'The Tsunami-of-Content Monster': #FutureChat recap

'The Tsunami-of-Content Monster': #FutureChat recap

"Ninety percent want to publish a book? That sounds great to me!"

Of course, that would sound great to Miral Sattar, wouldn't it?

Sattar runs Bibliocrunch, which connects writers and "author services." I ran into Sattar as she was putting together her booth at the post-BookExpo America (BEA) Javits Center in New York on Saturday morning (30th May) before the opening of BookCon.


The image here was taken on Saturday morning as BookCon fans crowded excitedly onto the Javits floor. I saw a somewhat older crowd at BookCon this year, overall. Some parents, yes, but also some free-range adults who simply had come for the chance to get closer to authors and books -- the basis for the "end-to-end" fandom that ReedPOP's Lance Fensterman tells us about. It's not quite as teenish as a ComicCon, in my experience. Loads of great young people, yes, but a good mix.

In a small draped area at the rear of the floor, our friend Sattar and other companies like Bibliocrunch would be hoping to attract not the reader/fans who are the core target of BookCon but would-be authors in the crowd. Per our #FutureChat Friday, that could be about 9,000 of the 10,000 BookCon-ers on Saturday alone. As we explained in our walkup on Friday, gaming specialist and author Jane McGonigal told us in her keynote address at the International Digital Publishing Forum's (IDPF) Digital Book 2015 Conference (#DigiBook15) that 90 percent of young people surveyed say they want to write a book.

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Another of our conference speakers, Jane Friedman, has reminded us that other stats suggest that some 80 percent of adults want to write a book. Friedman gives us this in her well-turned and timely write-up, The Age-Old Cynicism Surrounding the Dream of Book Writing. Needless to say, not everyone shares Sattar's Bibliocrunchy enthusiasm for the idea of 90 percent or even 80 percent producing a book.

Why? Well, there's a strong hint on BBC Radio 4, where Samira Ahmed leads into a Front Row segment from the Hay Festival with this charming nugget:

We did some looking into the numbers, and we think that more books were produced in 2012 than in the whole of the 18th, 19th, and first half of the 20th centuries, combined, in the country.

By "in the country," Ahmed is referring to the UK. She cites 170,000 books published in 2012, 34 percent of which, she tells us, were ebooks.  In the States, of course, it's believed — we cannot know for sure because so many ebooks are published without ISBNs — that a year's numbers could top 1 million books/ebooks.

In the conversation on Front Row — from left, Ahmed, Philip Jones, Ali Sparkes, Alexandra Pringle, and Crystal Mahey-Morgan — my colleague Jones at The Bookseller makes the "too many books" point with careful attention that we're talking books, not writing. More writing, he affirms, is "a cause for celebration": 

I think the simple answer to the question is yes, we do publish too many books. I think the issue, however, is not about the number of books being published or the number of books being written — which I think is a cause for celebration, actually, rather than worry. The concern is that the number of people reading isn't growing. Because obviously there are now lots of new things that people do with their free time. So [it's] fantastic that more books are being written, in a way, but a worry that the market isn't growing.

The author Ali Sparkes is quite funny in concurring that she fears being lost in the crowded marketplace and feels the weight of the competition:

Every time I go into a bookstore, and I see any of mine on the shelves, I'm thrilled and delighted because there is so much out there that I've got to get past. And on one side of me is Lemony Snicket. The other side of me is Justin Somper. Periodically, I used to just shove Lemony Snicket to one end to turn mine face-out, as you have to. I used to do that to Justin Somper and then I met him and he's too nice. So I can't do that to Justin anymore. But yeah, there's just a vast amount out there, it's dizzying.

Crystal Mahey-Morgan of Zed Books agrees, as well that too many books are being published.

Because of that, we're not giving books the justice they deserve, often, there's just not the resources. But it is a money question. If we cut down on the books we publish, we're going to have to make more money out of less books. And my fear is that publishers will take less risks in terms of new authors, new voices, and debut authors. And overall that would be bad for publishers and bad for authors and readerships.

Alexandra Pringle of Bloomsbury speaks for so many in publishing today who look at the wall of content in front of them and wonder how to scale it. And for those who are watching for parallels between the US and UK markets, Pringle offers a bit of insight and actually brings home the seriousness of the question of "too many books" in the trade:

Every time I walk into a bookshop, I want to lie down and die. I look at all these books, and I think, "What's going to happen to my babies?" because that's obviously what I care about most. One of the problems that we have in the UK is that we're a tiny market. If you think of the size of America and the size of the UK, we're having to make print runs work that are really small. A first novel, you might sell in hardback between 800 and 1,200 copies. Then you start looking at the paperback edition, maybe 4,000 or 5,000. That's absolutely minute. And when you think of the cost of publishing a book and the many hundreds of people who are involved, that's not a business model that's going to make any sense.

The whole conversation is well worth hearing, as our #FutureChat was well worth following on Friday.

Not everyone buys the idea that there are "too many books." The author James Scott Bell (pictured), for example, gives us our headline today in a tweet in which he says, "Stories of the Tsunami-of-Content Monster eating writers are told around campfires, not data centers." He also gave us, "Tsunami-of-Content Monster is a chimera. It's the Bigfoot of publishing." But, of course, Bell is a teacher of writing to many authors fortunate to study with him, and he's a writer of how-to books for authors: he has an distinct and vested interest, as Sattar laughs that she does, in seeing as many people as possible turn up wanting to write books. The "author services" field is anything but unbiased in their regard of a bursting market; the digital-era obsession with being published is happy news for them.

As the quartet of thoughtful, experienced professionals on BBC 4's Front Row goes on to discuss, there are challenges gathering around the mere mass of the output we see today. Pringle speaks very well to what's happening in book pricing — "Everybody thinks they should pay virtually nothing for a book that an author has spent many years writing." There, however, is naturally the bias of a publisher; in Pringle's offices, lower prices may not be good news.

Clearly, it's important these days to take into account who you're hearing from when the arguments begin rolling back and forth. If we can't agree that there are too many books, most of us can concur that there are an awful lot of them, and that few industries have had to sustain so fast and explosive a growth phase in output as publishing has witnessed in the digital dynamic.

The Authors Guild in New York has preliminary survey data indicating that US authors may be making no more than a median $8,000 per year from writing. The Guild's newly announced "Fair Contract Initiative," covered by my Bookseller colleague Sarah Shaffi (pictured), sees "authors who have been writing between 25 and 40 years" suffering a drop income in the last five years "from a median of $28,750 to just $9,500."

Overall, the Guild is warning that it sees a 24-percent downturn in author income in those five years. And while the organisation is approaching this, of course, as being part of a problem of outdated contractual issues, we cannot overlook the impact that such vast quantities of content are having on the market and on the prospects for authors, publishers, and everyone associated with the industry. These drops are occurring even as publishers have tended to increase their own profits, especially in ebook revenue. As Jones puts it, there seems to be a lag in publishers passing on such gains to authors.

So several concerns relate to the question of "too many books" and to how we're to think about large portions of the population eager to pump more content onto the market. Realistically, it's impossible to think about the issue of youngsters wanting to write ("sounds great!," as Sattar says) with authors staggered by an overloaded industry ("our royalties are dropping and dropping and dropping," as Sparkes says).

Here, then, are selected tweets from our #FutureChat, with our thanks to all who joined in.

We'll start with several tweets that Jane McGonigal asked me to retweet for her into the #FutureChat stream, based on the response to her comments at Digital Book 2015, and then add an apt one from Jane Friedman that basically calls into question how we can do anything but welcome the interest of that "90 percent" of young people who might want to write.

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