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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Are There Too Many Books?

Let me preface this blog entry by saying I’m a huge supporter of freedom of speech, literacy, knowledge sharing, and books and libraries.  I would find it unconscionable to ever suggest we need to limit the number of books published or to have some kind of censor decide what gets published, but it has occurred to me that a flooded marketplace doesn’t  necessarily serve society well.

Take a look at the numbers.  When I entered the publishing industry exactly two decades ago there were some 45,000 new books published that year.  However with the explosion of technology and cheaper printing methods, that number grew to over 412,000 according to Books In Print, in 2008, and one million in 2010.

On the one hand, the consumer/scholar is offered more choices, more voices, and more writers to select from.  But did the quality of the book get lost in the process?  How well written, researched and edited are these books?  What do these books cover that other books do not?  Instead of getting 300 diet books do we now have a better chance of finding a diet that works?  My concern is that the proliferation of titles has yielded repetition of the same books that were already out there, often watered-down versions of what exists.

Like all freedoms or rights, there is an obligation and responsibility that goes with them.  Just because you can write and publish a book doesn’t mean that you should.  Of course the marketplace decides on the viability of a book but by flooding the market with so much mediocrity, reproductions, and uninteresting texts, are we endangering the books that are worthy of a readership?

Even if we wanted to control the number of books being published, which we couldn’t, what I would encourage is that we inject some standards and self-control in the publishing process.  In order for some books to survive and actually do what they are supposed to do – inform, enlighten, inspire or entertain the masses – some books should never see the ink of a printing press. Or the digital glow of an ebook.

Look at other areas of our world where the quality of something endangers the quality and survivability of it.  Start with people.  Without some kind of population control we’ll grow beyond the planet’s means to sustain itself.  Half the world already lives in poverty.  Do we want to encourage the Octomoms of the publishing world to reproduce useless books?

To encourage a healthier book world, here’s what’s needed:

    1. An author should give an honest assessment as to why he or she believes his book should be published.  Is it really filling a need out there, or do you just see it as a lottery ticket to get rich?  Do you believe your book is interesting and useful on the merits of the writing, or are you just driven by an insatiable ego that misguides you?

    1. Have people read your book before it’s published.  See if others think it’s a good idea and well done.  Their feedback can at least shape and improve your book - or save you the effort of pursuing publication.

    1. Walk into a bookstore and compare what else is out there and measure why you believe yours is better than those competing titles.  The question surely will be asked by consumers and the media, so confront it now.  If you think, at best, your book is just as good – but not better- that may not be enough of a reason to go forward.  Make it better, different, unique, special, or don’t do it.

    1. Get an editor.  Too many books are poorly researched or filled with factual errors, misspellings, and poor grammar.  They could be made shorter, more interesting, and just plain better.

    1. Even though I just said a flooded marketplace may kill the better books, I also think books need access to readers in order for their fate to be determined. Just as Amazon sells every book, out there, so should bookstores.  Barnes and Noble Borders superstores should sell at least one copy of every title.  How else can we compare books unless we see what’s out there?  Why should a store’s book buyer decide for a consumer what he or she should read?

    1. We need more book review sources.  Every book should be reviewed.  Amazon lists book summaries supplied by the author/publisher and post consumer reviews but we need a clearing house that tells us what every book is about and have a rating system in place so people can have something to base their book-reading decisions on.  Book review space in Publishers Weekly, New York Times or even at online sites thus far has not been able to do this.  What company can hire enough reviewers to write about the nearly 3,000 books published daily, assuming copies of each book could be obtained?  Probably no one, but maybe a financial model, supplied by all publishers and authors can create this.  If every publisher or author paid $50 or so to get a review, understanding it could be negative, we can have the vast majority of books reviewed.

    1. Books that are commercial or sell well are fine and good but what about books of a true literary quality – short stories, poetry, historical books and those that have real intellectual appeal?  We need more of those and fewer books telling us how to make more money by following the same six steps that 90% of the country has proven it can’t actually follow.  Do we need a subsidy program from the government?  Do we need publishers to commit to taking 5% of their profits and funneling it into books that give value to society, even if they’re not big sellers?

    1. Test-drive your book idea with your blog. See what kind of following you build up or feedback that is generated to your writing style and ideas presented.  If people don’t like the blog, will they spend money on your book?

    1. Do a gut-check on your qualifications. Are you the best person to write the book that you wrote? Do you have the experience, the credentials, or the education to support your book? This doesn’t mean you need a Ph.D to write a book or even be in a specific profession to write about issues confronting it, but certainly, you have to take a look at your background and really draw a connection to what you write about. Otherwise, we have more unqualified people giving guidance, advice or information that may very well be incomplete, misunderstood, or misrepresented by the author. Just as when you’re sick you visit a doctor, when you read about other matters, wouldn’t you want that author to be the perceived expert? If you conclude there is a disconnect between who you are and what you write about, rethink the book or start interviewing those in the know so your book has some credibility.


Not to sound like a split personality on this – but I am conflicted on the matter – I conclude that every book that’s published deserves consideration and to find its readers. It needs access to the market but if each author and publisher can find a way to restrain from publishing more of the same titles or poorly put together books, the publishing industry and society would greatly benefit.

We always hear too much of a good thing is not a good thing.  I love books and know that if they are to survive we need reform in all directions to improve things.  Slowing down the pace of new book releases, provided we’re removing the books that fall short of their competitors, is not a bad thing at all.  And maybe it’ll open the door for books that should be published to see the light of day. 

It’s up to the writer and the reader to determine the next step. Start with yourself.

***Brian Feinblum can be reached at brianfeinblum@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @theprexpert.

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