Short is the New Black: Your Shrinking Reader Attention Span

by | May 6, 2015

By Judith Briles

The standard how-to and business book tomes of yesterday have become dinosaurian. Blame it on TV … the way we take in information … the Internet. The fact is, attention spans are shrinking. As a writer and author, the probability that your words need to shrink between the covers of your book is high.

In my office, I’ve now posted a new Keeper—one of my reminders to not side-step as I go through the day. I’m a non-fiction author—the majority of my published books have been in the business area with Zapping Conflict in the Health Care Workplace weighing in at 400 pages. Its follow-up and sister book, Stabotage-How to Deal with the Pit Bulls, Skunks, Snakes, Scorpions and Slugs in the Health Care Workplace dieted down to 194 pages. Most readers bought the two books together.

When I stepped away from writing and speaking in the healthcare field in mid-2000 exclusively dedicating my time to authors and publishing, two truths bubbled up.

First the need to write visually; and second, to write short … or at least, shorter.

SHORT IS THE NEW BLACK

My published books now contained fewer words. Books that a decade ago I would have thought, said, questioned, this is a book? When the run-away bestseller popped up, Who Moved My Cheese? and I counted the 16,000 words, noted the big type and cartoons and I said out loud, “You’ve got to be kidding me—this is a freakin’ article, a long one, but still, it’s an article.”

No longer. My latest book will be available in May: The CrowdFunding Guide for Authors and Writers. It weighs in at an un-massive 10,000 words … in color, with cartoons. And yes, I said out loud, “You’ve got to be freakin’ kidding me!” Maybe my 10 years as a columnist for the Business Journals paved the way—I learned to write punchier and to love the one sentence paragraph; the one word sentence. I mean, how many of you have said or thought, “Crap!” and knew that it was complete in every way?

Paragraph perpetuity is out. Short sentences are in. Snappy. Sassy. And sometimes salty.

There’s a trend here… this isn’t a fad.

Short is the new black, a necessity in your writing closet. Your reader’s attention spans have shrunk—the average professional gets over 300 emails/text messages a day and spends over 20 hours a week responding to them. Attention spans have shrunk by almost one-third according to Joseph McCormack, the author of BRIEF: Making a Bigger Impact by Saying Less.

In 2000, the average attention span in an office environment was 12 minutes; now it’s less than 8 minutes. If a lengthy email comes in, it’s abandoned in 30 seconds and if someone is long-winded, over one-third of listeners mentally check out at the 15 second mark.

I know, I know. Your words are morsels to be deliciously chewed on, even regurgitated. But… if you want them read in the first place, be on alert. For authors and writers, less is more.

For the non-fiction author, the need to practice the art of creating a bigger impact with words by using less of them will be cherished by your readers. Fiction authors get more leeway. Your readers want to be entertained and you get more space to do it within. But never undervalue the delete button—you may love every word that flows out through your fingers, but will your reader?

And for all authors, the mere nudge that one-third of listeners space out within 15 seconds has got to be the magic goose to be able to say clearly what you and your book are about in 15 seconds or less.

Practice your book pitch. Short is the new black … your book sales will thank you.

Judith BrilesJudith Briles is a Contributing Writer for The Book Designer. She is an advocate for authors and writers and is known as The Book Shepherd. Delivering practical authoring and publishing information and guidance, she has authored 31 books, won multiple book awards and co-founded Mile High Press. Judith is the Chief Visionary Officer of AuthorU.org.

You can learn more about Judith here.

 
Photo: bigstockphoto.com. Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

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24 Comments

  1. CTrent29

    This is just sad. I grew up reading novels that spanned from 500 to at least 900 words. And now I’m being told that authors are encouraged to write shorter books for readers with a minimum attention span? This is sad.

    Reply
    • Judith

      There’s always room for major books. Don’t give up. Judith.

      Reply
  2. Judith Briles

    Hi Ernie … just proves there is something for everybody! Years ago, my friend Jamie Raab was a Senior VP at Warner Books–she’s now President of Grand Central Publishing–her words have stayed with me … “Ruthless editing,” when I asked her what did a book need.

