Wednesday 5 March 2014

A whole new kind of brevity in publishing

Alan Turing: Unlocking the Enigma (Kindle Single)Years ago, I went to a palm-reader in Kathmandu - my only visit to anyone remotely like that.  I'm too coy to say here what he told me, except that one of the main elements of my personality was what he called 'brevity'.

This may not be obvious to anyone who has endured one of my lectures.  But it is true that I value brevity as a skill, as one of the only ways of conveying ideas in a sufficiently riveting way.

I was reminded of this today by a very thoughtful review of my ebook Alan Turing: Unlocking the Enigma by Nick Sidwell of Guardian Shorts, which talks about the advantages and disadvantages of writing complex biographies in less than 20,000 words.  There are, after all, longer biographies of Turing you can get your teeth into. This is what Sidwell says:

"If you don’t have time to read one of those longer books: read “Unlocking the Enigma.” If you want to remind yourself of who Turing was before tackling a longer work: read “Unlocking the Enigma.” If you simply want to discover who this often misunderstood man was: read “Unlocking the Enigma.” You will not regret a minute spent in its company. It’s just that if you truly want to learn about Alan Turing, just don’t expect it to be the only book you read on him."

This is a generous way of putting it.  But the truth is the ebook market has turned out more different from mainstream books than I ever expected.  

They tend to be around 20,000 words and to retail for £1.99 or £2.99, and to give the authors much more generous royalties.  It is in this market, which is growing dramatically, that the action is - not the rather expensive end of ebook publishing, dominated by the much pricier electronic versions of real books, published by the old publishers.

In fact, I have ended up - for the first time in my career - in a Top Ten bestseller chart.  This was the Thin Reads top ten of Kindle Singles.  OK, my Alan Turing book seems to have slipped out again this week, but the damage is done - I am now addicted to the Thin Reads Top Ten and can't stop looking at it.

It occurs to me that the two genres, thin reads and fat reads, may actually go off in different directions - the fat reads beautifully published and designed, the thin reads very basic but expertly brief, enough for a few days commuting and for busy people who want some background reading in more depth than they can ever get in a magazine.

In the meantime, if you wanted to test out Alan Turing: Unlocking the Enigma, you can download it onto a computer if you don't have a Kindle - and it only costs £1.99.

All I can do is repeat the review. I have, says Sidwell, attempted "to squeeze an elephant into a dog kennel. On the face of it, it shouldn't fit. Yet, for the most part, he is highly successful".

In fact, the process of squeezing elephants into dog kennels is highly instructive.  It isn't really about summarising; it is about finding the underlying narrative and trying to tell it in a compelling way.

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