Book Facts

by Don Boudreaux on July 25, 2011

in Books, Competition, Complexity & Emergence, Creative destruction, Innovation

Here’s a letter to the Boston Globe:

James Carroll interprets Borders bankruptcy as evidence that corporations’ involvement over the past 20 years in book retailing has spawned “massive cultural impoverishment” in America (“As stores die, so does book culture,” July 25).  With “sacred” independent booksellers destroyed by the “predatory capitalism” of big-box retailing (and now also by the “screen technologies” of e-books), Mr. Carroll is convinced that illiteracy and ignorance stalk the land.

The only evidence that Mr. Carroll gives for the demise of the book, however, is “the shrinking number of published book reviews” and “today’s shallow political discourse.”  Were Mr. Carroll actually to look at the data (Oh how cold and factual; fit only for a Gradgrind!) he’d find that the number of new titles and editions published in the U.S. has risen spectacularly over the past 20 years.  In 1990, 46,738 new book titles were published in the U.S.  In 2002 the number was 247,777; in 2005 it was 282,500, and in 2009 the total number of new titles and editions published in the U.S. was a whopping 1,335,475 – the last figure reflecting the huge increase in the number of e-books whose publication is made possible by the ‘predatory capitalists’ and the “screen technologies” that Mr. Carroll is so very certain keep Americans from reading.

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux

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{ 60 comments }

GeorgeNYC July 25, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Are you really comparing apples to apples?

The first number appears to come from a US census report and the remaining numbers appear to come from a blurry attachment to a report that you do not include.

Although I suspect that your conclusion is probably correct.

However, I would note that the “ebooks” should probably also be subject to some hedonic adjustment. And I do not mean that simply because of the form. I also mean that there may be some decrease is quality due to the fact that there may be less editing of those books. However, again, in terms of raw discourse the number would still be better. I think that Mr. Carroll’s remarks may simply reflect that hedonic adjustment, albeit in an imprecise manner.

Captain Profit July 26, 2011 at 9:01 am

Regarding your comment on ebooks, the way I see it, the surmise that a decrease in oversight might have a net negative effect gives a bit too much credit to the overseers.

Hasdrubal July 26, 2011 at 9:36 am

Have you ever read Internet fan fiction? We’re not talking about editors sorting out the next Dostoevsky from the next Stephen King, we’re talking about editors making sure the author can at least write a coherent sentence and spell “furry” correctly before unleashing it on the public.

I have a feeling GeorgeNYC is correct in that a lot of stuff that wouldn’t have been considered published 5 or 10 years ago is getting “published” in ebook form today. It’s entirely possible that there isn’t even much more written output, it’s just that the output is now available on Amazon where before you had to search the dark corners of Geocities to find it.

Captain Profit July 26, 2011 at 10:07 am

Personally, I rather like having the option to make my own determination about whether something’s worth reading or not. If you prefer paying a specialist to do it for you, that’s your gig.

Captain Profit July 26, 2011 at 10:09 am

And I totally agree with your suspicion that a lot of stuff is getting published that wouldn’t have seen the light of day a few years ago. I see that as a net positive, though.

Ron H July 26, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Well yes, and you always have that option, but since you can’t possibly read everything yourself, it may be worthwhile to rely on someone else to help you set priorities and make initial selections.

David July 25, 2011 at 3:57 pm

We also have things to read beyond traditional books and newspapers. The amount of content I read on a daily basis through blogs and websites is enormous. In fact, I think I may spend too much time reading for my own good! There’s so much information out there and readily available that it’s hard for me to stop my gluttonous tendencies.

Don (no, not that Don) July 26, 2011 at 10:21 am

Spot on, David. The shear volume of material available in non-book form has become overwhelming in the last 10 years. I spend probably 6-8 hours/day reading various things (from blogs, to news articles, to how-tos, to manuals, you name it) online, without a single dead tree involved. That says nothing of my addiction to Project Gutenberg, which is where I’ve been reloading my e-reader for the last couple of years.