    We all need to remember that. Too many authors think that every word written is divine and must remain.

    Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure to present two workshops and the closing keynote at the Las Vegas Writers Conference–How to Pitch Your Book, Ninja Book Marketing and Creating the Confident Writer. Pitching and Marketing are regularly two hour workshops–I got them down to one hour for the group. Creating the Confident Writer is one hour–it was a long three days–I delivered it in 25 minutes to a standing ovation. Did I leave out some great parts? Yes … but my audience was tired. My goal was to inspire, provide laughter and include tips for recharging.

    This is ruthless editing. Something we all need to do.

    Reply
  3. Kia-Marie Khelawan

    As a reader – I’m accustomed reading standard 300-400 page books, so long books don’t really bother me. As long as the story is interesting enough, I’m in it. Once I start a book, I usually finish it within 7-8 hours. But that’s because I like to read a book all at once. I don’t like to do the start and stop thing.

    As an author – I think to say that readers are busy all the time and they don’t have time to read anymore so make my writing shorter is a cop out. Now people are certainly busy, that’s for sure, but no one and I mean no one is literally busy 24/7. If that was the case these people would be dead because their brains would have exploded.

    I’m certain, these people have down times and they can read in those down times. All they have to do is set aside 1 hour a day to read 1 to 2 chapters and they would finish the book in 2-3 weeks. (and that’s only if they’re legitimately busy)

    When people constantly say they’re “busy”, it usually means they don’t care. But they can’t outright say that because it’s impolite. So that makes authors think “well I should probably write a shorter book to appease their busy lifestyles.”

    Now I do think that authors should get their work professionally edited to cut all the fluffy nonsense bits and pieces out of their novel. But to cut a 50,000 word novel to 15,000 just because readers are apparently “busy” all the time is stupid. If they didn’t care about your 50,000 word novel, they’re not going to care that your story is a little shorter.

    I don’t think authors should cut their books down. I think they should either serialise it or find a way to get their readers to relate and care about their books even more.

    Reply
    • Judith Briles

      Kia–thank you for your thoughts. Fiction will always have the edge on length, and I was primarily addressing the paperweights that were often bought, and rarely read. Ten years ago … and today.

      There is nothing I like better than deep-diving into an engaging read–one that I can spend many hours with. For the nonfiction reader; those who are looking for answers and solutions, short is indeed the new black.

      Last weekend, I was deep into the annual AuthorU Extravaganza, an event that had 175 attendees from multiple states in attendance in Denver, CO. The consensus as that 1–they spent more time working and had less down time and 2–like the trend in TV watching–binging is in. And, to say that that “don’t care” would create a egg throwing experience, at least from the groups that I work with and hang out with. Most are busy because they do care–they care about their work, their families, their friends. And for information, they didn’t want a tome, they wanted it to the point.

      Since the 50s, the average productivity of Americans has increased 400%–the great majority of workers work far in excess of 40 hours a week–we haven’t been a 9 to 5 workplace for a long time–the one that created true leisure time.

      Today’s want info quickly, not over 300-400 pages which was the norm for many nonfiction books when I started publishing 30 years ago. My editors started to whack page count in the early 90s. Fiction was ignored as long as the story was good and the author built Super Fans. At first, I was shocked that they would delete total chapters … then it dawned on me that I had the seedings of the next book.

      Reply
      • Kia-Marie Khelawan

        Oh non fiction. Okay I absolutely agree with you on that one. When I want to know the solution to a problem, yes definitely, it should get to the point as soon as possible with no fluffy nonsense.

        When I said that people don’t care, I didn’t mean don’t care about non fiction and finding a quick solution to their problem, I meant that most don’t really care about fiction (unless they’re already super fans of an author.) To get someone to care about a new fiction author is quite difficult. Most people tend to find out about new authors through recommendations of their friends, word of mouth, which will forever be the best form of marketing.

