unsolved problem of scale, re: books

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, now, and don’t yet have an “answer” or “solution” to the problem.  Lots of people are thinking of this as-yet-unsolved problem (from a variety of points of view, almost none of them identical to how I’m about to phrase it), and depending on whose interests they have in mind, they’re positing a variety of solutions… well, most of them aren’t positing solutions to the problem, as much as ignoring the problem, denying the problem, and trying to get readers to pretend the problem doesn’t exist.

Let me try to put the problem in terms of its scale:

  • A dedicated reader (of which there are few) will probably read around 3000 books in their entire life.  (1 book a week for 60 years is 3120 books… some people may read faster or live longer, but not by much.)
  • A more average reader will probably read around 1000 books in their lifetime.  (1 book a month for 60 years is only 720 books…)
  • Many adults (perhaps as much as 40% of literate adults) will read less than 1 book a year, and fewer than 50 books in their life.
  • In the US in 2008 over 75,000 publishers published over half a million new books, averaging over 1500 new titles per day, every day.

To restate:  There are more new books being published every day than the average reader will read in their entire life.

The tough question that isn’t being addressed, the unsolved problem, doesn’t have to do with how much eBooks should cost, what sort of devices we’ll read eBooks on, or what format readers prefer.  It’s a problem of scale.  Kirkus is shutting down, which is sad, but they only reviewed about 5000 new titles per year – less than 1% of 2008’s titles and less than 2% of new titles in 2006 & earlier.  No one knows how to review all the books, or even most of the books.

The number of new books being created is only growing.  (38% year-over-year growth in number of titles since 2006 – I’m waiting to see if 2009 actually puts new titles in the 750k range!)  It’s easier and easier for more and more people to publish books, between eBooks and POD technology, and it’s only going to become easier and cheaper as time goes on.  There was some backlash recently when someone over at scribd suggested that we’d be better off with three million books instead of 300,000 -and I assume he meant three million new books per year– and a lot of book bloggers suggested that he was off-base, and that current output was already too big.  But we’re already on track for that.  I don’t know global numbers (is it possible the global publishing output is already 5x-10x the size of the US publishing output?), but I fully expect new-books-publishing in all forms to surpass 3 million titles per year within 5 years (10 on the outside).

When more new books are being published every three to four hours than the average reader will read in their entire lifetime, how do you choose what to read?  How does an author find an audience?  How does a publisher make a profit?  How does a bookstore compete with the internet / sell eBooks / et cetera?

It isn’t just old-publishing (hardbacks at $30, only as many books as fit on physical shelves) versus new-media (eBooks <$10, infinite shelving on the internet’s virtual shelves), it’s a problem of the amount of reading material dwarfing what anyone could ever read.  In the past, in the old model, this was “solved” by books going out-of-print – only the current season’s books were readily available, and anything more than a year or two old was generally unavailable.  Some books were kept in print on publishers’ back lists, but only a few from any given year.  This is why the fact that the number of books that have ever been published (Google estimates it around 100 million titles by the year 2000), though already impossible for any one person to consume or really consider, hasn’t previously appeared to be a problem.  Now there are groups trying to make all those books available to everyone all at once.  And forces at work that will increase the total by a larger and larger fraction every year.

Which of those hundred million books ought I to read?  Which of the three million new books published (in the US alone) in this decade ought I to read?  Solve that problem, and all the rest of publishing’s “problems” will seem easily resolved.

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One thought on “unsolved problem of scale, re: books”

  1. Ah, the old tyranny of choice problem, eh?

    Truly, the issue isn't choosing between half a million books, because no reader is going to be interested in the subject matters of all those titles. The real challenge readers face is finding the titles that will most appeal to them in the genres and fields that interest them.

    This is still a problem, and still a large problem… but it's not an insurmountable, hard-to-wrap-your-head-around-it's-so-big problem.

    The issue is also a subjective one — one person's War and Peace is another person's Twilight — so that narrows the field even more. What it comes down to is the same thing it always has: finding reputable sources you trust to tell you what might be good to you.

    Those sources have expanded with the advent of the Internet, but the means to sort and review the sources have improved, too.

    It's the responsibility of the content creator (publisher and / or author) to understand who the audience is for a particular work, and where that audience is.

    A huge number of books isn't the crazy thing. Expecting to reach a huge number of readers, and sell them each a copy of a particular book — that's where publishers and authors need a reality check.

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