Mark July 25, 2011 at 4:00 pm

I wholly believe that the number of published books has risen over the last 20 years, as the cost of publishing has gone down tremendously. With today’s printing technology, it is now possible to publish short runs of books, while that may have not been possible to do as often twenty years ago. The cost of publishing has gone down even more with the advent of E-Books.

However, more books being published does not meant that more people are reading. There are many more media outlets that are competing for the attention of consumers today then there were in times past. What was once a choice between TV and a book, is now a choice between Tv, books, ipod, video games, internet, ipad, iphone, etc. etc.

Steve_0 July 25, 2011 at 4:50 pm

I disagree with your assertion that more books does not equal more reading. It seems unlikely to me that those evil predatory capitalist publishers and media chains would continue to churn out a large volume of material if it is not being consumed by the public. It also strains credulity to believe that the public would buy an increasing number of books, not consume them, and then continue to purchase an increased number.

I would, however like to see the numbers above adjusted for population at the given times.

mark July 25, 2011 at 11:03 pm

Steve,

The point I am making is that the cost of publishing has gone down significantly and today it is cost effective to produce short runs of books. It is an assertion, but I think it would be safe to say that it was not cost effective to produce short runs of books twenty years ago and beyond.

Because costs have gone down, publishers can produce books for every niche market out there. in the past, I would guess that publishers were more diligent in choosing which manuscripts to publish.

So I stand by my assertion that more books do not equate to more reading; publishers are now publishing books for all tastes, while in the past, it was only profitable to publish books for the most common of tastes.

I do agree with your point that the numbers that Don presented are not adjusted for population growth. However, I do not think people of my generation (born 1980) read more than people of my parents generation because I grew up with many more entertainment choices than my parents, and each of these entertainment choices is vying for my uninterrupted attention.

And who said capitalism was evil?? It was not me.

vidyohs July 26, 2011 at 9:01 am

“So I stand by my assertion that more books do not equate to more reading; publishers are now publishing books for all tastes, while in the past, it was only profitable to publish books for the most common of tastes.”

There is something confusing about that statement. It just does not hang together in a self supporting way.

I agree with your idea that more books does not necessarily indicate more reading, after all book retailers are closing which does carry some weight in and of itself to support that conclusion. Book retailers closing could be simply because of over reach by the retailers, or it could indicate less demand for the real life touchable/holdable book.

However, in today’s world the closing of major book retailer’s storefront outlets may be meaningless in indicating the probability of reading in any way shape of form, the closings may be simply a matter of street level economics where holding a large inventory in actual books requires large expensive space, and that reality is going up against the retailers of e-books where the holding of inventory equal to the library of Congress can be on one simple machine’s storage device.

However, one would think that having more books (real or e-books) available to pander to an individual’s particular taste, niche markets, would indicate the probability of more reading.

Like some one mentioned above, most of do a lot of reading, informative and for pleasure, but we hold no inventory of what we read on our own bookshelves. Just a few short years ago I subscribed to several magazines and the Houston Chronicle, now I subscribe to none and read what I choose from their websites. I wind up reading more but at less cost and no need to use up shelf space or to fill up garbage bags.

I find it likely that James Carroll is one of those people who call themselves progressives and open to change; but who reveals his true nature, which a desire for stagnation, for nothing to change: A trait shared by all of the progrerss………regressives.

mark July 25, 2011 at 11:18 pm

Steve,

I would also wonder if Don’s statistic that 1,335,475 books were published in 2009 includes the republishing of multiple editions of the same book, which is common in the educational text book market? For example, this calculus text book (http://amzn.com/0321571304) has been published 12 times, with the 12th edition being published in 2009.

I do not have any historical evidence, but I would also assume that when my dad was a student in the sixties, the republishing of multiple editions did not occur in the short intervals that it does today.

Economic Freedom July 25, 2011 at 8:59 pm

However, more books being published does not meant that more people are reading.

