Sifting Through All These Books

There Sure Are a Lot of Books

The latest numbers from Bowker are extraordinary: In 2002 there were 215,000 books published in the USA, and a further 32,693 print-on-demand title (short-runs, self-published etc).

In 2008, traditional publishers put out 275,000 books; but there was a huge surge in print-on-demand titles, and at 285,000, for the first time there were more non-traditionally published books than traditionally published.

By 2009, the whole applecart was upside down: 288,000 books published traditionally, and 764,000 (!) self-published and print-on-demand books. That doesn’t include, as far as I can tell, the thousands of ebooks getting published at places like Smashwords.

Even if you forget about the self-published books, since 2002 we’ve seen a 105% increase in poetry and drama books (11,766), 80% increase in the number of biographies published (12,313), an 80% increase in general fiction titles (45,181), a 75% increase in literature (10,843), a 50% increase in religion titles (19,310), and a 30% increase in science books (15.428). There have been declines in only three of the twenty-five categories tracked by Bowker: Agriculture (down 6%), computers (down 32%), and languages (down 32%). Across the spectrum, we’ve seen a 32% increase in all titles published since 2002, all without an appreciable increase (that I know of) in the number of people who actually buy books, let alone read them.

Add to this significant growth the 764,000 (!!!) non-traditionally-published books, and you can see where the fundamental problem for publishing lies: there are so many books out there, and a limited number of readers.

Supply Makes Demand Look Puny

We have a massive and growing supply and demand imbalance in the book business. And, as the technologies for creating and distributing books becomes trivial, the supply of books is just going to keep growing exponentially. There is a whole other article to write about the business implications of these numbers, but I’m interested here in some ideas about how our info systems might manage this huge pile of books. That is, how are people going to sift through all these books to find what they want?

How the Web Solved the Problem of Over-Supply

If you think the problem of books is a hard one, consider this: there are 72,000,000 active websites on the Internet. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that 5% of those websites are blogs.

So somehow, you found this post, a 1 in 3.6 million chance, and have made it this far, which indicates that you found more-or-less what you were looking for.

We seem to have solved the problem of sifting content on the web and with blogs, where anyone can publish what they want. It turns out that the vast majority of blogs are uninteresting to me, and to the vast majority of readers. Blogs are, by the numbers, a vast sea of stuff people don’t want to read.

And yet.

And yet – as a reader, I constantly find wonderful stuff to read on blogs. I read blogs of friends and colleagues and strangers, I read NYTimes blogs, I read BoingBoing – which usually points me to other blogs; I follow Twitter links to more blogs I have not heard of – almost exclusively now I find good blog posts to read through Twitter.

But, still, given the overwhelming preponderance of stuff I’m not interested in, how is it that I only read wonderful stuff on the web?

The answer is in the link. The link creates a currency for readers and writers to surface wonderful stuff. In the earlier days of blogging (I was relatively late to the party, arriving in mid-2004), links were an essential part of the ethic: we read each other, we pointed to the stuff we liked; people pointed back. Crucially, you could “see” when someone pointed to you (referrers, technorati, google alerts). And crucially as well, Google built a kind of reputation exchange, based on the link: the more links you got, the more “important” you were to Google’s search; the more important you were to Google’s search, the more heavily-weighted your links were in Google’s algorithms – conferring your importance to others.

This created an ecosystem of readers and writers, that grew to the point that now blogs are a fact of life – and come in all flavours and shapes, from Samuel Pepys‘ diary, to this blog, to Paul Graham, to cat-pictures and everything in between.

What’s the Difference Between a Blog and a Book?

Fundamentally, though, the stuff in blogs – and in “books” – is not anything in particular. Blogs – like books – are just a means to transfer words from someone’s fingers tips into someone else’s eyeballs. Blogs made it easy for anyone to do that. Enter an era of more terrible and irrelevant writing than the world has ever seen. Enter, also, an era of more wonderful and important writing than the world has ever seen.

The good stuff gets found. If there is one thing the web is brilliant at, it’s getting millions of people – billions? – to sift through junk to find what is valuable.

The same will happen with books.

Book Economics

So this raises two questions:

1. how will we create a similar kind of reputation economy in books? i.e. what mechanisms do we use to bring something like linking to books? and

2. how is anyone going to make money?

To #1., my guess is that the next generation of writers and readers — and their books — will all be online as a matter of course. They will find, read, and link to each other in the same way that bloggers do.

To #2., my guess is that it’s going to be very hard in the traditional publishing business. There will be money to be made, but nothing like the kind of money now, in the way it’s being made. Big advances are going to start disappearing. Early cash investment in careers is going to start disappearing (it already is, usually). I talked to one senior executive at a big publishing house at BEA who thinks the publishing business as it is is about two thirds bigger than it “should be.” I don’t know if I’m that radical, but as a relatively heavy reader, I cannot understand how the commercial publishing business can sustain its current output. Supply and demand curves don’t make any sense. 280,000 books is a lot of books. One million books is another thing altogether. And we are now publishing one million books every year. In the United States alone.

What’s a Publisher For, Again? 

Still, publishers fundamentally provide two values to writers and readers:

1. quality (editorial)

and 2. audience (marketing)

So publishers who continue to figure out how to bring good books to the people who want them will be providing a great service, for which people will be willing to pay, one way or another.

But that role of “publisher” is going to look very different in 5 years than it does now.

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