Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Should More or Fewer Books Be Published?

According to PW, there are 3,000 books published PER DAY. Now, granted, I'm sure this figure includes self-published books, things like trade manuals and everything else under the sun, but that is a whole lot of books. Without question, there are more books being published today than ever before in the history of humankind.

Is this a good thing?

One thing I always hear is that the publishing industry puts out too many bad books. "Too many books -- too many BAD books!" I always tell these naysayers that they just bought the wrong books, because there are more good books published every single month than would be possible to read in an entire lifetime, but I won't deny that there are quite a few mediocre books that hit the shelves, some of which even sell quite a few copies.

What should be done about this? Hypothetically, should there be fewer, better books and should the publishing industry invest their resources in these? One of the problems with so many books being published is the sheer abundance of options is one important factor in the gradual disappearance of the "midlist" -- books that sold fine but weren't bestsellers. This abundance has helped to fracture the marketplace into niche markets, leaving only a handful of mega-bestsellers at the top who are commanding large advances.

Or do we benefit from having 3,000 books published a day, some of which rise to the top, but most of which languish in anonymity? Consumers have options, niche books are finding their markets, and small gems that might not have made the cut in a blockbuster-driven publishing clime are published by small presses every single day.

So you tell me: should we publish fewer books or more? Which is better for readers, the publishing industry and literature as a whole?







56 comments:

Michael Reynolds said...

Yes, we clearly have too many books being published. Just imagine how well my books would sell if they were the only YA books available. I like those odds.

ORION said...

I voted for more.
We can never have enough books. The good ones will persevere and the bad ones? Well there were plenty of bad ones published long ago...voltaire was one - that now are considered classics.
I try not to be too quick to judge with respect to quality.

Kylie said...

It's a tie right now on the poll. I think there should be even more books. Maybe that is a lot, but I think its good to have all those options, for people to read a wide variety of material, even if some are mediocre. Hey, the more, the merrier.

Scott said...

The book I consider bad is likely somebody else's favorite. Likewise, there are people wouldn't touch my favorite books.

More books means more choices. Even those of us who read a lot will never know about any but a very small number of the books that come out, but there's probably somebody who will be excited about each book that comes out.

Look at children's books. Who knows which "bad" book is going to turn a kid on to a lifetime of reading? Sure, it might be better if they discover reading through good books, but I'd prefer my kids read junk than nothing at all, and that junk might just trigger something that leads to better books.

For me, the hard thing is knowing that somewhere out there might be a book that could be my favorite thing I'll ever read, but I might never discover it. It might not even ever find a publisher.

Steph Leite said...

I voted fewer (and getting mine published).

It's a matter of principle: Some writers do absolutely nothing and get published whilst others work their asses off to write a truly captivating book.

I think in general, you can publish as many books as you want, but take some time to make sure your work is really great before you put it out in the market.

- Steph

Anonymous said...

As a reader I want fewer because with the overwhelming number of books out there it's hard to find those extra special ones. There are a lot of okay books. And when I had more time I even wanted to read many of them. Now that my time is more constrained I find myself more and more unwilling to take a chance on a book (even by an author I have previously loved) becaused it feels like everything has been done before, books feel like they're losing their individuality. Sometimes I think it's me and that I'm just jaded. But then I occasionally stumble across something that is unique and engaging and different. And then I think the reason I feel so many of the books are the same is because they are. It's the same idea as sequels in the movie industry. The consumer liked the first, so lets give them more. And more pours out until the market refuses to buy more. This is the reason I've stopped going to see movie sequels too. They're never as good as the first and I inevitably come away disappointed. But there is money to be made. So as a publisher, yes I'd keep putting them out. It's business. But as a reader, I wish they'd stop to make it easier to find the fresh ones.

Jenny said...

Nathan,

That 300K "books published" statistic includes vanity publications from Lulu etc. It is six times the corresponding figure PW used to come up with in the 1990s back when it cost money to produce a vanity publication. So we have 250,000 more vanity publications than we did in 1995.

But this is a silly statistic. The only reason it gets aired each year is because they make publishing sound like a huge business.

The real number we'd like to know is how many new books get shelf space in brick and mortar bookstores each year. Perhaps Bookscan can provide this figure.
But they probably don't because it isn't very impressive.

