Op-Ed: How Authors Can Help Save the Planet by Writing Shorter Books

Books have been getting longer over the past few decades. From 1999 to 2014, the average length increased from 320 to 407 pages. By 2019, Booker Prize shortlisted books averaged 530 pages each. Authors need to start writing shorter books.

It’s vital for writers to edit their books and write more concisely to save the trees and people’s time. Rarely does someone mention the book publishing industry’s detrimental impact on deforestation when talking about environmental damage. The U.S. publishing industry uses 32 million trees annually, emitting over 40 million metric tons of CO₂ globally, ranking as the third-largest industrial greenhouse gas emitter in pulp and paper production. Consumers waste over 16,000 truckloads of unread books, contributing to the killing of 10 million trees for books that end up being destroyed. The longer the books, the worse the damage is.

Why are so many books so lengthy? The wordy, over-descriptive writing style often seen in classics, fantasy and sci-fi books is a result of the fact that many authors get paid per word. Think about how many trees could’ve been saved if Fyodor Dostoevsky or Leo Tolstoy hadn’t decided to spend an extra ten pages describing how dust motes look while floating in the air.

Books with tons of filler, unnecessary scenes, and long sentences result from authors prioritizing quantity over quality. Less is more, and most readers don’t even remember the majority of the books they read. I can summarize what I remember from most books I’ve read in five pages or less. It’s better to have a fast-paced, gripping, concise writing style — providing an easy summary of what happened to readers — than sentences that drone on forever. One example of how not to write is Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander.” She spends half of the book just describing the characters’ surroundings, mentioning every tree, plant, and blade of grass native to the Scottish countryside. I fell asleep reading this book. Half of it needs to be cut. And because she decided to describe the environment so much in her book, she harmed it in real life because thousands of trees had to be cut down for her bestselling tome. Editing is crucial to publishing. Authors need editors to tell them to shorten and improve their books. 

After reading many books, all of them start to blend together and seem almost identical. Similar plot structure, character archetypes, resolution, etc. Tons of books come out every year, and it’s impossible for people to read them all. Only the most popular ones get picked up. So, there’s no point in writing lengthy books if they’d just get wasted. 

The average reader reads at a pace of 200 words per minute, taking approximately 4.5 hours to finish a 200-page book. If you’re a worker who gets paid per hour, that’s a good chunk of money lost if you spend it reading instead of working. However, most books’ plots could be summarized in a few paragraphs. Take “Harry Potter” for example. Evil wizard tries to kill a little boy who was prophesied to bring his end. Wizard fails. Boy gets famous for defeating evil wizard. He goes to a magical school, where the villain tries to kill him. Villain fails. Boy defeats him in a wand fight. The end. But these books dragged on through seven long tomes. Books need to start getting to their point or “theme” faster. Books are supposed to teach readers something. “Harry Potter” focuses on how light will win over darkness, but it spends a ton of time on scenes like characters eating breakfast together, celebrating Christmas, hanging out, etc., which are fun but aren’t necessary.  

We need to start a 100-page book initiative. No book should exceed 100 pages. Authors, stop yapping. Nobody wants to read your word diarrhea. The benefits of this would be tons of time and trees saved, and people would actually be able to read more books and retain more information from them because they’d be more concise. Short sentences, simple language, easy to read, and interesting — that’s what makes a good book for the masses.