Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Thursday Soapbox: Too Much of a Good Thing?


The Thursday Soapbox, this time by Book Fox, Mary, arguing that there are too many books.

* Thanks to queenodesign on Flickr for the photo of Minnie Atkins’ sculpture of a particularly ferocious looking fox. (Don’t worry, we’re all pussy cats really – you can disagree with us!) Also thanks to Saunderses on Flickr for the shot of all the books.

It’s widely accepted that books are Good Things. In fact the general consensus is that they are more than good; they are Fundamental, Sacred Things. Even people who don’t read (about 40% of the British population) consider it essential to encourage their children to read. According to the Guardian reporting on a reading survey: “Despite the difficulties, the poll found that reading stories is enjoying a renaissance, with 73% of families preferring it to playing in the park or watching TV.” Now, I don’t believe this figure. I think people say this because of the pressure from society and their own beliefs that reading is “probably one of the best anti-poverty, anti-deprivation, anti-crime, anti-vandalism policies you can think of” (Gordon Brown launching the National Year of Reading earlier this year). This is asking a lot of books. Nobody expects films to do all that.

Because of the hallowed role of books in our society, it feels almost sacrilegious to say that there are too many of them, a bit like saying we have too much democracy or too much freedom. But when 200,000 books are published each year, most of them selling less than 500 copies it might be time to face the unacceptable.

The number of books being published has exploded over the past thirty years, not because the quality of manuscripts being submitted has greatly increased (although the quantity has) or because much more people are reading a lot more but because publishing is increasingly a gamble. The money made in publishing is becoming more and more concentrated in fewer authors and fewer books (According to ALCS 10% of writers now earn 50% of the income) and because the publishers have no idea what launches a particular author or book into the stratosphere of spectacular mega-sales, their policy is to publish more books in the hope that one will become a JK Rowling, (400 millions copies of HP sold), a Da Vinci Code (57 million) or even a Lovely Bones (10 million). As any lottery hopeful knows, the more tickets you have, the better your chance of winning.

But the most important question isn’t why there are so many books being published but whether or not having so many of them is a positive thing. The first most obvious negative impact of this multiplicity of books is on the environment. The deification of books means that the act of destroying them is a taboo subject, conjuring up images of book-burning. As a result it is extremely difficult to get figures for the numbers of books sent for pulping but as the average print run is 5000 copies and the average sales figure is 500 then it is fairly clear that millions of books are being destroyed every year (and of course trees as well) without ever having been read. Maybe it’s time to pull books off their pedestal and force them to account for themselves in the same way as other consumer goods must.

What about publishers, writers and readers? Do they at least benefit from this plethora of choice? I don’t have access to industry figures but it’s hard to imagine that the economics of publishing could be very profitable.

“950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. The average book in America sells about 500 copies.”
— Publisher’s Weekly, July 17, 2006

It seems that in order to survive and thrive as Bloomsbury has done, a publisher needs to discover one or several breakthrough novels that explode in sales rather than rely on the many steady but unspectacular (I mean unspectacular in sales, not in content) books they have in their range.
The situation is even worse for writers. The ALCS – The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society – which collects and distributes royalties to authors, conducted research into writers earnings and in the report published last year concluded:

– The typical earnings of a professional writer are 33% below the national average wage.
– The typical professional writer earns just GBP4000 a year.

Research Into Authors’ Earnings – Published 8 March 2007

Money is far from being the main reason that writers write but is it unreasonable to expect that a published author should earn the minimum wage? Because of the huge numbers of books available, sales, apart from those of the supernovas, are diluted to an extent that we may be returning to the gentrification of writing.

What about readers then, those for whom the industry exists? Are they thrilled to have the immensity of choice provided to them in bookshops? For those readers who know exactly what they want, more choice is a good thing but for the majority of us who are indecisive browsers, too much choice is overwhelming and confusing. Faced with the difficulty of deciding which book to buy, lots of readers deliberately limit their choice to the 3 for 2 tables or the promotion tables or the narrower range offered by the supermarkets or the Richard and Judy list where the choice is a more manageable one, all of which further concentrates sales in a few books. The reason why books are being funnelled down into more and more specific categories (a strait-jacket writers often complain about) is to help readers wade through the morass of choice without drowning in it.

