Output remixed

One of the oft-repeated criticisms of publishing is based around the notion that publishers publish too many books. How can a publisher, or bookseller, give each book the attention it merits when so many are released over the same time period? One feels that as far as publishing is concerned, there is not a problem that cannot be solved by the publication of a new book. As Hamlet did not quite say, the book’s the thing . . .

The Bookseller’s own Preview pages are straining at the seams. This week’s New Titles: Non-Fiction lists 140 individual tomes, creeping across 10 pages. Last year, the number was 120 over seven pages. Next week, we will run five pages of Children’s Previews, the most we have ever featured. Children’s books previewer Fiona Noble describes it as a “freakily big” month, but one dominated by débuts and new talent, as well as by new publishers moving into this growing sector. In a few weeks, these regular pages will be joined by our Independent Author Previews, books entirely new to this process.

Publishers have long acknowledged this, of course. I remember the bigger houses talking about over-production in the late 1990s, when annual book output was edging ever closer to 100,000. In a 2005 column, our former European correspondent Herbert Lottman called for a publishing hiatus—just so the statisticians could keep up. Last year at the FutureBook Conference, Canongate m.d. and publisher Jamie Byng lobbied for a reduction in new titles. “I’d like to recommend that we have fewer but better orgasms,” he memorably said.

Perhaps, then, it is time to admit: this battle is lost. The abstinence advocated by Byng (and others) is too much for a sector so addicted to book-making. Similarly, reduced production costs, the democratisation of publishing as envisioned by Kindle Direct Publishing, Nook Press, Blurb and others, all militate against a slow down—as does the web. In fact, writing is breaking out all over. Just this week, children’s laureate Malorie Blackman launched Project Remix, a fan-fiction initiative to find the best teen writers and creatives, which calls for spin-offs from published works.

Readers do not seem to be negatively impacted—at least, not as much as they would be if the situation were to be reversed. But as our lead story shows, buying patterns are shifting, with digital and smart curation in bookshops helping “dissolve” concepts such as frontlist and backlist. For publishers, the challenge has become one of differentiation and working the channels so revenues are maintained.

Ironically, a world in which everything is available, and anyone can publish, is one that reinforces the value of the professional. That problem is an opportunity.