Thursday, May 19, 2011

Knowns, Known Unknowns & Unknown Unknowns

Yesterday's news was Bowker's Books in Print report with preliminary estimates of the number of titles published in 2010. "Traditional" print is up by 5% and "non-traditional" is up 169%. The growth in the traditional sector is lead by Science & Technology. Fiction, the largest category, is down by 3%. Children's, the second largest category, is also down. The leaders in the non-traditional sectors, "books marketed almost exclusively on the web, are largely on-demand titles produced by reprint houses specializing in public domain works and by presses catering to self-publishers and 'micro-niche' publications." (from the Bowker announcement). These are the knowns.

Publishers Lunch points out that books that don't use ISBN's are not included in the report—many self-publishers don't use ISBNs—and, to my mind more significant, Bowker doesn't include any ebooks in the count. Those are the very big known unknowns.

These known's have already generated a lot of enthusiastic commentary, much of it interpreting the numbers as positive for publishing and indicative of a thriving culture of reading. I think that interpretation may be optimistic. On-demand printing has made it possible to bring an enormous number of public domain titles back into print and a mountain of self-published titles into print. But publishers know all too well that having titles in print doesn't mean anybody is buying them, but only that someone is manufacturing them, and we've all published books that lots of people bought and few people read, which really isn't something to celebrate.

Looking beyond the numbers, we know that something approaching the universal availability of books, either in print or digital formats, is rapidly becoming a possibility. Once the Google Book Settlement is settled, that will be even more evident. We don't know how people will respond to this deluge of content, and, closer to home, what impact it will have on the publishing industry.

As for the unknown unknowns, that's tomorrow's news.

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