The possibility of being disappointed increases with choice too. Imagine you are travelling in Vietnam and you have no book to read. Suddenly, in a small shop, to your surprise, you find a small stash of books in English, none of which you know anything about. It is more likely that you will enjoy the one you choose as your expectations are not as high as they would be if you started out with thousands of books to choose from. Might it be possible that great books or brilliant novels sink without a trace just because they have not been lucky enough to be lifted out of the flotsam by a miracle wave and washed onto the shore?

Of course I love books. I have spent too much time with my nose in one to feel otherwise but as every parent knows, it’s not a sign of love to remove all limits.

For more rants from the Thursday Soapbox, click here.

41 comments on “Thursday Soapbox: Too Much of a Good Thing?

  1. Lisa
    May 22, 2008

    Too many books, Mary?! Heaven forbid!! 🙂

    Really interesting article, but how do you choose which books are published? Which books should be allowed past the gatekeepers? Only the ones which will sell more than 500 copies? Or should we have only the ‘sure bet’ books printed in their zillions, but then what happens when *they* flop? We all hear about the books that are given a huge marketing push but don’t sell in great numbers, hence a lot of skipped or pulped fiction down the line.

    At least small publisher books tend to have small print runs. If say a thousand are printed and eight hundred are sold, that’s not as disastrous in terms of landfill, as if ten thousand are printed and eight thousand sold, even though on the face of it 8000 = great sales.

    Just jumping in so we can start some debate 😉

    I think you are right though that massive choice can be daunting to a casual browser. We don’t have a local bookshop here, so I tend to read book blog reviews for recommendations and buy online, but I do veer towards those 3for2s whenever I’m in Plymouth Waterstones. If you’re not sure what you’re looking for, where do you start?

    All in all, I am in two minds about it, and will sit here on the fence until somebody sweeps in and convinces me one way or t’other 😉 Anne Brooke, where be ye? Rosy Thornton? Those two fellow soapboxers will have opinions, I’m sure 🙂

  2. Trilby
    May 22, 2008

    Thanks for that, Mary – you’ve raised some really interesting points.

    I’m not sure that more books = more choice, though. The big chain bookshops here in the UK are packed with derivative, bandwagon-hopping stuff. There’s quantity, but variable quality and often very limited variety. So, I’d refine the argument to say that we do need more books, but books which represent more diverse and experimental voices (though possibly in smaller print runs).

    There does seem to be a bit of a contradiction between two popular claims about the current state of the book trade: that a) more books than ever are now being published, and b) it is now harder than ever to be published. As a writer, that’s a hard one to swallow!

  3. marygm
    May 22, 2008

    Lisa, I’m not sure what the solution is but I think I might impose (not sure how?) higher penalties on pulping so that forces publishers to better assess both their choice of books to publish and their print runs. You’re quite right that a smaller seller with less wastage is better than a big seller with high wastage though. But then would that mean eliminating the more experimental books? It’s not easy.

    Trilby, it’s hard to please everyone but if we take the argument to its ultimate conclusion then we’d end up with books satisfying a market of one. It would be good to see more innovative methods of producing small numbers of books as and when required.

  4. rosyb
    May 22, 2008

    Great piece, Mary. Really well argued, researched and very persuasive



    I disagree with you.

    “Lisa, I’m not sure what the solution is but I think I might impose (not sure how?) higher penalties on pulping so that forces publishers to better assess both their choice of books to publish and their print runs.”

    This sounds like a system that will end up with a situation where – unless the publisher is sure they are talking bestseller (and we’re talking celebrity biography land here) then they won’t take a risk on publishing it at all. Which, if you ask me, would be a terrible situation to be in.

    Like Trilby says, there may be too many books, but that doesn’t mean lots more choice, necessarily.

    I don’t know a lot about this and I might be talking out my derriere but, it seems to me, that a lot of what you are describing here is a result of the dissolution of the net book agreement – the result of which means that publishers have a very short time to make a hit – therefore resulting in that gambling mentality you are talking about, waiting for the one that goes big. The trouble with that image of gambling is that it gives the impression of high risk. Actually, isn’t it rather the case that the risk is spread so much that it is small – spreading bets far and wide for the big one that will come in.

