Monday September 14th, 2009

Books, Books Everywhere

trinity-college-library-dubDaniel Menaker — author, longtime editor at The New Yorker, longtime top gun at Random House, and of course, occasional Second Pass contributor — offers an excellent guide to the frustrations of the book publishing industry. He does some rough math to illustrate the trouble in getting noticed:

[S]ome 150,000 books are published in the United States every year. Let’s [. . .] be really draconian and say that only 10 percent of those books would be in any way appealing to generalist readers of some intelligence. Let’s take 50 percent of that 10 percent, for no reason at all, just to be even meaner, and we end up with 7,500 books. That means that on average one hundred and fifty more or less worthwhile books are published every week in this country. Let’s cut that number in half, just to make the floor of our metaphorical abattoir really bloody. That makes seventy-five decent books a week. (By the way, that number is about twice the rough and generous estimate I’ve made based on actual experience.) How are seventy-five at-least-half-decent books going to receive serious and discriminating reviews in the few important places remaining for serious reviews every week? To say nothing of getting attention from prominent publicity outlets, like NPR and Charlie Rose and Jon Stewart? They’re not. They’re simply not. These statistical circumstances make publishing into a kind of grand cultural roulette, in which your chances of winning any significant pot are very, very small.

Meanwhile, Norman Geras confronts an even bigger number — the number of books in the world — and finds an odd comfort:

Suppose you read four books a week every week for 70 years. Allowing for a day here and there where you’re unable to read, we can call that 200 books a year, and 14,000 books over the whole three score years and ten. It’s a lot of books. But relative to all the books there are, it’s a tiny, tiny fraction. According to the guy who manages the Google Books metadata team, at the latest count the books in the world now total 168,178,719. Your 14,000 books are just 0.008324477724 per cent of that. You can think of it as follows. Suppose all the books in the world made up a single calendar year, and you were reading through the pages of that year, cover to cover. Then, 14,000 books - and that’s going some - would only get you through the first 44 minutes of the year. There’d still be 364 days, 23 hours and 16 minutes that you hadn’t read. And if you get through fewer than 14,000 books in your lifetime, it will look even worse. Comforting in a way.