July 18, 2004
How Many Books Are Too Many?
race yourselves, novelists and would-be novelists. Figures released this spring show that a new book of fiction is published in the United States every 30 minutes. Even if you don't count the titles published through print-on-demand and other fee-charging, vanity-press-type outfits, the total still comes to 10,000 books a year -- or one book published every hour or so. And that's just the fiction.
The statistics come from R. R. Bowker, the company that compiles the Books in Print database and assigns ISBN's (International Standard Book Numbers) to new books and editions. Every year, Andrew Grabois, Bowker's senior director of publisher relations, crunches the numbers this way and that, and this time around the killer figure is 175,000: the awe-inspiring total of new titles published in 2003, a jump of 19 percent over 2002.
So that's a good thing, right? Surely the whopping number of books reveals a robust marketplace of ideas? The problem is, the demand for trade books (that is, titles of general interest, as opposed to technical books or textbooks) is dispiritingly flat. As more and more books are offered to the same number of readers, the question hardly anyone dares to ask is: how many books are too many? For authors, are better chances at being published eventually canceled out by the likelihood that their books will get lost in the crowd? It's the question I put to several editors, most of whom -- unsurprisingly, given their answers -- chose not to be named.
''In all honesty,'' one told me, ''a lot of big publishers will say that not only are other publishers publishing too much, but they are, too.'' Obviously, no company wants to decrease the number of terrific books it publishes, and no one plans to produce outright bad ones. Where the going gets tough, or ought to, is among the books that are merely mediocre.
While another editor I talked to protested that there's a place in the world for so-so books -- minor works by major writers, for example -- most worry that too many readers feel burned after taking a chance on an unfamiliar title and getting stuck with a dud. Other readers, people who may buy one book a month and don't follow reviews, are daunted by the task of choosing from so many alternatives. (Hence, their reliance on mavens like Oprah Winfrey.) M. J. Rose, an author who parlayed the success of her self-published first novel into a contract with a large publishing house, told me about a vacation during which she met a few dozen women interested in contemporary fiction. ''All were frustrated and complaining,'' she wrote in an e-mail message. ''They had no idea what to do with the number of books they encounter in the store. Sometimes they leave the store empty-handed because they are too overwhelmed.''
Even editors speak wearily of ''The Wall,'' the long shelves of new titles that face shoppers in the larger chain stores. ''So many books,'' said one editor who specializes in literary fiction. ''And in three weeks, they'll be replaced by a whole new batch.'' Even the chains themselves have developed reservations. When they began expanding in the 1990's, superstores would stock nearly every title on a publisher's list. ''They had shelves to fill,'' a publishing professional told me. ''But even they have become more selective. Lately, they've been cutting back on the midlist,'' a word used for literary fiction and serious nonfiction. If the chains pass on a book, it becomes effectively invisible to a huge population of readers.
''Everyone is reading the same 20 books,'' Paul Slovak, the associate publisher of Viking, complains -- a problem most attribute to the shrinking press coverage for new books. ''It's become a winner-take-all situation.'' Especially for genres that rely heavily on reviews to drive sales, like fiction, the toll is grim. But vanishing reviews, an editor from a venerable house said, are only partly to blame: ''We just don't have any credibility left, when we're each putting out 15 novels a year and they can't all be good.''
Editors have many reasons for publishing books even they aren't really excited about. The accounting methods of most publishers don't reward selectivity. If you budget for 93 books per year and publish only 80, you might see next year's budget, or even your staff, cut; so, that editor continued, ''if the celebrity memoir you budgeted for doesn't come in because the author is in rehab, you have to find something else to fill that slot, fast.'' Publishers may buy a weak first book to get a crack at the stronger second one, and young editors often have to cut their teeth on manuscripts that senior editors have passed over. One prominent editor points to the growing number of nonfiction books bought on the basis of proposals: ''For every book that turns out better than you expected, there's one that's worse. That's spilled over into fiction. Now people are selling novels off 100 pages. Or off 30 pages, and they get a two- or three-book deal!'' Disappointing manuscripts are pushed through nonetheless: ''You have to write a real stinker to get canceled.''
BUT a reader pays the same price for the stinker as for the masterpiece, and probably invests as much precious leisure time in reading it, too. His or her willingness to do so isn't an inexhaustible resource.
Could the oversupply of books be hurting the demand for them? The difference between publishing and other businesses is that a great many people don't produce books just to make money. They want to introduce their words, or someone else's, to the world, and a lot of them see prestige and even romance in calling themselves authors or publishers. It sometimes seems everyone wants to take up writing, is (incorrectly) confident of success and plans to get to it any day now. But what good is a hammer in a world without nails? If everyone is writing and publishing books, who will find time to read them?