    I’ve read about many past authors who wrote many books before one hit huge, but the backlist continued to make money and the investment was a steadier longer term affair.

    I would like to see more variety out there, not less. How to achieve that, is the question for me. Some people argue that the internet is the way forward for this sort of thing but I’m not sure. I don’t think we should just treat books as “product”. But that’s just me.

  5. Jim Murdoch
    May 22, 2008

    There is too much choice. Traditional publishers are inundated with books so some writers, especially bearing in mind how much publishers now expect from their authors when it comes to self-promotion, are going it alone. The ease with which one can get a book into print now is a real problem because of the lack of proper editorial control so we are awash with books and how does one tell the good from the bad? So, what do most readers do when faced with a mountain of books? They pick from the outside, from what they can get to with ease.

    I have the same problem with modern classical music. It’s hard work to discover new composers and hear enough of their work to decide if you want to invest hard cash in one of their CDs. After an hour of trawling the Net I’ve usually had enough and, at the end of the day, it’s usually pure fluke what I end up with. Books are the same, I only have so much time and I’m just not getting connected with the kind of books I want to read.

  6. marygm
    May 22, 2008

    Ooo, Rosy, I knew I could count on you to come out guns blazing. Love it! Except that I definitely don’t agree! You seem to be implying (as did Trilby too in her previous post) that the books selected for publishing should be on the basis of some kind of originality as opposed to a more quantitative demand basis. So who decides? Lots of genre fiction books (I notice that people are diplomatically avoiding targeting them) are rehashed versions of the same thing but lots of people love them anyway whereas few people want to read the experimental novel. Why penalise one more than the other? Publishing must respond to the needs of many rather than the elite few. I’m for cutbacks across the board.

    And I agree with Jim, because people pick from the outside what’s easily accessible, as he says, reducing the chances of the truely original being chosen but they are there – just hard to find.

  7. Trilby
    May 22, 2008

    “The ease with which one can get a book into print now is a real problem because of the lack of proper editorial control so we are awash with books and how does one tell the good from the bad?”

    But Jim, the shops aren’t full of self-published books – I’d venture to say (at the risk of making myself severely unpopular!) that self-published books, regardless of how well they’re edited, don’t even cross most people’s radar. So I think that that’s confusing the point slightly – we’re not drowning in vanity presses, so much as mass-market, mainstream publisher-sanctioned excess.

  8. rosyb
    May 22, 2008

    “Lots of genre fiction books (I notice that people are diplomatically avoiding targeting them) are rehashed versions of the same thing but lots of people love them anyway whereas few people want to read the experimental novel. Why penalise one more than the other? Publishing must respond to the needs of many rather than the elite few. I’m for cutbacks across the board.”

    You seem to be dragging in the usual genre/literary fiction divide here, Mary. I’m not diplomatically avoiding anything. Anyone who knows me will know that I am for originality in genre and in the mainstream. Different stories, surprises, themes, characters, world views, ways of looking at things…I don’t see why originality has to be the preserve of the “experimental novel” as such.

    Pah to this as well: “Publishing must respond to the needs of many rather than the elite few.” I mean if we want to get all “product” about it, surely it makes as much economic sense to cater to the elite few with your “Taste the Difference” prize-winning litfic line with a nice huge mark-up and loads of packaging, as it does to put out your economy range bumper bag of thrillers. If we’re going down that route, that is.

    Right, I’ve got the fox-claws out now. 😉

  9. Trilby
    May 22, 2008

    Oooh, Rosy!

  10. annebrooke
    May 22, 2008

    I’m here, Lisa! I’m here! Great article indeed – but I must admit that it’s a question I can’t seem to relate to hugely well. It’s like asking – is there too much air? Are there too many leaves? Too many people? Well, um, no. Books are special – I would chain myself to the nearest library if there was a law that said there were too many and we must cut down. Lord preserve us from narrowness of experience. So perhaps I do feel passionately about it after all – there aren’t enough books! I want to find those treasures! Seek out those wonderful reads I know are out there – it’s the thrill of the chase and the incredible satisfaction of finding your perfect match – and the next one, and the next one. Bring ’em on!

