Here’s something on which I think Margaret Atwood and I would agree. Orion Books is publishing a series of ‘Compact Editions’ of classic literature next week, billed as great reads ‘in half the time’. I don’t get it.
Orion Books believes that the 40% shorter versions would suit the modern reader. I would suggest that the modern, time-pressured reader might like to have easy, convenient access to the full version as an audiobook on his or her iPod.
I confess that I’m not a big reader of fiction, yet have never felt any dinner-party embarrassment at my ignorance of Tolstoy – the market at which this series appears to be aimed. If I wanted to plug such a glaring gap in my cultural education, I could download the full thing from iTunes (actually, I might just do that). It would still fit my lifestyle better than finding time to sit down and read a work of fiction.
I’ve always been quite a fan of audiobooks. But do you remember when, even for an abridged version, you had to struggle with half a dozen cassette tapes or CDs? The great thing about the capacity of today’s bandwith and MP3 players is that you can download an unabridged audiobook in minutes, and carry it around with you in a small handheld device. You might not want to listen to it in the bath, but the downside of a printed book is that you can’t read it walking down the street – as this little audiobook promo demonstrates (also here):
The audiobook market is a healthy and growing one. The Audio Publishers Association (APA) have ambitious plans to double the size of the UK market from £75m to £150m within three years. It’s a format that fits the growing appetite for ‘content on the go’.
One of the topics that came up at the Podcasting Summit last month was making podcasts easy to ‘skim’ by providing good shownotes and a timeline. That is harder to do with a fiction audiobook. And the good thing about printed books is that this skimming technology is already built in. The reader can quite easily skim a book if he or she wishes, and choose which bits of continuous narrative to miss out. But surely it’s better for the reader to make those choices than the publisher?
In the UK, you can buy the full version of Anna Karenina for under £2, the reduced version for £6.99, and an unabridged audiobook – all glorious 36 hours of it – for £14.99. Whether you prefer print or audio, it’s hard to see the value proposition of the Compact Editions.
And finally, why stop at 40%? The Times Online offers this handy 42-word version of Anna Karenina, which saves even more time:
The problem is, thought Anna — her aristocratic brow furrowing slightly under a fabulous new hat — men look so irresistible in uniform! Ditto boots, billowing shirts and moustaches! Hang marriage. Hang motherhood. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a train to catch.
The first six titles in the Compact Editions series publish next week, all priced at £6.99, and are Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, David Copperfield, The Mill on the Floss, Moby Dick and Wives and Daughters.
A video of the Newsnight Review discussion of the Compact Editions is available until the end of this week.