guide, and just a dash of patience, even a motivated technophobe can overcome the modest hurdles involved.

On the other hand, once you get ambitious and want to go beyond the barest, simplest text, self-publishing gets tricky. Unless you’re an experienced designer, you’ll quickly realize you need help to achieve the look and reading experience you’re after.

As a tech geek and small-scale hacker, I’ve enjoyed the challenges, but it didn’t take me long to hit the limits of what I could readily do. You will most likely get acceptable results on your own, but if you want to surpass that level of quality, you’ll need a professional.

3. Multiple sales and distribution channels might be overkill. I’ve aimed to make my book available via as many outlets and in as many formats as possible, within reason. You can buy it on Smashwords in a variety of formats, on Amazon in Kindle format and, soon, print, and on Apple’s bookstore. Again, using all three venues was good experience, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it for most people.

To supply all these channels and formats, I ended up using three different word processors (I’ll explain why in another post), making sure I kept my three versions all in sync as I continued to make changes to the text. After submitting the book, I had to make changes or corrections via three different web sites. And, of course, my potential readers have to decide which of three venues to purchase it from.

If you were to ask me right now, I’d probably advise you to choose between Smashwords and Amazon for your own self-publishing venture. What you lose in potential sales and exposure—probably not much—you’ll gain back many times over in simplicity.

4. Print still has its allure. Now to contradict myself. Though it will complicate rather than simplify your experience, print may be worth the inevitable frustrations. As I wrote last week, I wouldn’t be surprised if self-publishing leads to a modest revival in print. I’m not going to do a Jonathan Franzen here, mind you, but bear with me: print is and forever will be very, very cool. You’d be cheating yourself and perhaps even a few of your readers if you don’t offer your book on paper.

As Carla King and others have suggested, you can avoid some of the complication by starting with print rather than, like me, ending with it. Through CreateSpace, you can simply pay $69 to have a Kindle version produced from your finished print file.

5. Focus on shipping. If you decide to try self-publishing, don’t dawdle the way I did. I spent five or six months coming up with a variety of drafts and approaches, all of them worthy and all of them fatally incomplete. It wasn’t until I made a fairly detailed writing and publishing schedule and committed myself to it that I was able to produce the book. Even then, I ran about a month late.

Your schedule should be realistic but also fairly tight. If you don’t pursue a project like this with some sense of urgency, you’re not likely to finish it. And if it doesn’t ship, it doesn’t count.

Intrigued? Then why not try it? And if you’re not sure, or you have a different take on this than I do, share your thoughts and questions in the comments. I have, I admit, become a self-publishing enthusiast. Perhaps someone should talk me out of it….