    I would say though that POD and short runs are the way forward – to minimise environmental wastage. And if someone wants to read something different – go looking in the high-quality places! And have fun and make loads of discoveries in that search!


  11. rosyb
    May 22, 2008

    “go looking in the high-quality places!”

    You’re referring to VL aren’t you , Anne! Of course you are. 😉

  12. annebrooke
    May 22, 2008

    I always refer to VL when speaking of high-quality, Rosy – you should know that! Ooh, and nice to see VL mentioned in this month’s (well, June) edition of Writers’ Forum mag.



  13. Lisa
    May 22, 2008

    Ooh, Anne, did not know that! Very exciting!

  14. marygm
    May 22, 2008

    Rosy, in fact my argument (which I agree was badly expressed and confusing – even to me) was that we probably need to cut back on all sectors not any one in particular.But we now publish about FIVE times more books than 30 years ago, that’s a new book published every 3 minutes. From what I can see this is not good for anyone in the industry and not good for the environment (a problem we cannot continue to ignore) What I was reacting against was the idea that we should cut back on a particular kind of book as opposed to another kind.

    As for a book as a product, well, I’m not so sure that just because it’s got black marks on pages and is put between two covers that it becomes automatically a holy object. Books are products in that they are produced, sold and marketing in many similar economic ways to other products. What makes books special is the interaction the reader has with the book and what they take out of it and, being brutally honest, there are a lot of books out there where there’s not a lot to be got out of them. For a lot of them, they are, at their best, a way of passing an agreeable moment – nothing wrong with that but I don’t think it should be treated as some kind of sacred communion that needs to be protected from the laws of common sense that apply elsewhere.

  15. rosyb
    May 22, 2008

    Why do you think 5 times as many are being produced – is it cheaper to produce them than it once was or is this to do with the changing nature of the industry?

    On the one hand you are talking about being ruthless and letting books earn their keep and letting competition and demand do their jobs, on the other hand you talk of interfering with the system and getting all green about it all and penalising sellers for returns. On the other hand, you then don’t like the idea of interference when it comes to deciding what books are for the chop.

    I don’t think books are product in the same way I don’t think that football is more important than theatre just because it is liked by more people and I don’t think big brands are better than small because people think it’s a status-symbol to wear them. Neither do I think market forces are the test of everything.

    Much of the great art and writing of the past was not particularly popular at the time and much of what was popular is no longer around. (Some of what was popular of course is/was great still and on the snobbery side you’ll often find that popular stuff looked down on in the past if it lasts the course is eventually allowed to become some kind of classic and that’s nothing to do with litfic etc) If that stuff hadn’t been published or propagated in some form – however small – it would have been unlikely to have been available to be reevaluated or known to us at all.

    But, arguing to one side for the moment – I do agree with you that all this waste is a bit heart-breaking. I find the wastefulness of all our retail industries and the thought of all the clothes and food landfilled extremely depressing. But then you say that books should be treated like every other product – isn’t that exactly the problem: that they are?

  16. Jackie
    May 22, 2008

    It seems a simple solution, just have publishers print less books, then there isn’t all that wastage and we can keep plenty of variety. Even if something is more popular than the publisher expects, with todays technology, it can’t take long to do a second printing and rush it into stores.
    I know it’s a practical way to think of books not being any different than other products and I agree that they shouldn’t be exempt from environmental responsibilities, but books, like art, music and other forms of expressions, do strike me as being on a certain level of holiness. They are expressions of the soul, after all.

  17. alexpheby
    May 23, 2008

    I would just like to point out that there is a difference between ‘books’ and ‘fiction.’ There are certainly a lot more books being produced, but if you walk into your nearest book shop you’ll notice that 80 per cent of the stuff in there is cookbooks and travel guides and ‘How Not to Love too Much and Consequently Get Clinically Depressed When the Bloke at Work Gives You the Cold Shoulder’ books.

    I don’t have the figures on me, but my suspicion is that the proportion of this expansion in book production represented by any kind of fiction (let alone literary fiction) is small. The big rise is in factual and pseudo-factual stuff – so we can have it both ways: demand a reduction in the number of books and simultaneously insist that the proportion of (good) fiction books produced increases.

