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.

Keller, who acknowledges that he entered two book contracts that he never fulfilled, clearly found it a nuisance to give book leaves to reporters:

We indulge our writers because we want the talent happy and because a little of their prestige accrues to The Times. But we do so at a cost. Books mean writers who are absent or distracted from daily journalism, writers who have to be replaced when they leave their reporting beats and landed somewhere when they return. There is the tricky relationship between what they unearth for their books and what goes into the paper. There is the awkwardness of reviewing books by colleagues -- and the greater awkwardness of not reviewing them. There is the resentment of those left behind to take up the slack, especially where fat advances have been paid.

Burroughs' criticism is different, but equally pointed: "For one thing, these books aren't easy to create... It's the corporate world's zeal for secrecy -- and the tendency of companies to avoid publicity they can't control -- that makes these tales tough to find and even tougher to tell."

I guess it has to be considered a plus for publishing that so many people want to write books and that, based on the BookStats results, more people are buying them. There is no way to limit the output of books. But the sense that there may be too many of them is a message to authors, agents, and publishers that they would do well to exercise judgment in choosing which books actually deserve to be written and supported. At the moment, however, the process is moving in the other direction: self-publishing as a business is booming, and Amazon, Apple, and Google, with their various devices and imprints, seem to be lowering the entry bar because these corporate behemoths see new publishing ventures as a source of revenue, pretty much regardless of quality.

Are there too many books? Ultimately, that is an unreasonable question, because the process of winnowing them is so unappealing. But I'll agree with Keller and Burroughs that, among the many hundreds of thousands of books released each year, the quality of the few tends to be overwhelmed by the dross of many.

Image: Flickr/Herkie