That's probably the reason that, unlike other industries, the publishing industry keeps the sales numbers for most of it's apparently successful titles secret with the exception of anomalies like Harry Potter books.

If the general public knew how pathetic the sales numbers are for even a lot of NYTimes hardcover bestsellers, they'd lose all respect for the industry.

OTOH, if aspiring authors knew what the sales figures and author's royalties were for most novels, they'd stop deluging you with queries and put their wealth-creating efforts into getting onto the cast of a reality show.

That might not be such a bad thing!

David said...

The problem isn't how many books are being published but how few of those the reading public is made aware of.

I have no idea how to solve that problem. Perhaps some new approach or new technology is just around the corner.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

More books! Less bad TV!

In all seriousness, at my little zine, we can only afford to publish about 18-20 stories a year. That's not even 2% of the subs we get. It's not that the stories are bad, but we just can't afford the money and time.

I wish we could do more. So yeah, more books.

Nadine said...

I would say more books.
Can there ever be too many books? True, there are bad books out there, but some of the books that I hated, others loved. And some that I loved, others hated. The more books, the more chances that there is something out there for everyone.

Redzilla said...

I am all about the "more books mean more choices."

pjd said...

I voted for "fewer" because of two things:

1. The impact all this printing and shipping has on the environment, even with significant use of recycled paper.

2. Really, how many more versions and copycats of "chicken soup" books do we, as a society, need?

Josephine Damian said...

Since Sean Lindsay is a Golden God, my guru, hell, he's my hero, give ya one guess how I voted...

*Josie steps onto her soapbox*

Not only should learning the three act structure be required of writers (you should need proof of three-act training, a freaking license in order to submit a MS), agents and editors should also be required to learn the writing basics that Aristotle put forth (a helluva long time ago so there's no excuse for not being up on it by now).

Agents and editors are the gate-keepers, and they share much of the blame for the deluge of bad books being published these days.

*Josie steps down from her soapbox*

Great post, Nathan!

Scott, yes there are many fine books that are disagreed over as a matter of taste, but far more just plain-awful-and-pretty-much-everyone-says-so books are clogging the shelves. How many more trees have to die because of all this drek being published (ok, I shoulda got back on my soap box for that last line)?

Steph: I really like you. Cool avatar, too.

Steph Leite said...

Josephine: Wow, didn't see that coming :) Thanks! I'm a sucker for flattery, so expect a new regular reader of your blog. ;)

The Bag of Health and Politics said...

In the abstract, more books seems good because it adds to society's knowledge. But I voted fewer books because if a book is published and read by 30 people, I wonder what--if anything--that does to enhance knowledge.

Also, there is a cap on the number of books that will be read. If people can only read for an hour or two a day and complete 3 to 6 books a month, or 50 books a year, and they're only reading for 70 years of their life, then each person can only read 5,400 books in their life time (or 72 books a year). When that number is juxtaposed against the 3,000 published per day, and I think about my own book, I get depressed.

jason evans said...

From the perspective of writers, the question seems kind of like the choice between buying a cheap lottery ticket in the small hope of a huge payoff (the many book situation) or anteing up real money in Poker for a better chance to win (the smaller market situation and its higher risk of not publishing you at all).

From the readers' perspective, I think folks always suffer with fewer choices. Inevitably, something will emerge from the fringes when people get sick of the industry standard.

superwench83 said...

I'm torn. I see the reasons behind both points of view, and I can't make up my mind.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Wrong question.

The better question is how the publishing industry can adapt to having so much on the market. After all, mid-list authors with double-digit releases are losing their contracts because they aren't turning into that elusive best-selling author. Or even selling "enough" -- whatever enough is.

Maybe expectations need to shift in order for every reader to truly find something for them.

And who knows, but a little publicity for some of these otherwise hidden gems might get more people reading, too.

Anonymous said...

I believe there is no such thing as too many books. Also, there's more opportunity for some great little books to make it. Fewer books to me means that a smaller set of folks are making decisions as to what is "good".

Also, I really like *Sex Scenes at Starbucks* suggestion - more books, less bad TV. Right on!

J.F. Constantine

Scott said...