  18. marygm
    May 23, 2008

    From my research on internet, it seems that between 12 and 15% of the books published are adult fiction and about 7-8% is children’s fiction depending on whether it was the UK or US market referred to. The remainder includes non-fiction, textbooks, and of course cookbooks and self-help books. As to which categories of books account for this huge increase, I think fiction accounts for a very significant section of this boom in part because much of the increase comes from small independant publishers which tend to have a higher proportion of fiction in their portfolio than the large established publishers.
    This quote for example from Beneath the Cover- Inside the Book Industry: “the number of new romances published in the U.S. has skyrocketed. According to Bowker’s Books In Print database,…since 1997, new romances have quadrupled. ”
    I didn’t make much of a distinction between fiction and non-fiction because many readers read a significant amount of non-fiction too and we review quite a lot of non-fiction here on VL.

  19. rosyb
    May 23, 2008

    I think that’s a good point Alex is making there though. I was out in train station today and a lot of the books on sale there weren’t fiction – autobiographies mainly. Surely romances, if we are following your argument, have a proven demand and market. In fact doesn’t romance take up an extraordinary percentage of the overall book market?

    “a very significant section of this boom in part because much of the increase comes from small independant publishers”

    Now, is this actually true? I don’t think small independent publishers have enough money to finance a boom of the scale you were talking about, surely?
    I don’t believe that is a huge part of the overall book production at all.

    (PS for all those thinking I’m picking lots of petty quarrels here I would just like to reassure that Mary and I, both being argumentative sorts, enjoy this sort of thing and aren’t actually falling out in any way – and please feel free to join in too!) 🙂

  20. alexpheby
    May 23, 2008

    I have to echo the small independent publishers point. My own publisher – Two Ravens Press – has a hell of a time getting its books into the shops in the first place, let alone filling them up and confusing the readership.

    And if the argument is that publishers produce a great number of different books on the off-chance one will hit the jackpot, this is certainly not an option for the small presses – they tend to publish fewer than ten books a year and, if the company is going to survive, they have to make a profit on them (meaning they are less likely to represent the chaff you suggest.)

  21. Danny Rhodes
    May 23, 2008

    The irony here is that it really is not easy to get a novel published. It is extremely difficult. Yes, you can go down the self-publishing route but you’re probably going to struggle to sell 500 copies by doing it that way…

    I think we need to be careful of associating ‘numbers sold’ with ‘validity’. As an author I have tried to build a career over the last five years, publishing short stories and then a novel that has now reached the 3000-4000 mark. I think my publishers are fairly happy with that figure (despite the longer run that was required for the Waterstones Paperback of the Year promotion) and I know I am. Will the next book sell more? I’d like to say it would but the truth is, it’s a total unknown.

    The problem is that quality is objective. We don’t want to go the way of the film industry, where so much of the market is dominated by multi-million dollar productions. I know quite a few talented filmakers who can’t even begin to get a look in…

    At least writers can still see a light with the independents, though like I said, it’s not easy…

  22. marygm
    May 24, 2008

    I just want to clarify a few things.

    Firstly I don’t think that there’s any contradiction in saying more books than ever are being published and it’s harder than ever to get published. The reason is that much more people are writing and submitting manuscripts so agents/publishers are selecting more books certainly but from a bigger pile of submissions.

    Secondly, Rosy, I think you are misunderstanding me. I am not at all saying that we should be ruthless and let competition knock out books or choose only bestsellers etc etc. That’s not what I’m saying. What I mean is that at the moment 2% (let’s say) of submissions are being selected for publication, I think this bar should be raised without adding specific elitist criteria of ‘originality’ or ‘quality’ etc which are objective measures. At the moment, original, quality books ARE being published so why should that change? Or are you implying that there was far fewer ‘original’ books being published in years past when the total number was lower? The problem for me is not that they don’t exist but that they’re hard to get at. I am uncomfortable with a situation where the intellectual establishment decides what good for everyone. Yes, there is a big demand for easy, not-very-demanding fiction but what’s wrong with that? Not everyone wants ‘brain-ache’ in their reading as Catherine pointed out in a previous soapbox.