“However, more food being produced does not mean that more people are eating.”

Love it.

mark July 25, 2011 at 11:32 pm

Economic Freedom,

you cannot equate the production of books as it relates to reading with the production of food as it relates to eating.

If you read my response to steve, I make the point that due to falling costs, are able to publish more books then they were able to in the past. They are also able to publish books for niche markets that were not served in the past. Maybe 50 years ago, someone would have read moby dick, but would have had read a book on C++ programming if that technology had been invented at the time.

I will restate my point in simpler terms:

The publication of more books today versus times past only reflects the capitalism has afforded consumers many more entertainment choices, including literary choices.

Relatively speaking, my parents had the choice of reading Bronte, Twain and Hemingway, or watching TV. My generation has the choice of reading Bronte, Twain, Hemingway, JK Rowling, Nancy Drew, computer programming, books on the latest scientific theories and discoveries, or watching TV, playing with the ipod, ipad, video games, computer games, etc., etc.,

Economic Freedom July 27, 2011 at 12:03 am

you cannot equate the production of books as it relates to reading with the production of food as it relates to eating.

Sure I can. In fact, I just did.

I make the point that due to falling costs, are able to publish more books then they were able to in the past.

So, uh, publishers’ costs have fallen, ergo they are publishing more books, but not to satisfy an expanded market for their product; they are simply publishing more books “because they can,” and these books are simply sitting on shelves, unbought and unread.

That’s a highly original viewpoint, Mark. I was actually naive enough to believe that publishers, like all other producers, sought profits by selling more. Silly me.

They are also able to publish books for niche markets that were not served in the past.

Niche markets? Oh, you mean “the book-reading market has expanded, and is now bigger than it was before.” OK. I get it.

Maybe 50 years ago, someone would have read moby dick

WHAT??? It was a book??? (I thought it was a movie with Orson Welles!)

Just kidding.

I will restate my point in simpler terms:

The publication of more books today versus times past only reflects the capitalism has afforded consumers many more entertainment choices, including literary choices.

Wrong.

I will restate your point in both simpler and correct terms:

The publication of more books, like the manufacture of more shoes, came about because greater investment of capital led to increased productivity and decreased costs of production — not just in book production, but in all production. This has given additional purchasing power to consumers, who can now afford entire libraries of books, not just an individual classic here and there. I have no idea if the same people who bought books years ago are, today, buying more books than they used to. Maybe yes, maybe no. What is true is that, in addition to these people, NEW people, whose preference for books years ago was lower than that for a movie, have entered the market and now consider books an affordable low-brow form of entertainment — along with other things that originally had a higher preference, such as television, movies, concerts, etc.

Relatively speaking, my parents had the choice of reading Bronte, Twain and Hemingway, or watching TV. My generation has the choice of reading Bronte, Twain, Hemingway, JK Rowling, Nancy Drew, computer programming, books on the latest scientific theories and discoveries, or watching TV, playing with the ipod, ipad, video games, computer games, etc., etc.,

In your parents’ day, Group A had the choice of reading Bronte, Twain, and Hemingway. In your day, Groups A, B, C, D, E, F, and G can read those books and others that have become both available and affordable. Because there’s a demand for them, publishers publish them. They don’t publish them just because costs have come down and they can.

Your other notion — that somehow it’s all just one big undifferentiated mass of substitutable goods (books, tv, movies, ipods, video games) known as “entertainment” — is simply nonsense.

Ron H July 27, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Thank you.

Mark July 26, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Economic Freedom,

Your comparison is not valid.

With the exception of grains, honey, and a few other foodstuffs, most foods are perishable.

Books are not perishable.

The charachteristics of the production and consumption of books has little in common with the production and consumption of food.

Economic Freedom July 27, 2011 at 12:08 am

Books are not perishable.

And food doesn’t come in hardcover, softcover, or digital versions. So?

The material and technical differences between books and food have zero to do with the governing economics.

