Yesterday on Twitter, Matt from Penguin General Marketing asked, ‘Why is 600+ pages so off putting to a literary fiction reader, but not at all to [a] mass market reader?’ I’ve been on both sides of that particular fence and, though I’m uncomfortable with the sharp distinction Matt makes, I’ll take his question at face value and try to answer it.
(Please note: this is going to involve some generalisation and stereotyping, as I try to put people in neat little boxes where they don’t really fit. It’s not my intention to offend anyone’s sensibilities; I apologise in advance if I do.)
So: why would there be different attitudes to a large page-count? Essentially, I think it’s because we’re talking about two different groups of readers who are looking for different things from their books, one of which is facilitated by such a page-count, whilst the other of which may not be.
I would say that, for the kind of mass-market reader to whom Matt refers, ‘more is more’. There was a time when one of the main criteria by which I judged whether to buy a book was its length: longer books, to my mind, represented greater value for money. Of course, this is a very crude way of assessing a book’s worth; and, though we may still balk just a little at the thought of paying £7.99 for a 150-page book (I know I did a few months ago – though I bought the book in question nonetheless), I think that, as book-lovers of any sort, we move on from that attitude pretty quickly.
But there’s another attitude, or cluster of attitudes, that has more to do with what’s actually in a book. What is most satisfying for our hypothetical mass-market reader is the ongoing experience of reading, which may transcend individual books. If you’ve ever welcomed a new volume in a series because it was the chance to return to the lives of a set of favourite characters, or a new novel by a favourite author who writes a specific ‘type’ of fiction (be it medical thriller, wartime saga, epic fantasy, or whatever), you will have experienced the feeling I’m talking about. Under this view, a lengthy page-count prolongs the reading experience, which is why it’s so welcome.
For our hypothetical literary reader, however, what is most satisfying is the specific experience of reading each individual novel. Such readers are more likely to be concerned with the craft of the whole as a distinct piece of work, to ask how well different aspects work in each particular case – to ask of a 600-page book, ‘Did this novel justify its 600 pages?’ Often, the answer is ‘no’, simply because, the longer a novel is, the more room it has to slip up, and the harder it has to work to make its pages really count. That’s why a 600-page book might make a literary reader’s heart sink: the very real possibility that it would have been a better piece of work at half its length.
Of course, there is all manner of overlap between the two categories I’ve just described. Mass-market readers appreciate individual pieces of work, literary readers return to favourite authors because their books have signature characteristics, and so on. But I think there’s something in that basic distinction.
To sum up my answer to Matt’s original question in one sentence: broadly speaking, it’s because, for one group of readers, the 600+ page-count must be justified by the book itself; for the other group, the page-count is its own justification.