    In addition, I think that publishers should be held more accountable for the level of wastage they generate. It is estimated that an average novel generates 1.4kg of carbon dioxide. (not so bad if it’s actually read and preferably by a few people, but if it goes straight to pulping, then…)

    Finally, I made the comment on small publishers on the basis of information on the US market (which doesn’t seem so very different from the UK one). The reason is because there are so many small publishers. In the US there are 6 large publishers (in New York), 3-400 medium-sized publishers and 86,000 small or self-publishers. (ref;
    “10,000 new publishing companies were established in 2002, an increase of 15%.”
    –Publishers weekly, June 2, 2003.

    Growth in numbers of Publishers by Year

    “1947: 357 publishers
    1973: 3,000 publishers
    1980: 12,000 Publishers. The New York Times, February 23, 1981.
    1994: 52,847 publishers. Books in Print.
    2003: About 73,000 (plus those who publish through POD/DotCom publishers; they use the publisher’s ISBN block.)
    2004: 85,000 publishers

    This is not a criticism of small publishers, just stating a fact. I think small publishers are great and often provide the interesting, original fiction we talked about but I think, given the scale of the problem, that the industry needs to modernise and think about new ways of doing things.

    Sorry for all the figures – excess of research, I think.

  23. Sam
    May 24, 2008

    Clearly, the answer lies in only publishing literary fiction; further, in only publishing literary fiction that I have personally vetted, enjoyed and deemed suitable for invigorating the masses.

  24. marygm
    May 24, 2008

    Could you be persuaded to let through a small quantity of edifying non-fiction, Sam?

  25. rosyb
    May 24, 2008

    “Or are you implying that there was far fewer ‘original’ books being published in years past when the total number was lower?”

    What I was saying is that the likely outcome of making books really accountable and pay for themselves is that there will be less original books and more known quantities.(not because “original” books can’t be successful, but because they will be deemed a greater risk in comparison to the tried and tested.)

    That’s fascinating figures you have there, Mary, but I think the US market IS extremely different from the UK and I think there are an awful lot more independent and smaller publishers, whereas in the UK it is a small handful.

    Obviously I agree with Alex here!

    But, all this toing and froing aside, I would like to say this has been a tremendous discussion and it is a subject I didn’t know much about and I feel I’ve learnt a lot from your article and subsequent tussling! It is a question I don’t know the answers to but certainly you’ve opened up all sorts of things I haven’t thought of before. So thanks Mary for a terrific soapbox (and for arguing with me). 🙂

    PS I wouldn’t say quality means elitist btw. It is very strange concept to me that good quality shouldn’t be demanded of all genres and fiction whether commercial or litfic, romance, sci-fi or whatever. I’m sure Catherine Jones would be horrified to think that good quality isn’t expected of romance for example. I think looking for good stuff in all areas is what we should be aiming to promote as a site otherwise what are we reviewing anything for? I do not see why that is elitist at all.

  26. Emma
    May 24, 2008

    Fascinating article, Mary, thank you.

    At the risk of being nitpicky, though, I’d question the figure of 200,000. I’m pretty sure that’s a) American – I think the UK figure’s a bit less though not as much as you’d think given the relative sizes of the population – and b) based on ISBNs registered. The thing about ISBNs is that they’re a very poor guide to the number of books which are potential bookshop inhabitants, let alone actually make it there: they include all editions (The Mathematics of love ALONE has 10 English-language ISBNs to date, not counting the audio and e-book), and they include the privately-printed corporate histories, pamphlets, bibles, government publications, self-published anythings, etc. etc.

    It’s true that an awful lot of books are published, but as to whether we need them? It wouldn’t be the JKRs of this world who can’t get a new book published if the numbers were voluntarily restrained, it would be new writers, odd writers, potentially-interesting-but-flawed writers… It’s not like getting people to taste ice cream: with something that’s hard to offer a taster of, experienced publishers do their best, but how else do you find out if a writer has a market, except for publishing their book and seeing what happens? I prefer that scenario, even if it means heartbreak for some new authors who turn out not to sell.

    If you decide to limit books published by who wants to buy them, there’d be nothing on the shelves but the mega-sellers, which would make life very dull. And if you decide to limit books published by their perceived literary merit, well, how dare anyone tell me what I ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ be reading?