        But if a fiction author goes straight to a new potential reader, that reader will have their guard up already. The reader doesn’t trust the author as yet (in terms of telling a good story) but they will trust their friend’s opinion. So when people say “I’m busy” to a new fiction author, it’s really a nice way of saying “I don’t know your writing and storytelling as yet and I can’t trust that it will be interesting enough to hold my attention.” But if their friend told them to check out that author they would because they trust their friends opinion.

        Wow, I’m starting to sound like Jonah Berger now. I swear I’m not here to pimp his book or anything. But I’ve been reading and re-reading Contagious a lot lately. It’s a really great book about marketing.

        But to get back to the argument about length, I definitely agree that shorter is better for non fiction. But I still think that fiction authors should keep their length once it fits the story.

        Reply
  4. Marie Saint-Louis

    200 Pages

    This was the magic page count number I was shooting for as I finished my manuscript for my new book. As a teacher, I was already familiar with the shrinking attention spans of my high school students and also knew many adults spans are not as long either.

    As a nonfiction author, writing a shorter book was key for me in today’s busy world. When I receive emails from readers telling me they read my entire book in one day, I’m happy to know they actually finished it. I believe a lengthier book would have just sat on their coffee table and night stand.

    Reply
    • Judith Briles

      The magic 200 works for many. When I did the rewrite for Zapping Conflict in the Health Care Workplace (400 pages) to 196 pages in Stabotage: How to Deal with the Pit Bulls, Skunks, Snakes, Scopions and Slugs in the Health Care Workplace, I was a happy camper. And here was the kicker–buyers wanted both books. The “mothership” and the one that they kept at their desk for an instant grab.

      The airplane read is what the typical nonfiction reader desires.

      Reply
      • Kia-Marie Khelawan

        “And here was the kicker–buyers wanted both books. The “mothership” and the one that they kept at their desk for an instant grab.”

        I know you didn’t do it on purpose but that is a really clever way to get more readers. Have a smaller, neater, more compact version of the book that can be read quickly and therefore shared much faster. And then have a meatier, condensed version which helps on a deeper level.

        Reply
        • Judith Briles

          We are now looking at all our books in that format … and now that I think of it … why shouldn’t the author deliver the Cliffsnotes of his or her own book. Create a new Introduction, a few tweaks here and there–creating the “skinniness” needed.

          I have a new 4 week course I’m rolling out in two months on writing a NF book in four weeks that incorporates that.

          Reply
  5. Cynthia

    Actually, research has shown that readers, especially young ones, love big fat books. https://www.salon.com/2013/11/14/why_we_love_loooong_novels/ They may not read them in big chunks or for long periods of time each sitting–though I noticed, as a middle school administrator, that many do. They may prefer smaller chapters and more economical styles of writing, but they want to wallow in the fictional worlds they truly enjoy for a longer time than we think. The trick is to entice them into those worlds, and keep them there.

    Those of us who serialize via Wattpad etc. have also noticed that trend. The books that have been there longer and are, therefore, longer, are often the most beloved and have the most reads and the most devoted followings. Again, it’s little bits over time, but there are often LOTS of little bits.

    Just an alternative view…

    Reply
  6. Greg Strandberg

    Hmm, I don’t know about this. My shorter books don’t sell very well, if at all. My longer books do sell.

    Reply
    • Judith Briles

      Greg–what are you writing? Are you gathering names that you can go back to your fans, turn them into Super Fans, and offer those short nuggets?

      Mara Purl writes in the women’s fiction genre–she creates a variety of “shorts”–less than 100 pages as an enticement for her next book. Either as a freebie or a 99 cent offering. Her Fans wait for the next one.

      Reply
  7. Michael W. Perry

    Reader’s attention span shortening? Maybe. But what you’re describing sounds far more like authors growing lazy and discovering that a silly idea stated in 16,000 words will make them as much money as one that runs to 160,000 words. For that, I blame both authors and readers.

    And don’t forget how many copies of Who Moved the Cheese? were given out by corporate executives who regard their employees as too stupid to read anything longer. I was at a T-Mobile employee event where hundreds of copies were given away. It that sales? Not really.