I think publishers will go to something more like a print on demand model, with a more realistic number of books printed on the first run.

No, if they think 10,000 will sell and they only sell 3,000, that's 7,000 printed books that have to be scrapped. Publishers will give lip service to the environmental cost of overprinting, but there's another cost that most care about more.

The question was should more books be published, or fewer. I voted for more for the reasons I gave above. If the question had been, should more or fewer be *printed*, I would have voted differently.

With POD and e-books, it seems like there should be more life in the midlist. Books can remain on the list longer without costing the publisher money.

Of course, issues have to be worked out, like when a writer can consider a book out of print if it's still in the catalog but not actually being printed or marketed? At some point, it stops being in the writer's interested to remain in the catalog.

But it seems to me like realistic and conservative print runs with a POD model if the book generates interest would allow the publishers to put out more books for the same cost (or the same number of books for less money and with less environmental impact), and take more chances on books that are probably not destined to be best-sellers.

Anonymous said...

Of course there should be more. Why let companies decide what I can or cannot read. I like having as many options as possible, and then I get to decide.

tahariel said...

There are always so many books I want to read, and never enough time or money in which to do so. Of course, then a good percentage of them are disappointing.

It's a difficult question, because as has been said, some books I love other people would burn without batting an eye. And for someone who wants to be published themselves, if less books are published then there's less chance my book will be published, but the more books that are published the worse my odds of my book doing well... a dilemma indeed, that can only be solved by (hopefully) being good enough to get noticed and generate buzz.

Nathan Bransford said...

scott-

I'll have to post on this some time in the future, because limited print runs (with the idea that publishers can respond to an uptick in demand using the POD) often end up being self-fulfilling prophesies. Chains increasingly just order the exact number of copies an author's previous work sold, publishers print the exact number of copies.... there's increasingly little taken into account for how good the book actually is or building the author toward something bigger. Bookstores sell through the copies on hand, don't order more, they fill that space with books from another author, and voila, self-fulfilling prophesy fulfilled.

Then, the publisher says, "Look, sales has been flat," we're not sure about the next book....

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Tammie said...

I voted for more books. There can NEVER be TOO Many books.

So you have a stinker or maybe many stinkers before you find that gem - thats part of the whole experience - for me anyway.

Nathan you made a great point in the beginning of your post on saying no they just didn't find the right book. Maybe we need more reviews!?!

Other Lisa said...

I voted "fewer, as long as my book's one of them," but I don't think I really mean that. I want choice; I think more is better; there are different books for different readers.

The problems are several. First, not enough people read. I think in terms of numbers the market for books hasn't changed that much but as a percentage of the population, readers have decline. I have no idea how we change this. Reading to me is one of those natural functions, fairly close to breathing and eating. I don't understand people who don't read.

But a lot of people don't.

It's cliche to rail against the dumbing down of our culture and the fragmentation our national attention span, but it's kind of hard to argue against the reality of this.

What concerns me the most about publishing is the decline of the mid-list writer. It seems absurd to me that there is less and less of a place for the professional novelist who makes a decent living off his/her labors. I don't understand the business well enough to know all the reasons for this, but I think it is incredibly destructive all around. Very similar to the film industry in a lot of ways, with the emphasis on blockbusters and opening weekend box office and getting 14 year old boys in the theaters. Well, the second largest film market is "older adults" (which means, uh, over 35 in some contexts but in this one I think it's 49 +). There's to be more recognition these days that smaller, "adult" films can also be very profitable, as long as you keep production costs down and come up with more innovative ways to market that don't cost a kajillion bucks.

For all that the publishing companies are supposedly so caught up with marketing, it seems like there's more that could be done to help smaller books find larger audiences.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to say less, simply because it might make the industry more supportive of the books that do get published.

The Printz awards were announced yesterday and I was STUNNED to find, that while I write YA, I hadn't even heard of half of these titles, and indeed the chain bookstore I frequent (because it's down the street) only had a paltry ONE of these books on the shelf.

No wonder I hadn't heard of them -- I'd never SEEN them. Made me wonder how many award winning books I'll never know about while every James Patterson book takes up tables, endcaps, and displays claiming to be "must reads."

