If you think about books as similar to other forms of media, it is easy to see that this is a strange moment. Most discussions about "the book" or "the future of the book" still treat it as if the book were one known, unified, or even universal entity, but is it? To answer that question, it's useful to start by thinking about some of the ways that Media Studies scholars talk about other forms of media.
Scholars have theorized how genre conventions in film, television, games, and music are connected to the medium in which they are seen or heard. A field-defining example in Film Studies would be David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson's account of classical Hollywood cinema and the setting of standards for commercial film. We could equally think about Jonathan Sterne's work in sound connecting format and output. The story or the sound changes with the medium. One films a scene differently for television than for film. A [End Page 131] computer game designed for an arcade is different from one designed for a cell phone or a wide-screen television. One would produce the same song differently for a 78 rpm record, a 45 rpm single, an LP, a CD, or a digital download (and even within this last category, one might produce differently for a "lossy" format like MP3 than for a "loss-less" format like FLAC). Assumptions about the context in which the song would be heard and the mode of playback are both crucial.
What does that Panavision film look like on television, with or without letter boxing? If the song was recorded as part of a concept album, what does it sound like if it's heard on a Rhapsody channel or a mixed playlist? If you listen to the exact same Chicago blues recording on the original 78 record and on an LP, they don't sound the same. The song sounds different again on a CD or in a file on iTunes.
So, when we think of a book as a conventional long-form argument, how much of that is tied to its conventional printed medium? How long is too long? Or too short? How many chapters should there be? How does it begin and end? I would argue that the same approach we use for other media helps us understand the scholarly book as a material object whose format, genre, and conventions have been worked out in relation to its physical form.
For scholarly books, we want the book to be long enough to count in the ways we want a book to count. No one wants to write a whole book only to have someone on an appointment, promotion, or tenure committee think that it's too short. In contrast, most press editors would balk if presented with a nine-hundred-page manuscript. There are limits to what printers can bind reasonably into a book without requiring the use of Bible-thin paper. How about for teaching? How long a book can be assigned for class without eliciting moans of pain from the students? For books for which the author hopes for crossover readership from scholars in other fields, length is also a consideration. Too long a book can create a monographic audience. "It looks interesting, but do I really want to know that much about Swedish silent cinema?" The long book appears to its desired crossover readership as if it were intended only for other scholars in that subfield—those who need to know all the details. The same narrative or argument in a shorter book can attract readers looking for the methodological or historical payoff.
For those reasons, as an editor, I'm often instructing would-be authors to adhere to a kind of modernism. When I give advice on how to write a book, I suggest starting with the question, what are you trying to convince readers of ? Then, what would readers need to see, in what order, so they would be convinced? I recommend thinking about how much evidence is needed for someone to get the...