    That said, my more recent books do extend the idea that a paragraph has one basic idea to having chapters that have one basic theme. In most cases, I keep the chapter short enough to read in about ten minutes. I then carefully flow one chapter into the next to build a coherent argument or story. It’s a book written as a series of in-depth blog posts.

    For example, each chapter in My Nights with Leukemia centers on a sick child I cared for and generally makes one basic point that’s part of a larger series of ideas about caring for sick and often dying children.

    In the one I’m just wrapping up, Senior Nurse Mentor, each chapter adds yet another reason why hospitals need a new nursing speciality focused on keeping nursing morale high. The result at about 43,000 words, so it is still a book. More important, it’s still written for adults, one that draws examples of morale building from business, the military and emergency services, and applies them to one of the most imposed-upon groups in our society, hospital nurses.

    I certainly hope what you describe is a passing fad. As a country, our role in the world is so critical that we simply can’t afford the luxury of Who Moved the Cheese? politics. Read the news and you’ll see the consequences of that in abundance from 2009 on.

    Years ago on a move west I passed through Independence, Missouri on a cold, rainy, Sunday morning in December. Surprisingly, Harry Truman’s home, a National Park site, was open. As the only visitor, I got a lengthy personalized tour. What struck me most were the thousands of serious books in Truman’s library, many of them on history and foreign policy. They were books that certainly did not fit this “short is the new black” mantra.

    Those books illustrate why Truman implemented an excellent foreign policy despite the chaotic years following WWII. And the flip side is our current administration, whose awareness of the world doesn’t even rise to the level of Who Moved the Cheese? Obama thinks that Austrians speak Austrian and that “optimal” means “good.” Hillary thinks that briefly visiting a country makes her an expert on it. Kerry can’t even figure out how eager Iran is to go nuclear or, at best, simply wants to delay that going nuclear until he’s out of office. None have the understanding of the world that would qualify them to sit on the council of a small town.

    In the end, this article touches on one of my pet peeves about many authors. They’re the literary equivalent of a Dr. Feelgood who gives his patients drugs that make them feel good while leaving them to die of a host of illnesses. They don’t challenge. They don’t provoke. They don’t enlighten. They offer little more than silly platitudes.

    Authors should not be going with the flow that’s creating books allegedly for adults that have a shorter word count than those for a five-year-old. They should be shaking up their readers and forcing them to face what will be an unpleasant global and domestic future if they don’t act.

    In Chesterton on War and Peace, I describe a series of articles that G. K. Chesterton wrote in The Illustrated London News during 1932. In them, he warned that Germany would get itself a dictator and militarize. If nothing was done, he warned, a European-wide war would break out over a border dispute between Germany and Poland, precisely what happened in 1939. And in a hard-hitting passage, he noted that the “young men” of 1914 had criticized the “old men” of that era for the Great War. Well, he said, those “young men” are now the “old men” in charge. What are they doing in Britain and France to prevent the next war?, a war that he warned would be even more horrible. The answer was, of course, the would do nothing but cling to simplistic illusions about Hitler and “peace in our time.”

    We’re in an even worse situation today and reading books with three-digit word counts is one symptom of our malaise.

    Interestingly, this past Christmas I gave five-year-old relative a book that’s been loved by kids for generations, The Wind in the Willows. I was surprised to discover just how large the vocabulary was and that’s in a book that in many editions runs over 200 pages. And the illustrations are marvelous rather than cheaply done cartoons.

    In short, Wind in the Willows was healthy fare for the children of 1908 and still loved by them today. Who Moved the Cheese? and its kin are junk food for adults, many of them middle-aged, who are too lazy to grow up.

    As a writer, I’d be as disgusted if I found myself earning a living catering to those tastes in indolence as I would be as a exercise therapist whose definition of exercise was hitting the buttons on a TV remote. Writers need to think more highly of themselves than that.

    Reply
    • Judith Briles

      Michael … you share that you have a 43,000 words … if it’s complete, it’s complete. Look at the extreme success of The Four Agreements. A book doesn’t need 300-400 pages to connect with the reader and deliver your message. Personally, I’m a huge fan of nonfiction books that embrace storytelling within them–which is what you share you do.

