Carl Zimmer is not just one of my favorite science writers, he’s also someone who is constantly experimenting with new ways to reach readers in the rapidly evolving online ecosystem. He’s got a short comment in Nature on eBooks (subscription required). What I find interesting is his enthusiasm for mini-books, or, if you’re a glass half-full kind of person, long-form essays (the writing of which is a rapidly disappearing art):
Freed of old constraints, e-books can take on new forms. A writer would never propose a 30-page book to a traditional publisher. Yet many authors are now experimenting with this miniature genre. Some are participating in a programme recently launched by Amazon, called Kindle Singles, to promote these pieces. Writers can also take advantage of the computer power of tablets. One excellent example is Before the Swarm, an e-book published earlier this year by The Atavist, a small publishing house. The book is a profile of entomologist Mark Moffett by writer Nicholas Griffin. You can read Before the Swarm as a straight profile, or you can tap the screen to reveal what The Atavist calls ‘inline extras’ — digital footnotes that present audio recordings, video and information such as the definition of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.
Whether these long-form essays include multi-media features or not, they have a lot going for them. We all hate shelling out $20 for a 200-page hardcover on some potentially interesting topic, only to find out that this overpriced book is really at heart a 40-page essay surrounded by useless filler. Long essays in a cheap eBook format could be good for everyone – readers will pay $5 or $2 and skip the filler, writers actually may do better because they get a bigger cut of the sale price, and dumpsters don’t get filled with piles of obsolete hardcovers that even used book stores aren’t interested in.
Scott Esposito, a literary critic who writes the blog Conversational Reading, has been thinking along the same lines as Zimmer. He’s begun a series of long form essays, and I’m interested to see how his experiment turns out. I imagine that audiences for medium-length literary criticism and science writing would be similar – voracious readers who like to delve into something meaty, without having to wade through fluff.