According to the running tally over at Worldometers, 23,653 books have been published worldwide thus far, in just the first 7 days of this year. In the U.S. alone total book publications for 2011 are estimated to have reached a staggering 3,092,740, according to Bowker's latest ISBN registration data. And that's just for titles with official ISBNs: a large percentage of self-published titles released via Amazon and Barnes & Noble (among others) are never assigned an ISBN, and thus are not tracked by Bowker or included in these figures. Meanwhile, aggregators such as Smashwords hand out ISBNs like Halloween candy to anyone that wants one: Smashwords alone produced 92,500 titles last year, up from 28,800 in 2010.
*Non-traditional consists largely of reprints, often public domain, and other titles printed on-demand.
But even more telling is the second line from the bottom on the chart, which shows the number of "non-traditional" books produced, a figure that has leaped exponentially from just 32,639 titles released independently ten years ago to a mind-boggling 2,776,260 last year - an 8406% increase! According to Bowker's note, while many of these are public domain and back-list titles being hauled out in new editions (mainly in ebook format to take advantage of the Kindle/iPad boom), a great many are new self-published works being released for the first time via ebook or print-on-demand services such as CreateSpace and Lightning Source. If you compare these numbers with the total figures for each year (or the subtotal on the line above) you'll see that they make up the lion's share of growth within the industry: traditional print accounted for only 316,480 titles released last year (just 47% growth over 2002), compared to 2.7 million non-traditional titles.
Of course, these are unit figures, not sales statistics. While traditional print publishing is in decline (see my last post for stats on that), it still accounts for a large majority of book industry revenues. But that is changing rapidly as well. If each non-traditional title published last years sells on average just five copies each, that's nearly 14 million books sold, which is nothing to scoff at. And that is something Amazon clearly understands: they don't care who wrote them or produced them or who gets the royalty check...it could be one publisher or half a million different ones, it's all the same to them. A million candles burning steadily make a great deal of light, while the scattered illumination of random bonfires burning here and there cast fleeting brilliance that soon fades.
And that's something career authors also understand. The retirement fund won't come for most of us from selling millions of a single title or from small advances that won't ever pay out, but from slow and steady sales on a growing catalog of backlist titles you control and a fan base that will read each new book you put out. Looking at the numbers from this chart would seem to suggest the plight of independent authors is hopeless as their small output is swallowed up by an ever-growing sea of titles readers have to choose from. But in fact, just the opposite is true, because ten years ago the hope most authors had of being read was even less. It's estimated that the odds of getting published via the traditional submission route are less than 1% (the average literary agency receives 150-200 queries a day, follows up on less than 50, reads no more than the first three pages of most, and accepts no more than one per agent per week to represent, of which a good agent can sell 1 in 4, meaning the average agent sells less than twelve manuscripts to publishers each year). That leaves roughly 99.5% of manuscripts to rot away in the slush pile, unread.
But America is now the great slush pile, and the reader is the literary agent who buys or passes on a manuscript. Traditional publishers are no longer the arbiters of literary opinion, as the end user has the final say, literally, via online book reviews and ratings. I had originally intended to title this post "The Growing Value of Book Reviews" ... or, "The Increasing Importance of Reader Opinions" or some such, and talk about how the end consumer has now become the great literary filter of our culture. How at last it is the readers who decide what books are worthy of their time and attention (and their hard earned pay). How every author has just as much opportunity to reach an audience as any other, and will succeed or fail based solely on the merit of their work. But I'll save that for another day, as this post has gone on long enough, and I've got another book (or two) to write.