      At a recent biz conference I spoke at, the Malcolm Gladwell style–The Tipping Point, Outliers, David and Goliath, etc., were the style/format the management/C-suite preferred. Interesting … they didn’t want to stop there–there were open to additional learning.

      I bombard my grandkids, as I did my kids with books. At 10, Ryan devours anything he can get his hands and eyes on when it comes to Fiction–page count isn’t a factor. When I gave him the complete Harry Potter set two Christmases ago, he layed each book out in front of him–touching, picking up, looking up a few pages for over an hour. He had already read them from my library. Now he owned them. How cool is that?

      Reply
  8. Kate Tilton

    As a reader I can say I am a fan of shorter works as I can complete them easier in my busy life. I have been enjoying more short stories and serials (which is a great option for authors who want to tell longer stories but break it down for readers in short bites).

    Reply
    • Judith Briles

      Me too Kate … although I truly love to fall into a book and be oblivious to the outside world. I’ll be in Hawaii at the end of the month working with a client on finishing his book. I have already ID’d my oblivion delight that travels with me.

      Reply
      • Kate Tilton

        I love a long book when it is from an author I know I’ll love. I have a few authors I’ll read whatever they write. But when it comes to trying new things the shorter works are good to test out a new author. They can also be good for the time between books. I have one author I work with who has a book series (400 or so pages a piece) but did short stories (30-50 pages) in between the release of book three and four. I believe that helps keeps readers engaged as they wait while opening up your platform to new readers.

        Reply
        • Judith Briles

          I’m with you Kate … love diving into a book that I’m a Super Fan of the author (or discovering a new one)–those I do for pleasure reading. When I’m looking for answers, how-tos and yes ahas, I want the author to engage me quickly, show me the application and the why so it will stick.

          Being surrounded by 200 authors and publishing suppliers this past weekend, not one of them said they had “extra” time for anything–they wanted shorter reads, especially in the nonfiction genres. Crazy how the ever increasing techno help world has created a higher level of true work hours for most of us. We can do so much more in less time; therefore we add more to our plates.

          Reply
          • Kate Tilton

            Fiction and nonfiction are certainly different animals.

            With nonfiction one of my favorite stories is from Hugh Howey. He has a friend who instead of publishing one big book on how to care for flowers he published small guides for each flower. He found that readers who weren’t serious gardeners would buy the book on the flower they needed and then when the found how useful it was would be back for more. It is an excellent strategy for nonfiction authors.

            And for fiction authors I find authors who can offer both longer and shorter work have a better chance of gaining and keeping readers. Get them hooked on whatever format they prefer (some prefer short stories, others like long novels) and keep them by continuing to produce both types of fiction. And hopefully you’ll start creating superfans who will read the other type as well (short fans will start to read the longer novels because they now trust your work, and long fans will read the shorter work because they can’t wait any longer).

  9. Ernie Zelinski

    I agree that many books could be a lot shorter. Using fewer words to make an impact, however, is not easy as inferred by this famous writer.

    “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
    ― Mark Twain

    These quotations also apply:

    “A big book is a big bore.”
    — Callimachus (c. 260 B.C.)

    “In every fat book there is a thin book trying to get out.”
    — Unknown wise person

    I have found that there are other ways to engage readers of non-fiction books besides making the books shorter. Appeal to the different learning styles that readers have. Use relevant quotations on the sides of the pages. Incorporate a lot of diagrams and cartoons. Make the chapter headings and the subject topics offbeat and humorous.

    When it comes to short books, this is my favorite example: In 1998 first-time author Charlene Costanzo self-published “The Twelve Gifts of Birth.” Excluding the introduction, the book had only 461 words and was published in hard-cover. (Yes, 461 words — I counted them.) Much to the surprise of the publishing industry, eighteen months later the book had sold over 300,000 copies. Eventually a major publisher paid Costanzo a substantial advance to take over publication of “The Twelve Gifts of Birth”. Near as I can tell, Costanzo earned well over $1 million in profits from this 461-word book.

    Reply

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