I've redacted my name because I feel bad I've slammed another author (James Patterson) though I doubt he cares, as he's probably taking a nap on his money-filled mattress as we speak.

Good books to off to die a lonely death from lack of publicity/publishing house support. That is an utter, utter shame.

The Dan Ward said...

I voted for more books, and I wonder if the midlist writer is really in decline.

If the "Long Tail" phenomenon is real (and I think it is), then it seems to me the market should be opening new opportunities for more people to make a modest living in creative fields (music, books, etc). Each little niche is no longer limited to what a bookstore can put on a shelf.

The number of blockbusters the world can tolerate at any given time seems fairly static, but for those of us who don't aspire to be King or Grisham, the internet is opening all sorts of doors to connect with a world-wide audience that's big enough, if not huge.

How many books get brick & mortar shelf space? The answer to that question matters less and less every day...

Jenny said...

Nathan,

The "self-fulfilling prophecy" print run has been with us since I got involved in publishing in the mid 80s.

What changed recently was the decision of Borders to stop shelving small press books. For decades you could go and find many thousands of books from small presses at every Borders store. Buyers got to see books that never get reviewed and could make their own decisions about whether they wanted to buy them.

Then Borders brought in a "Shelf management" company at the end of the 90s who told them to go with the same "Top 40" format as Barnes & Noble, and they promptly returned every one of those small press books to the publishers.

Now it is unlikely most readers will ever see anything but top 40 inventory in any bookstore.

Kathryn Levy Feldman (Kit) said...

Perhaps an even better question would be how many authors are making money off their titles regardless of the method by which they are published. Because if the writers were actually fairly compensated for their labor in in dollars, rather than in promises of increased opportunities, then the answer would be too few. But right now there are probably too many because everyone is looking for the
sure blockbuster and no one knows what it will look like.

Erik said...

An excellent work, Herr Mozart. Just one problem: Too many notes.

I wonder if people also feel that there are too many websites, for eample - or it is perhaps a problem that they aren't indexed adequately so that people can find what they want?

Those are two very diffferent problems. The number of books that are supportable is related to the number that people will read and the differential cost of publishing smaller runs. If people are to read more books, it seems reasonable that at some level there should be more - but a greater effort has to be put into getting those books into the hands of people who would like them.

Too many books? Perhaps the way they are hyped is antiquated and simply not reaching the niche markets that require many small run books.

Tammie said...

erik I agree in regards to the hype. Too much hype and its like movies - usually a let down. The most accurate hype has been word of mouth by someone who knows what you like and don't like.

And readers are funny - you can love an author at the start of their career and then start to feel like they are just phoni'n it in - like James Patterson who gets his stuff hyped all over the place.

I mean the posting Nathan did not too long ago on the New York Times or whichever group it was who had the best books of the year - most of them didn't interest me AT ALL - and I didn't purchase - but who am I!

Sophie W. said...

I've always been in the "more is more" camp when it comes to books. The cream rises to the top, right? What I find frustrating is the number of complaints from people saying that they can never find anything to read.

Um. Hello? Been to a book store recently? There are more books passing through my local B&N than I could read in my lifetime, which is fine by me. It adds to variety. Plus, searching through all that extra paper gives book shopping a nice feel. It's the thrill of the hunt.

Add e-books and self-pubbed books (and I have found some great e-books and self-pubbed books) to the mix and there are endless supplies of knowledge and reading. It's up to the reader to go out and find it all.

CarBeyond said...

Like Scott, I also like the idea of smaller editions for some books or print on demand after that.
I have often thought that it would be much more progressive for there to be first, second, third, etc. editions of certain collectible or unique or experimental books that may have very select audiences.
Perhaps, instead of the large bookstores, for THESE books, there could be the literary equivalent of Art Galleries carrying Limited Edition signed runs.
I recently read that Hemingway's first book had a very successful, very limited first printing.
Who is to say that a sellout printing of 300 copies isn't a grand success?
Well perhaps, it wouldn't be a success for the mass media market, and perhaps (sadly for too many gifted and talented folks) not for the writer or agent's (initial) financial return. But perhaps it COULD be a great contribution to the world of letters and perhaps a way to pass beautiful obscure works into culture, even if just a little, so they exist.
And perhaps it could create successes upon which larger, further audiences (and successes) could be built?
I understand there is a museum of one copy books in Burlington, Vermont, so that, even these, can be preserved...
Thoughts...

