Are There too Many Books?

Old libraryIn his engaging book, So Many Books, Gabriel Zaid examines a seeming predicament of abundance.  The quantity of books published is growing at a faster rate than the overall population.  We are drowning in titles.  To illustrate his point, he published the following table:

Date 1450
(Gutenberg)
1950
(Television)
2000
(Internet)
Titles per year

100

250,000

1,000,000

Population (millions)

500

25,00

6,000

Titles per million persons

0.2

100

167

And, at the same time, the data about literacy seems to indicate that reading and literacy have declined steadily over the last half century.  Yet book sales continue to grow.  The American Association of Publishers reported that in 2005, overall book sales were up 9.9% to $25.1 billion.  Encouragingly, the fastest sales growth in trade books occured in juvenille hardcover titles.  So we continue to have an appetite for books despite the competition from other media – – e.g. television, video games and computers.

Do we need to worry that book publishing will fade into obsolesence?  Probably not – the publishing industry has several things going for it:

First, it has the ability to publish books even for a very fragmented market.  When Zaid wrote his book, he thought a few thousand readers were sufficient to justify the publicaiton of a book.  With print on demand (and ultimately the book ATM), plus some clever Internet marketing, even an audience of a few hundred readers could be profitable.

Second, the Internet is a providing great tools to identify, aggregate and market to small audiences.  Whether it’s the search / recommendation tools of online booksellers, blogs or social media sites, there are new ways to carry on these conversations in print.

Third, the production and marketing costs for a title are on average low compared to those for newspaper, television, film and video games.  And technology promises to drive these costs down even further.

Finally, the printed book still has a credibility that other media may never match.  

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