  27. marygm
    May 24, 2008

    No, Emma that 200,000 figure definitely refers to Britain; the equivalent figure for the US is 172,000. (Population ratio: 60 million to 300 million) It’s one of the figures which seems fairly reliably backed up in various places. Here’s the Wikipedia entry
    Also this quote from a Reuters article: ‘Bookish Britain overtakes America as top publisher’ ” UK publishers issued 206,000 new books in 2005 compared with 172,000 in the United States, which saw an 18 percent drop in production, according to the New Providence, New Jersey-based firm’s preliminary figures.”

    Secondly I don’t know why people think that reducing the numbers of books published (to the level of 10 years ago, say) means that we’ll only have the mega-sellers. It wasn’t the case 10 years ago, why would it be now? There are maybe 200 megasellers per year (if that) so that still leaves plenty of room for variety in the other several 10s of thousands that would still be published.

    And Rosy, of course good quality is required in all areas but how to define ‘quality’. But I suppose I was thinking of ‘demanding’ fiction in that it requires the reader to work too. But these ‘demanding’ books tend not to be ‘bestsellers’, most people don’t want to work that hard in their reading.

    PS My pleasure to discuss this with you. I’m only sorry we can’t do it face to face. 🙂

  28. rosyb
    May 24, 2008

    “And Rosy, of course good quality is required in all areas but how to define ‘quality’. But I suppose I was thinking of ‘demanding’ fiction in that it requires the reader to work too.”

    This would be make a fascinating – if different – discussion. For me, quality does not need to be demanding or inaccessible. Hitchhikers is very high-quality: funny, clever and lovely satire on bureaucracy and other matters…

    For me, quality is well-done: good pace, plot, and well-written, and – here is the area where others will probably disagree – something with its very own character – almost like a person. I keep reading books with very flat sort of writing and – whatever the genre – I want a certain colour in the writing – whether it is very very quiet and serene sort of palette with long sentences and long rhythms, or whether it is bold and vivacious and short sentences. I want it to feel like all that is it’s own personality – not painting by numbers or flat application of rules.

  29. Emma
    May 24, 2008

    Yes, the disproportion of books-published-per-capita in the UK and US is striking, isn’t it. But does that Wikipedia article say what proportion of those titles are actually what we would consider separate books of the sort that a bookshop might sell? I know when the too-many-books breastbeating came round last time, in the wake of the ISBN figures, that Danuta Keane unpicked just the figures, but I can’t find the piece on her website, unfortunately.

  30. Sam
    May 24, 2008

    No, Mary, sadly I could not be persuaded to let through a very small and select selection of edifying non-fiction. It would be the thin end of a very thick wedge, ending in something like Please, Daddy, not again.

  31. alexpheby
    May 24, 2008


    Your numbers are no doubt correct but something doesn’t add up. What I said about the small publisher’s inability to play the lottery game still stands but, more importantly, the bookshops are absolutely and incontrovertibly not filled with small independent publishers of fiction.

    Since I got signed by just such a small press I’ve made it my hobby to try to spot any of their books on the shelves of any bookshops I’ve been into. In three months I’ve seen four of them. Whilst looking it became immediately clear that the same dozen or so publishers fill the shelves with multiple copies of their most recent books. So, at least in fiction, there does not seem to be the confusing overabundance that would require a reduction of books.

    One way to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory ‘facts’ is to presuppose that the expansion in book production is in non-fiction published by small publishers.

  32. Leena
    May 25, 2008

    Interesting post on a related (or the same?) issue:

  33. Pingback: Monday Guest Blog by Lisa « Two Ravens Press

  34. nehemiahandblake
    May 29, 2008

    Maybe the entire way of writing needs to be rethought. When we as writers set out to write something with the intention of it being published, we know that at some point it will need to fit into the publishing system, whether that is through a big publishing house, an independent or through POD etc. But that system really is only geared to the books that make it big. The rest of them exist as the flotsam as far as that system is concerned. But still, a readership of 500 is nothing to be ashamed about. There is a good chance that a fair sized percentage of that 500 will have come out of a writer’s own community – family, friends, friends of friends and so on. Community publishing is already becoming a growing phenomenon, but perhaps writers should be moving in greater numbers in groups to writing for and into specific communities, whether they be physical, thematic, religious etc, using POD publishing as an environmentally and economically viable means. It is possible that a readership of 500 will remain the same, and that economic clout will remain the same. But the role of the writer will be immeasurably strengthened within the community and will lead to a more sustainable form of living as greater roles for writers open up in community development. Just a thought, but something that I am beginning to explore with a publishing project – Nehemiah & Blake.

