Our little bookstore sells mostly used books, and we also like to stock regional offerings. So, we draw book scouts. In the old days, most book scouts were mostly looking to buy used books for other bookstores that sell used books. Sometimes they’d be scouting for a collector. Sometimes they were collectors themselves.
These days, we see more and more book scouts who are scouring the country in search of self-published books that they might sell to bookstores, or to big publishers (more and more of which are picking up previously self-published books). Ours is a small store, off the beaten track, and we see something between four and eight of these guys a month, as far as we know. How many of them are professionals, and how many are just winging it, I couldn’t tell you. It’s a new form of gold rush, in its way, with scouts hoping to strike gold with some obscure book or author they can launch to acclaim and bestsellerdom. Like all mining, it draws all types.
So, anyway, a few weeks ago a man who claimed to be a book scout bought one of my books, Why We Raise Belgian Horses. Later, he called my husband, and said that he really liked the book, and in the future it might be hailed as good literature (he said), but for today it was no good because people wanted shorter books. If it were only 130-140 pages long, he could sell it, he said.
We had to laugh. For one thing, in our bookstore, thick books often sell easier than thin ones. For another, of the four books we hope to get out within the next year or so, God willing, all four are longer yet. By quite a bit, in some cases.
For another thing, when we started in this business, we used to tear our hair out when people came into the store and obsessed over the length of kid’s books. We’d be asking what the kid would like to read about, or about what the parent would like the kid to read about, and the mother (carefully drilled by her child’s public school teacher more often than not) would be in anguish that she might buy her precious, fragile child a book that was too long for her, or that had chapters before the child was ready for chapters, or that had words in it that the child didn’t know already. (I did mention, didn’t I, that this made us tear at our hair? And if you’re wondering where I get my deep and abiding dislike of the self-esteem movement, this is definitely one of the reasons.)
But then Harry Potter came along. Overnight, or close to it, nobody cared about the length of children’s books anymore.
I guess these things go in cycles. Over the decades and centuries, the length of fiction has seemed to go through fads, and certainly, many publishers these days have strict guidelines on length for certain genres, or series, or what have you, and that’s their right. If I were writing for them, I’d fit my book-for-them into the template, if that was part of the deal. And I know that, as a reader, sometimes I gravitate toward thinner books or thicker ones, depending on my mood and my health. But I also know that while the big publishers have a tendency to run in packs on this as on other things, smaller publishers have often bucked the trend, and readers seem to be able to cope with the variety. Imagine that. (Those doggone readers, refusing to fit a mold, after all the time and trouble and money and research that goes into creating that mold…)
Anyway, I’m glad the self-proclaimed scout liked the book. That he thinks that he’s the exceptional reader who can handle ‘longer’ books (of less than 79,000 words, or 160 pages in that layout), well… No comment.
Should I laugh, or cry? (My default mode, if you haven’t figured it out already, is to laugh.)
P.S. Since that book scout told me my books were unsaleable, another scout took copies of my two published books (the second being Trouble Pug) to a bookseller friend of his in Portland, who read them, and then ordered three more of each for stock. This despite the length, and despite the fact that we’re still only putting them out in comb binding. We’re still not setting the world on fire, but it’s no longer simply a hometown effort.