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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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Comments: 9

  1. hugh said:

    > the whole applecart was upside down

    no. it’s finally right-side up.

    > you can see where

    > the fundamental problem for publishing lies:

    > there are so many books out there,

    > and a limited number of readers.

    no. the “fundamental problem for publishing”

    is that we are no longer their captive audience.

    their stranglehold on distribution is now gone.

    > We have a massive and growing

    > supply and demand imbalance

    > in the book business.

    no. we are now supplying our own demand,

    and have no need for your celebrity tell-alls

    and your vampire tales and your cookbooks

    and your dietbooks and all your other crap…

    > That is, how are people going to

    > sift through all these books

    > to find what they want?

    that’s another problem that _we_ will solve.

    no reason to worry your pretty little head…

    but the answer, in case you want to know it,

    is _collaborative_filtering_. you can look it up.

    the “link” answer is just a modern-day variant of

    word-of-mouth, and that answer does not scale;

    so no, that’s not going to work. (the fact that

    you _think_ it’s working is just because you do

    not yet have a good collaborative filtering option.

    once you do, and you find out what you’ve been

    missing, with your shiny little twitter, you will be

    astounded how you could’ve thought otherwise.)


    (posted on monday morning at 10:30 pacific.)

  2. Today’s post offers an incredible look at statistics that should make us all – writers, agents, publishers and readers – take note. Of particular interest to me are the roles of writers and readers and the democratization taking place across the industry. As you point out, with a bit of work we can find insightful, thought provoking blogs. It seems to me that writers and readers will similarly connect in new ways to find one another. Every role along the supply chain from author to reader is changing. No doubt this has been said before, but I believe that increasingly writers will adopt the tools and attitudes of entrepreneurs in order to thrive.

  3. Hi Hugh,

    Great post! At Leanpub, we share your opinion that there’s almost no difference between good blogs and books — as you say, both are “just a means to transfer words from someone’s fingers tips into someone else’s eyeballs.”

    Taking this logic a step further, our position is that the conclusion that should be drawn from this is that most books should actually start out as blogs!

    This way, the author gets real, meaningful feedback, in order to find their audience and their voice, and build a community around the book. (This is what blogs are really good at, after all!)

    This process of publishing early, publishing often and listening to your readers parallels what lean startups and open source software developers do, in releasing early, releasing often and listening to their customers. Also, besides getting feedback and finding your voice, it helps you build buzz around your book — people who discover your work when it is early become the “earlyvangelists” (to use Steve Blank’s term) that you need for any product…


  4. Books will increasingly need to be different to what online/tablet/video mediums can provide. Competition won’t work. Two areas of importance are emotion (ie finding a social role for books) and linking (ie making them part of the contemporary discourse not divorced from it.)

    A book needs to be connected to memories, something that a mother will save and treasure about her grown-up children and about her beloved and departed grandparents. Memories too precious to store on changing media, and which can be rescued from house fire, and which can be presented beautifully. We treasure our ancestor’s diaries: what do we do about their facebook pages or their blogs or even own our life’s work?

    Books need to have a USB connection so that the computer can track with the reader. In the way that some artists now distribute their records on memory sticks. They need to be entry points fully participating in the linked world. The model for the future book is the musical birthday card!

  5. I agree with Peter’s comment about books starting out as blogs. After reading Michael Hyatt’s (Thomas Nelson Publishers) blog and interacting with him through comments on his posts, I started writing my book on my blog last July. I am almost finished with it; after mostly posting once a week, I now have just over 1000 visits per week. My next step after finishing the posts is to write my proposal and look for an agent. The neat thing is, if I don’t find a publisher, I can work on building my audience for my blog. While I’d like to make money on my book and any ancillary products, my greater goal is share my message with as many people as possible.

  6. Scholarship will suffer. The deep learning required to produce top quality books, depends on INCOME… traditionally derived from book contracts.

    The decline of traditional publishing coupled w/the democratization of information will produce a decline in scholarship. Who can afford to repay the school loan?

    The net result: fewer books of depth… more books by celebrities who are considered “experts” because they have straight teeth, dimples, and a platform.

    But I’m neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, so who knows?

  7. @rick: two comments I’ve heard recently come to mind:

    1. “print books should be considered back-ups” (implying that the “live” book is digital, and online)
    – Alistair Croll

    2. “I want to see things earn the privilege to be objects,” (implying that not all books “deserve” to be in paper)
    -Frank Chimero:

  8. Hugh — You note that “publishers fundamentally provide two values to writers and readers:
    1. quality (editorial)
    and 2. audience (marketing)”

    One of the biggest problems, in my opinion, with many of the self-published books out there is that their authors haven’t realized that these two values are essential to the success of a book. It’s extremely common for a writer who has decided to self-publish a book to consider editing as an unnecessary luxury (“I’m a good conversationalist, and I read a lot — I can edit this myself and save a bundle!”). Many online publishing companies either don’t provide editing services at all, or offer only “a light edit,” and do not require any standards of quality to be met when accepting books for “publication”. I’ve run into this phenomenon several times when purchasing a book from amazon.com: it looks great, the cover’s attractive and the reviews are positive (probably submitted by friends and relatives of the author) — but when it arrives, I can’t get past the terrible grammar,frequent misspellings, weird punctuation, and convoluted sentence structure to discover whether or not the story has any merit.

    As for marketing, I don’t believe the average self-publishing writer has any idea how to go about marketing a book. If he’s lucky, he’ll be able to arrange for marketing support from the company that’s published the book; if not, he’s on his own. He may not even be aware at the beginning that marketing’s going to be an important issue once the book is produced.

    “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.” You’re right — and the non-traditional publishers will have to join this group, too!

    In addition, I very much enjoyed Rick Jelliffe’s comparison of the diaries of an ancestor with a person’s facebook page! The connection of books with precious memories is tremendously important.

    Thanks for a most interesting reading experience!

  9. It seems like more and more authors are turning their blogs into books. I think it’s a great idea: it almost forces you to work incrementally, and if you take the time to really curate each post and give yourself a set schedule to adhere to, it’s much easier (and with real-time feedback, much more fun) to get the work done.

    Good article on the idea here: http://blog.bookbaby.com/2011/11/blogging-with-purpose-and-passion/