18 July 2004

There are more books, and presumably more nonsense, coming from the publishing industry all the time. According to Laura Miller's weekly column in the NYTBR, there were 175,000 in 2003. Of course, this immediately turns into a "woe am I" on the publishing industry's own perspective:

So that's a good thing, right? Surely the whopping number of books reveals a robust marketplace of ideas? The problem is, the demand for trade books (that is, titles of general interest, as opposed to technical books or textbooks) is dispiritingly flat. As more and more books are offered to the same number of readers, the question hardly anyone dares to ask is: how many books are too many? For authors, are better chances at being published eventually canceled out by the likelihood that their books will get lost in the crowd? It's the question I put to several editors, most of whom — unsurprisingly, given their answers — chose not to be named. "In all honesty," one told me, "a lot of big publishers will say that not only are other publishers publishing too much, but they are, too." Obviously, no company wants to decrease the number of terrific books it publishes, and no one plans to produce outright bad ones. Where the going gets tough, or ought to, is among the books that are merely mediocre.

"The Last Word" (18 Jul 04) (fake paragraphing removed for clarity). Note, too, that Miller is not even counting "the titles published through print-on-demand and other fee-charging, vanity-press-type outfits" (emphasis added) in her figures, nor the increasing encroachment of cooperative press organizations that further mask the true "productivity" of the industry.

Toward the end of the article, though, Miller almost comes to grips with the real problem.

[V]anishing reviews, an editor from a venerable house said, are only partly to blame: "We just don't have any credibility left, when we're each putting out 15 novels a year and they can't all be good."

Editors have many reasons for publishing books even they aren't really excited about. The accounting methods of most publishers don't reward selectivity. If you budget for 93 books per year and publish only 80, you might see next year's budget, or even your staff, cut; so, that editor continued, "if the celebrity memoir you budgeted for doesn't come in because the author is in rehab, you have to find something else to fill that slot, fast." Publishers may buy a weak first book to get a crack at the stronger second one, and young editors often have to cut their teeth on manuscripts that senior editors have passed over. One prominent editor points to the growing number of nonfiction books bought on the basis of proposals: "For every book that turns out better than you expected, there's one that's worse. That's spilled over into fiction. Now people are selling novels off 100 pages. Or off 30 pages, and they get a two- or three-book deal!" Disappointing manuscripts are pushed through nonetheless: "You have to write a real stinker to get canceled."

But a reader pays the same price for the stinker as for the masterpiece, and probably invests as much precious leisure time in reading it, too. His or her willingness to do so isn't an inexhaustible resource.

To say the least, this considerably understates the problem; and, in fact, answers to at least some of the surge in vanity-press operations. Bluntly, the industry puts out so much crap that it has considerably lowered the "I-can-write-a-better-book-than-that!" bar. The proportion of self-identified writers who actually can hasn't changed that much—it's still probably 4-6%—but the population is larger, and therefore the absolute numbers are larger. And, considering that these are also the people who might otherwise read some of these books (finite time and all, you know), the effect on sales should be pretty obvious. Except, of course, to people who do not understand reading and the editorial process… who, at this time, dominate the top management of the publishing industry.