(Example: “Hey, Economic! You can’t compare the economics of wood production with that of iron production! I mean, wood isn’t magnetic! You gotta take that into account!”)

Ron H July 26, 2011 at 4:45 am

However, more books being published does not meant that more people are reading.

What, exactly, do you think is happening to those additional books being published these days if people aren’t reading them?

I don’t believe publishers would continue to publish books if they weren’t selling them, and I don’t think buyers are buying books they don’t read, so just what do you suppose is going on?

Mark July 26, 2011 at 4:19 pm

I think that capitalism has afforded people more choices in what they read and how they entertain themselves. The fact that more books are available does not necessarily mean people are reading more.

I dont think the average person is reading more, simply because there are dozens of entertainment choices available today, while years ago, there were far fewer.

Ron H July 26, 2011 at 10:22 pm

Well then I’ll ask again: If there are more physical books being published, but fewer people are reading them, who is buying them, and what are they doing with them?

Dan J July 28, 2011 at 2:09 am

Second hand book stores seem to be doing fairly well. I haven’t seen a chain of them, but individual stores are available…. And I prefer them. I get Dr. Sowell’s books at them… Or listen via iTunes.

Methinks1776 July 27, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Mark,

I’m really trying to understand what you think is happening to these books if people aren’t reading them.

More books are published. More books are sold. Yet, you’re claiming we’re reading less. But, we’re buying more books. What do you suppose we’re doing with them? Using them as decoration? To prop up furniture? As fire starters?

“In my day” I used to wait for the bookmobile to arrive in my neighbourhood every Thursday so that I could check out a new pile of summer reading and return the books I’ve read. Now, I buy them (so much better than pawing other people’s cooties). Are you arguing that we’re buying instead of renting books now and so we’re reading the same amount but the number of books sold has increased?

If so, that’s a fair point. It is cheaper to publish, so maybe the number of books sold doesn’t have to be as high as it used to be. Perhaps we can’t determine from this data whether people are reading more books.

I will point out, though, that when people “entertain” themselves with ipods, ipads, computers, etc., they’re often reading various websites and listening to rather than reading books on these devices. So, I don’t necessarily buy that people are reading less – it’s just that what they’re reading (and I consider listening to books while you’re commuting “reading”) and how they’re reading has changed.

kyle8 July 25, 2011 at 4:29 pm

I am looking into e-publishing as I cannot get past editors to break in to the traditional books.

Methinks1776 July 25, 2011 at 4:40 pm

I don’t know about the land, but illiteracy and ignorance are obviously stalking Carroll.

Jim July 25, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Mr. Carroll’s argument reminds me of a monk / journalist bemoaning the invention of the printing press, since the riff raff would now be able to write whatever they wish. I think that’s what senior programmers said about the PC as well.

Economic Freedom July 25, 2011 at 9:02 pm

That’s exactly what’s going on. Carroll dislikes the fact that even those he disdains as riff-raff can buy as many books as they like now — except that they are unlikely to buy and read books that he personally regards as “worthy.”

Methinks1776 July 25, 2011 at 9:15 pm

Yes, Das Kapital is quite the slog, though.

Economic Freedom July 25, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Yes, Das Kapital is quite the slog, though.

;)

Well then, the hoi-polloi will just have to wait for the movie adaptation to get their required indoctrination of high culture. Yes, “Das Kapital: The Movie.” Now there’s a box-office hit for you.

Jim July 25, 2011 at 10:12 pm

@Economic Freedom

They’ll never do a movie on Das Kapital; it is obviously written by a socialist utopian. Better to leave Hitler as evil, even though we don’t believe in God anymore.

brotio July 25, 2011 at 11:53 pm

Ooh, I can see it now! Sean Penn as Marx, and Babs Streisand as Engels!

