Why books keep getting thinner

This is based on bookselling marketing, as the demand from Swiss publishers showed. But the price of paper, logistics and zeitgeist also contribute to this.

“Rosablanche” is the name of Matias Jolliet’s 112-page debut, which has just been published in German. Named after a 3336 meter high mountain in the Valais Alps, this little book tells the classic mountaineering story: ascent, experiencing nature, experiencing the limits, self-knowledge, descent.

“At my back I hear a terrifying, hollow, almost throaty sound, rising from the bottom of the gorge that nearly swallowed me. The mountain has swallowed and just digested a new part of my personality.” On his way to the summit, Jolliet’s first-person narrator reveals nothing except his kicks and holds, the physical sensations and the broadening of mental horizons. It cannot be classified in an everyday life elsewhere, in a social structure. None of this counts for anything on the mountain and is also not told.

Such excerpts stand for the short story genre. But in the original French, Jolliet’s debut was published as a novel in 2018. Not so the German edition: “We are bringing the book to the market as a story,” says Judith Kaufmann, publisher of Edition Bücherlese, to Keystone-SDA. The story, also known as “the little novel”, is a term that is not very popular at the moment – a risk that book readers accept in order not to serve up a sham.

Misrepresentation and real density

“If the cover has a story, it doesn’t make it any easier to sell the book,” says Thomas Gierl, publishing director of the former Bernese Zytglogge Verlag, which is now based in Basel. “And it’s even more problematic with the generic term novella.” The fact that the stamp “Roman” is stamped on all kinds of works of fiction for marketing reasons is actually a misnomer.

With Zytglogge, however, this problem rarely arises, since the publisher usually publishes more extensive historical novels and novel biographies. According to Gierl, these may be 300 to 500 pages long, since the relevant audience wants to immerse themselves as deeply as possible in the epoch and milieu. A guide value of 200 to 300 pages applies to contemporary novels and 150 to 250 pages for non-fiction books. “Not only if a book is too thick, but also if it falls short of a certain size, this can slow down sales,” is the experience of the publishing director.

Nevertheless, this spring Zytglogge published the 112-page novel “The Story After the Story” by Michael Düblin. He addresses pausing during the corona pandemic and the power of memory. As an author, Michael Düblin is rooted in poetry, like Lisa Elsässer, whose novel “Im Tal” was published by Edition Bücherlese at almost the same time and with the same number of pages.

“Our experience shows that prose texts by poets are often denser and shorter,” says publisher Judith Kaufmann. That is understandable. But the publishers also agree otherwise: the text dictates the size of the book, it must not be artificially lengthened or shortened beyond what is necessary in order to do better in the literature business.

reduction to the maximum

“Of course, with increased paper prices and logistics costs, more extensive books are more expensive to calculate,” admits Nina Krause, program manager at Nagel&Kimche. At the same time, she also emphasizes that the publishing decisions are made on the basis of other criteria: “It depends on the individual text. Does it have to be streamlined – for example for stylistic reasons, the flow of the narrative – or, on the contrary, should certain aspects be told more strongly, which includes that the volume is increasing? We think it makes sense to offer both larger and smaller novels because there is a readership for both.”

In order to push the game with the 112 pages a little further, other novels of this size should be mentioned here. Nagel&Kimche recently published: Dagmar Schifferli’s “Meinetwegen” and Marianne Künzle’s “Da hoch”. The latter tells another story from the mountain, as does the 112-page novel “Bruchpiloten” by Claudia Walder, which was published by Die Brotsuppe in March.

Returning to the countryside, contemplating what is essential, reducing things to the bare minimum: that’s the trend at the moment. Whether it takes fewer words to tell a story in line with this zeitgeist remains to be seen. After all, the hero in Matias Jolliet’s “Rosablanche” finds his ideal state in a single sentence: “Then suddenly everything stands still and a mineral silence surrounds me.”*

*This text by Tina Uhlmann, Keystone-SDA, was realized with the help of the Gottlieb and Hans Vogt Foundation.