Books: A volume industry

Yearly output of 150,000 titles is overwhelming


December 14, 2003|By Carole Goldberg | Carole Goldberg,THE HARTFORD COURANT

Like an assembly line stuck in high gear, the U.S. publishing industry is churning out ever more books each year, an embarrassment of riches for publishers, reviewers and readers alike.

R.R. Bowker, the company that maintains the authoritative Books in Print database, says the most recent figures show that in 2002, total output of new titles and editions in the United States grew nearly 6 percent, to 150,000. General adult fiction exceeded 17,000 titles - the single strongest category. Juvenile titles topped 10,000, the highest total ever recorded. And there were more than 10,300 new publishers, mostly small or self-publishers.

No wonder we're all running out of shelf space. Depending on whether you're a producer or a consumer, that's either good or frustrating.

"Year after year," says Pat Johnson, executive vice president of publishing for Alfred A. Knopf, "we gasp in horror at the numbers, knowing we have to fight for readers." But, Johnson says, "the industry has an amazing capacity for good books to find their way."

Alexander Taylor, co-director of the small Curbstone Press, has a different perspective.

"You can never publish too many if they're of good quality, but for independent presses, it's getting more and more difficult" to compete, Taylor says. "We've learned that we have to communicate directly with our audience through our Web site and direct e-mails to our readers."

Biblical plaint

The book glut, not surprisingly, has even spawned its own books.

In September, Mexican essayist and cultural critic Gabriel Zaid published So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance (Paul Dry, $9.95). His short and thoughtful book points out, among many other things, that complaints about overproduction have been going on since Ecclesiastes 12:12, which reads in part: "... of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh."

Sara Nelson followed in October with So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading (Putnam Adult, $22.95), which details her grand but soon derailed plan to read 52 books in 52 weeks.

In November, Thank You for Not Reading: Essays on Literary Trivia by Dubravka Ugresic (Dalkey Archive Press, $13.95) offered acerbic essays on the state of the book business.

"There are way too many books," says Katy Kieffer, a vice president and senior publicist at Morse Partners in New York. The firm takes on books to publicize based on merit, she says. "We are choosy - we look at a lot but reject more than a third right away."

"Publishing is not a business driven by focus groups or market studies but by word of mouth. Every book is a gamble," says Jenny Minton Quigley, who recently left Knopf, where she was a senior editor.

It's all about "the risk-reward ratio," she says. "A small advance can lead to a big success, and to attract `cash cow' authors, you must have a big assortment, a big list."

Laura Miller, whose take-no-prisoners reviews appear in The New York Times and on the Web site, says a "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" mentality prevails. "Editors are being urged to acquire books, even those they are not so enthusiastic about. The pressure comes from above - one winner will pay for many losses."

Minton Quigley says that, because of the avalanche of books, "as an individual reader, I've lost the capability to discover a good book for myself. There are just too many, so I rely on the media."

Reviewers swamped

But reviewers feel just as overwhelmed.

Kyle Smith, book editor at People magazine, says: "To be a book review editor is to wade to work in hip boots every day. I get bombarded with books from self-published authors and tiny publishing houses that stand zero chance, considering how many books from the heavyweights I leave hopping up and down on the sidelines begging for a chance to get in the game."

Rebecca Skloot, a science writer for magazines who frequently reviews books on medical and scientific topics and is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, says managing the flow of review copies is "an organizational nightmare" and "endless joke" to her Manhattan apartment building's doormen.

"Reviewing is a labor of love," says Skloot, "but the sheer volume of books is so great that some get lost in the shuffle." Yet even though she wishes publishers would not send out "blanket mailings" of review copies, "the system does work."

From a bookseller's point of view, says Suzy Staubach, general manager of the University of Connecticut's Co-op Bookstore, "there can't be too many books," though it is getting harder for an author to break out and readers are relying more on "brand name" authors.

"It would be nice to be able to carry everything and to know what every book is about. But there are too many now," Staubach says. "What people need is more quiet time to be able to focus and read."

For help in choosing which books to read from the vast number available, turn to your local library, says Louise Blalock, chief librarian of the Hartford Public Library.

Librarians are gifted at selecting books and can help readers make good choices.

Minton Quigley says that despite the intense competition, good books still sell.

"The wonderful thing is, quality books can find passionate audiences," she says.

Carole Goldberg is books editor of The Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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