Less is less

In the two popular Avengers films, "Infinity War" and "Endgame", the super-villain Thanos plots to erase half of all life in order to make space for those left behind to flourish. Are there parallels with the publishing business? For sure. If the Titan-born uber-baddie of the Marvel Universe had stumbled into the book business might he, with a click of his fingers, have attempted to solve publishing’s great problem too, that of over-production?

Perhaps. UK publishers output close to 190,000 new titles and new editions each year, adding to an ever-growing backlist of books that now—with print-on-demand increasingly effective—need never disappear. E-books, self-publishing and audio add to the glut, as do the infinite bookshelves of online retailers. Where once we used to track this, the size of the problem has become unquantifiable. We neither know how many digital books without ISBNs are published, nor how many they are selling. We may be drowning, and not even know it.

The runes are not positive, however. To look at a snapshot: according to Nielsen, 300 fiction titles published in 2019 have hit the Top 5,000 list so far this year, the lowest seller having shifted 250 copies. The average sale for each book across the list is 2,800, but a book within the first 50 will sell 10 times as many as the rest. Adding a bit of history tells more: this week, to get into the Top 50 you’d have had to sell 2,863 books, 1,000 copies fewer than in 2009. This week’s number one would have been 2009’s 15th. In short, the air is thin, and thins further as you descend from view.

Back in 2009, The Bookseller was warning that the trade faced a "slow-burning crisis", with too many books for too few readers. A decade on, you would not know it. If there ever was a sense that publishers were throttling back, it is not evident at the corporate level—where new imprints such as HQ, Trapeze, Two Hoots, Dialogue, Wildfire (among others) speak to an expansion of activity, not a retraction—or among indies, as this week’s thriving Independent Publishers Guild Spring Conference indicates. IPG chief executive Bridget Shine says its conference numbers have doubled in the past five years, and that the market is far from saturation point. She may be right.

Publishers, made plump by digital, are investing, while new formats and channels are creating opportunities for all, including indies such as Bluemoose Books—whose founder Kevin Duffy we interview this week—and Knights Of and OWN IT!, whose Aimée Felone and Crystal Mahey-Morgan make up one-third of the incredibly strong Kim Scott Walwyn Prize.

In "Endgame" we find a world withering as it fails to adjust to losing half its population. The message, and perhaps it applies to us too, is that less is just less. But to make more we need to do more.

A diverse and inclusive sector needs to make space for more books, more publishing and, importantly, more readers— besides the 50 million people outside of London, Duffy mentions, there are whole communities and a new generation with stories to tell and share. Assemble.