  35. Pingback: A series of small insurrections, part III « Nehemiah & Blake

  36. nehemiahandblake
    May 30, 2008

    Just to add, the thoughts outlined the comment above can be more fully explored at

  37. marygm
    May 30, 2008

    Interesting, N&B, I’ll check it out. Thanks for letting us know.

  38. Emma
    June 2, 2008

    And here are the figures, for 2007, straight from Neilson Bookscan, as quoted in today’s Bookseller. As I thought, 200,000 in the UK is a bit of an overstatement: the real figure is 115,000, and UK figures are rather less than half of US figures, at 276,000

    UK book output falls slightly
    02.06.08 Jo Young

    The number of new books published in the UK in 2007 fell slightly compared to 2006, though the number of publishers entering the market continued to rise, according to the latest figures from Nielsen Book. In figures released today (2nd June), Nielsen Book said that there were 115,420 books published during 2007, a slight reduction on the 115,522 publications recorded in 2006, but still up on the 2005 figure of 110,925 books.

    Meanwhile the number of new publishers – which Nielsen Book recognises as those registering for their first ISBN prefix – continues to rise year-on-year. In 2006, there were 2,801 publishers registered in the UK, up slightly from 2,739 in 2005. This figure increased again to 3,158 publishers actively in business by the end of 2007.

    Nielsen’s figures follow a largely similar trend to those released last month in the US by Bowker. Based on preliminary numbers, Bowker said that it expected the number of new US books published to increase to increase only slightly to 276,649 titles and editions in 2007, up from the 274,416 published in 2006. But it also reported a “staggering rise” in the publication of print-on-demand (p.o.d.) titles. Nielsen does not break-out p.o.d. titles.

  39. rosyb
    June 3, 2008

    Thanks for that Emma.

    So, why are the figures so different – is that because Mary’s figures included pod etc?

    “Meanwhile the number of new publishers – which Nielsen Book recognises as those registering for their first ISBN prefix – continues to rise year-on-year. In 2006, there were 2,801 publishers”

    The above startled me somewhat though. Who are all these publishers? There aren’t that many in the A&W Yearbook are there? Does that include self-publishing?

  40. marygm
    June 3, 2008

    It seems very difficult to get the true figures in either the US or the UK market, especially when it’s hard to know exactly what’s included; self-published or not, multiple ISBNs or not etc. I suspect the environmental impact is so enormous that it’s in the industy’s interests to encourage this ambiguity.

    This is a quote from the New York Times:
    “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 although the source is the same (Bowker), Emma’s quote gives a figure of 274K books for 2006 and the NYT gives 175K for 2003 (over 50% increase over 3 years? could this be right? Yet another article, also quoting Bowker, says that there was a drop of 18% in books published in the US between 2004 and 2005

    Joe Moran, reader in cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University says this in the Guardian in January 2008: “Thirty-five years ago the Guardian expressed astonishment that, simply by arranging words in different orders, British authors had produced 24,654 new titles that year. Today you can add 100,000 to that figure – creating many millions of volumes that will never be opened, let alone read.”

    To be honest, I’m not sure that the exact figures are the point here. It’s the rate of increase and the notion that a line needs to be drawn somewhere. Where exactly that line should be drawn is up for discussion but I’m arguing that there’s a need for retrenchment.

  41. Pingback: A series of small insurrections, part III « Nehemiah Blake

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on May 22, 2008 by in Entries by Mary, Thursday Soapbox, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .



Editorial Policy

The views expressed in the articles and reviews on Vulpes Libris are those of the authors, and not of Vulpes Libris itself.

Quoting from Vulpes Libris

You are very welcome to quote up to 100 words from any article posted on Vulpes Libris - as long as you quote accurately, give us due credit and link back to the original post. If you would like to quote MORE than 100 words, please ask us first via the email address in the Contact details.


  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
  • %d bloggers like this: