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.
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.
Monday: Hilary takes sneaky delight in Jay Rayner's bad days at the office in My Dining Hell.
Wednesday: Kate read Colm Toibin's Brooklyn on the way back from New York.
Friday: Diana Birchall, joining us from sunny Santa Monica (we hates her) gets stuck into Edith Sitwell’s classic English Eccentrics.