A common refrain in this new age of self-publishing is that there are too many books. The outflow of new material has been likened to all sorts of natural disasters spewing forth and flooding the land. Not only are there too many books, these books are way too cheap! Many of them are even — egads — free. From down here in Florida, one can hear the chant of Glut! Glut! Glut! emanating from the glass canyons of New York City.
Everyone must be referring to Project Gutenberg, right? If you head over to www.gutenberg.org, you’ll find 46,000 free ebooks, ready to download in multiple formats, or readable in your browsers. Check out their top 100 downloads; it includes many of the greatest works of fiction ever written. Half of this list could keep most readers busy for the rest of the year, and no one could hope to read all 46,000 titles in their lifetime. These are free books, arguably many of the best, so no more books need to be written or read, right?
If you followed the logic of the most paranoid and hysterical among the Glut-Chanters, you’d have to reach this conclusion. Bookselling is dead. There are enough fantastic and free books to last us all for the rest of our lives. And yet, book-buying continues to be a $30 billion dollar industry. What gives?
How can people spend $30 billion dollars on books when there are libraries full of books that just sit there, un-checked-out and without waiting lists? How can people spend $30 billion dollars a year on books when I’ve seen piles of free physical books on the streets of New York, abandoned and left for passersby after someone moved out of their apartment? Why are people spending this much money when library overstock sales get rid of hardbacks for a buck and paperbacks cost 50 cents? Literature is being devalued everywhere, and yet it still brings in $30 billion a year? What gives?
What gives is that books aren’t perfectly interchangeable. Or another way to say this is that all books don’t appeal equally to all people. The industry could release ten trillion free ebooks tomorrow, all told from the perspective of ninja zombie llamas, and those ten trillion extra free ebooks would impact book shopping not a whit. Zilch. Nada.
Okay, you’d probably lose two or three sales. But that’s it. Those ebooks would disappear into the ether just like billions of un-surfed websites do. Do all those websites clog up the internet? Make it impossible to browse around and find what you’re looking for? No — they make it more likely that you’ll find what you’re looking for. Because there’s a greater chance that someone has self-published onto the World Wide Web just the information you’re seeking.
Forget the number of books being published every year. Raw numbers of books are meaningless, as are the price of those books. What matters is whether each individual reader can find enough quality reads to make him or her happy at prices they are willing to pay. Which is why Project Gutenberg hasn’t destroyed the publishing industry. There are enough people who want physical books, enough who want new books, enough who want non-fiction, and enough who don’t care about the classics, to keep this $30 billion industry humming right along.
So why all the consternation? Well, seeing things in the most negative light imaginable is just how a lot of humans are wired. But I suspect it’s deeper than that. We are also biologically geared to worry over scarce resources and to use up any commons that we fear others might use before we get a chance. This puling over the glut of books is ape-brain-shit gone wild.
You mostly hear about this glut nonsense from book producers, and they aren’t worried about an infinite number of books, they are worried about the finite number of wallets. They see every one of those ten trillion llama books as taking money out of their pockets, because they think every reader would enjoy their work if there was nothing else to read. They think if they could just limit the number of books, they’d sell more. They’d be richer. So is there any way to shut down the spigot? Any way of shaming people who write too fast, price too cheap, give ebooks away, serialize, participate in subscription services, etc? That’s the goal. To have more wallets spread among fewer people.
The tools you see employed to reach that goal are shame and fear-mongering. Ignore it. It’s all insane. These people miss the point, which is that the glut is good. The glut is golden. There’s never been a better time in history for literature.
Go work in a bookstore for a few years, and you’ll see what I mean. Even with tens of thousands of books in stock, you’ll encounter customer after customer who will walk in, browse for a while, and feel like they’ve already read everything that appeals to them. “When’s the next book from so-and-so coming out?” they’ll ask. “Why doesn’t anyone write such-and-such type of books anymore?”
Every reader’s taste is a microscopic subset of all the books available. I can never find enough good books about technology’s impact on civilization, or enough good books on the psychology of game theory, or enough good books on evolutionary psychology. I wait. I kill time. I read other stuff in the interim. I re-read old books for a second or third time. I play a video game or watch a movie. The lack of the right good books at the right time leads me to do stuff other than reading.
Even the current glut isn’t enough.
That’s just one reason not to fear the glut. The other is that people like to part with their money. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true. We don’t just like acquiring things, most of us enjoy the feeling of sacrificing some of our resources for other resources. Things we pay for we often enjoy more than things that are given to us. We treat the things we own differently than we treat the things we rent. We go shopping because it feels good.
Yes, there are also people who steal because that feels good. There are people who download terabytes of music, movies, games, and books because of that same ape-brain impulse to acquire public resources before anyone else does. But those people are not the market. Those people don’t even consume a fraction of what they steal. They are hoarders, and focusing on them and on piracy is as crazy as focusing on Project Gutenberg. You’ve still got a $30 billion dollar industry. Those dollars represent people making the choice to pay for literature. That’s never going to change.
And the glut will never go away. For every high-cost producer out there getting squeezed by falling prices (which includes indies who have run up their living costs and/or operations costs), there are legions of people who have day jobs and enjoy writing in their spare time. There will always be avid readers out there who dream of writing their own stories. They don’t have New York skyscrapers to rent out. They don’t have assistants to pay. They didn’t quit their day jobs last year hoping their breakout sales will continue indefinitely. These are just the next generation of those who possess an active imagination, a dream, and the persistence to finish what they start.
Soon, these new writers will add their stories to that great gorgeous geysering glut. And the readers who have been waiting on another book with werewolves and tentacles and llamas will snatch those stories up. And these new producers—excited just to be a part of the literary tradition—will price however they see fit, do whatever it takes to win over a reader, and that’s flipping awesome. It should be celebrated. If the reader is happy and engaged, and the author is finding an audience, it’s a win.
Of course, the people who had their day in the sun will go crazy. Those just on the cusp of making a real living and desperate for it to come true and looking for anything to blame other than the fickle nature of the markets will rail and beat their chests. The cultural snobs who only want the books they like to exist will self-publish screeds on websites about the evils of self-publishing. The CEOs losing market share will claim they only care about the future of Literature.
These parties will appeal to aesthetics and decry the quality of the glut. They’ll appeal to their elitism and decry the affordability of the glut. They’ll appeal to vanity and decry how some are choosing to add to the glut. They’ll appeal to ego and decry the genres of the glut. They’ll decry the hard work that allows some to write and publish swiftly and cry Glut! Glut! Glut!
And no one should pay them any damn attention. Screw that noise. Bring on the books. The more the merrier and the cheaper the better.
Awesome. After posting this, I get an email from John Joseph Adams letting me know that our post apocalyptic anthology THE END IS NOW has been reduced to 99 cents for a very limited time. An all-star lineup of authors, with each of their stories worth the full admission price, to be had for less than a buck today. How apropos. Grab a copy here. Let’s
devalue devour some literature.