Tom Burchfield said...

Where's the Goldilock's choice? Maybe there's "just the right amount."

Julie Weathers said...

I want more. I want to pick up that odd book about Civil War letters or Sarmatian warriors. I want to peer at shelves full of interesting fantasy and historical novels.

Being successful doesn't guarantee I am going to like a writer. Heaven knows there are a lot of people who would hate what I love, but if books are limited, what will the criteria be? It will be projections on what is going to make the most money instead of taking a chance. There's already enough of that. We don't need more.

Scott said...

Nathan-

I agree with you re: POD to a point. I don't think publishers should necessarily go with the current model, which tends to produce cheap-feeling books. I think they can learn from the model, though, and instead of warehousing thousands of copies, warehouse a reasonable number and print more as needed.

It's a kind of POD model that could be totally transparent to the bookstores.

But I see what you're saying--if they're running out of books in the warehouse and the book's not selling quickly, a publisher might feel less incentive to print more than they would feel, say, if they had a bunch of books taking up space in a warehouse that they wanted to push to get rid of. Remaindering books at least has one advantage: sometimes people discover a new author for a couple bucks that they might not have risked $25 on.

I still think the POD model has a future for traditional publishers, though. They just need to refine the concept and find a way to make more money off it than they would now, with a better-quality product, and make it completely transparent to stores and readers.

I'm betting some do it already, but they do it well enough we don't even realize it.

Adaora A. said...

I vote for more. As long as their quality I will always want more. I'm a library rat and I never get tired of something new (as well as dreaming of seeing my name on the cover of one.

I have a question for you:

I've always wondered how agents handle writers - particularly debut authors (like me), who query with a project which isn't finished yet. Presumably they don't know you have such a quick response time generally because they haven't researched you, and if you like what you read and it isn't ready, what does a fellow orange wearing t-shirt person such as yourself (orange goes so well with my skin tone) do?

Nathan Bransford said...

adaora-

I mainly hope someone who plans to query me has read the posts labeled as "essentials" on the right side of the blog.

hint: the answer to your question is in the first one.

Adaora A. said...

Hmm maybe I didn't read it properly, cause I know I've read all your essentials (and taken notes in my flipbook) but I probably made an error.

Thanks for the hint, I'll look again.

austexgrl said...

Book stores should carry more books...and a larger variety..instead of the same old-same old-standbys...most readers have varied tastes!!..and we need MORE independednt store!!

Michele Lee said...

The problem with "bad books" is that it's often subjective. I don't like plots that are just romance. I don't like Laurell K Hamilton's last 5 or 6. I tend to not like hard scifi or books that, no matter how beautifully written, make me scream "Make something happen for godssake!" But obviously all these things sell and sell well.

More books makes sense for publishers because you can't always predict which ones are going to hit big so a wider base represents more opportunity. But the down side is that some great authors end up falling through the cracks because readers don't even know they are an option. I know loads of writers in urban fantasy who are putting out book far better than the latest Anita Blake books, but those are the ones in the limelight so those are the ones readers who aren't voracious and proactive go for and stick with.

R.J. Keller said...

More books and mine too.

I buy a book a week for myself and frequently that many for my kids. Bring 'em on.

A Reader from India said...

Hi Nathan,

Reminds me of Salman's Rushdie's words - 'A book is a version of the world'.

And there must be as many versions as there are people!

Like others who have commented in this forum, I too believe that the definition of a good book is subjective and varies with each reader.

We need more books, definitely.

Luc2 said...

I really hesitated on this one. I'd think YES, because people should have a right to choose, and who is to decide what is "good" or "bad"? But I think NO because it's like at a supermarket, where you sometimes get confused by the sheer amount of similar products that are offered to you. Too much just doesn't give more choice, it only muddles the process of choosing. So in the end, I chose NO.

Josephine Damian said...

pjd: You are my new hero!

Steph: I stopped by your blog only to see you don't have one :-( Cool. They are a big time demand. Feel free to drop by the JD blog anytime.

