Are There Too Many Books?

Traditional publishing is experiencing an upswing, but that doesn't mean the quality of print is increasing as well

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It was probably a coincidence, but on one Sunday in July, two New York Times luminaries wrote columns complaining about books. Bill Keller, the outgoing executive editor, had a piece in the magazine headlined "Let's Ban Books, or at Least Stop Writing Them." In the Sunday business section, Bryan Burroughs, a regular reviewer and himself the author of multiple bestsellers, took on the preponderance of business books in an essay called "Compelling Tales, Rarely Told Well."

Meanwhile, UNESCO's list of "new titles and editions" of books published in the United States for 2009 totaled 288,355, a number that has doubtless increased since then, as books long out of print are revived in digital versions. BookStats 2011,the annual comprehensive report just released by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, concluded that book sales, in terms of revenues and copies sold, have steadily increased in the period of 2008-2010. Overall, the report supports the belief that publishing is on an upswing, contrary to the widely held but incorrect assumption that competition from other forms of media was diminishing the venerable book world. In the press release accompanying the report, Dominique Raccah, CEO of SourceBooks and chair of the committee that did the survey, said: "The BookStats study indicates that the publishing industry is healthy and growing during a time of unprecedented change... Publishers in every sector of our business have made significant investments in content and technology to better serve their audiences' needs and those efforts seem to correlate with the results we're seeing."

So there you have the contradiction in perspectives: Keller's piece was especially cranky, and I'm guessing was intended to be wittier than it turned out to be. Burroughs, whose Barbarians at the Gates set a standard for business narratives, summarized his view this way: "Of the sprawling mass of books that spill across my desk, far too many just aren't very good... some are too technical, some not technical enough. Some topics are hopeless." Nonetheless, books are pouring forth -- and, in the midst of the digital surge, are actually selling in aggregate better than ever.

In fact, among the various forms of information and entertainment, books are distinctive because there are so many of them. Every movie, television program, news organization, and the top tiers of websites combined represent a relatively small number compared to the books being published. Books do fall into categories, such as fiction, nonfiction, and textbooks, and subcategories like politics, economics, history, romance, science-fiction and so on; yet, most books have to be considered separate entities with their own strategy for reaching an audience.

I actually sympathize with Keller's sense that too many reporters think they should be writing books instead of devoting their energies to the news. Money is obviously an incentive. The dream of reporters is that a big advance followed by a smash bestseller is the key to a successful career in journalism, a field that, in recent years, has been going through contraction and other agonies. Unfortunately, most books fall short of their authors' fantasies for them. A major magazine piece or substantial news takeout is almost certain to reach a larger audience than a book on the same subject. Great news stories -- take the Bernard Madoff Ponzi saga, for example -- produce a shelf of books that tend to sell less well than the authors and publishers had hoped. Why? Partly because the story was so thoroughly covered as it unfolded, and partly because -- let's face it -- none (and I read sections of most them) penetrated much beyond what we knew when we turned the first page.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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