Nathan: My librarian informed me of a new policy due to budget constraints. When they order a new book, and put it in the online catalog for reserves, the new policy is this - unless a book has "X" number of requests, then they cancel the order and don't buy the book for any of their nine branches.

Scary.

But I did have quite the conversation with the librarian who agreed that the quality of books these days is poor.

I know so many multi-published authors getting dropped by their publishers and/or agents.

Scary. And look at what happened to Tom Wolfe recently.

I'd like to see a poll for long established authors asking if they have the same agent and/or publisher at the end of their career that they did at the start of their career.

Sometimes I wonder if it's the nature of the biz these days (I think that Lynn Nesbitt article should be required reading for all writers - published and wanna-be) -or do these books have flat sales because they're badly written? How much responsibility does the author have for their own failure, and how much of it is the reality of the biz these days?

Mary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mary said...

I second A Reader from India's comment. Well said!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Wow, still fairly close.

C.J. said...

josephine - sorry for the much belated post here, but i just had to say that i respectfully disagree with your believing that all writers should learn the three act structure before being allowed to submit a manuscript. i understand that your comment was just illustrating a point - not actually calling for MS licenses. i mean i love classics (classic lit, classic rock, classic hairdos...) there is definitely something to be said for understanding 'proper' storytelling convention - even if you plan to break free from it, it's good to know what you're dissenting from. but, i think that by asking writers to share any kind of similar training would take away from not only the variety of stories being told, but just as importantly, the WAY that they are being told. and while the three act structure may be a handy tool for storytelling, not all books, or not all novels even see 'storytelling' as their main goal.
so anyway, josephine, i was glad to hear your comments, i just think this is one area where variety and diversity are just as big a part of 'quality' as skill is (not that writing skill isn't hugely important as well).

Taylor said...

I voted more because I'm a big lover of variety. Helps make sure there's something for everyone.

Kylie said...

Wow, yesterday there were two posts when I added my thoughts and now there's 50+. Awesome.

I will still stand strongly behind the "more" books. Who's to say if books are good or bad? Someone mentioned that there are books that most people agree are horrible and shouldn't be published. But if you look at agents and editors these days, most say they won't take ona project unless they love. Someone must have seen something they love in that book, and apparently, enough other people did, too, that its still out there on the shelf for us to buy.

What about the horrible books that are the huge bestsellers? I can definitely think of a few bestsellers that where absolutely horrible. The story line was cliched and predictable, all the characters but one were flat, there was no change taking place. It was worse than a soap opera!
(btw: sex scenes at starbucks: Great point about less bad tv. Now THAT is shit and cliched. It makes the worst book in the world look amazingly original. Omg)

Jennifer L. Griffith said...

Okay, attempt #2. Apparently my other comment fell into the www abyss...hmmmm. Maybe I'll make this one short and to the point.

Good book/Bad book is entirely subjective.

Too many. Not enough. Who can say?

Tia Nevitt said...

It's not a bad thing. It's a simple question of supply and demand. Publishers would not print what cannot sell. If there is a demand for 3000 books a day, publishers will publish 3000 books a day. It seems like a staggering figure, but if this includes every type of book under the sun, then maybe not.

If the demand trends downward, then publishing will respond.

Sisyphus said...

Ever since i learned how to read, i have always been in the midst of reading one book or another. Books have been good friends in my life. I feel sorry for that growing percentage of the population that doesn't read. How many two-hour movies or TV shows can one watch without getting bored?

It's true that there are many bad books in circulation but you will find enough good books (whatever your definition of good might be) to last you a lifetime.

Nona said...

In a competitive market the more books that are out there, the higher the quality will be of those that rise to the top. So the answer is "more."

Very often when I purchase a book I'm disappointed in the quality for some reason.

When I get books from the library, out of the ten that I get, maybe one or two will really knock me out. The rest will be either mediocre or just plain unreadable.

This is why I'd favor some kind of rental scheme (the literary equivalent of Netflix) or the bargain basement download price on an e-reader. Like the proverbial box of chocolates, when it comes to books you never know what you're gonna get.

John Elder Robison said...

I don't think the bad ones do any harm, and some future person may see merit in today's "bad" book.

As an author, though, it's sure intimidating how many books you're up against on those "new releases" tables.

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