Jim,

I think you’re confusing Das Kapital with that other Socialist Bible, Mein Kampf

Economic Freedom July 27, 2011 at 2:17 am

@Jim:

They’ll never do a movie on Das Kapital

Alas, I could not locate the opening of Preston Sturges’s brilliant film “Sullivan’s Travels” (with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake), but the embedded two clips pick up immediately afterward. Here’s how the film opens:

With stirring, dramatic music as underscore, we see a speeding train amidst a dark, gloomy background. Atop the train are two men — “Capital” and “Labor” — fighting to the death, mano-a-mano. Finally, with each one grabbing the other’s throat, they both fall off the top of the train as it passes over a bridge, drowning in the watery depths below. The words “The End” appear . . . and we see that this was actually a movie being shown to some producers in a Hollywood projection room. The projector is snapped off and the scene continues here with these next two links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=teTQF04jxRc
<p<
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7WmhkO_GWI

Single Acts Of Tyranny July 25, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Damn. Straight.

I published the rather excellent ‘Single Acts of Tyranny’ for not too much and yet have achieved what major publishers thought impossible. Sales.

That or they hated the libertarian thread. Either way, new technology enables.

@ Kyle8 ~ what is the book?

Captain Profit July 26, 2011 at 9:06 am

FYI, I just clicked the “I’d like to read this book on Kindle” link at Amazon.

Shirley July 25, 2011 at 4:44 pm

I actually find myself reading even more now that I have my Kindle. It has given me a chance to revisit old classics (1984, The Possessed) and even to read books I porbably never would have purchased or even traipsed to the library for (The Education of Henry Adams). And when people post excerpts of what they are reading to Facebook…well, let’s just say my “to read” list may never be completed in my lifetime. I think that is a good thing.

I am extremelly gadget-oriented (smartphone, iPad)n and find that if one is able to differentiate among all the options available (blogs, news outlets) between those that are worthwhile and those that are purre drivel (this skill can be developed rather quickly), one has plenty of time to sit done with a charged-up Kindle and really read a book like never before.

Borders didn’t see this coming. Libraries are next.

Methinks1776 July 25, 2011 at 6:03 pm

You know what’s handy? I was reading my kindle in the car on the way from the airport yesterday. The author I was reading recommended another book. Instead of jotting the recommendation down and losing it in the bottomless pit that is my handbag, I just downloaded the recommended book and kept reading what I was reading. The sacred Mom and Pop stores can’t do that.

tdp July 25, 2011 at 8:35 pm

I don’t think I would want to spend that long staring at a screen. I still like the smell and feel and look of a new book and I hope they never disappear entirely.

David July 25, 2011 at 8:42 pm

The Kindle screen is much different from a normal computer screen. It doesn’t have a backlight so it doesn’t cause eystrain. It’s very similar to reading from paper.

Ken July 25, 2011 at 9:41 pm

tdp,

I still prefer a book to the kindle as well. I bought the kindle last December and have read a dozen or so books on it, but after a few months I went back to buying mostly books rather than ebooks. The kindle is really only good for novels or other type books you read in a linear order.

For technical books, a lot of history books or books you don’t read from first page to last, like a collection of essays, it’s just easier to have an actual book to flip through or flip back and forth between pages.

Like Methinks above said, though, it is convenient. I do buy a lot more books, but I’m not sure I read more. It’s also nice to have single thing to carry around, but still have access to a bunch of books. I do wish the kindle was back lit, though, I don’t really like the light on the kindle cover I’ve got. It’s very bright and causes a glare.

Regards,
Ken

Captain Profit July 26, 2011 at 10:45 pm

As we speak, I have a technical manual, specifically a training guide for a professional application, open on my desktop in Kindle for PC, alongside the application itself. I find this much more convenient than having to wrestle with a 1000 page paper book, not to mention the fact that the ebook is fully searchable as are my notes and bookmarks. And just try zooming in on a graphic in a paper book, or doing a copy and paste, or following a hyperlink…

Ken July 26, 2011 at 8:39 pm

They won’t disappear completely, at least not for a long time. I love my Sony Reader touch (because I have it, I read War and Peace, Caesar’s Commentaries on the Wars in Gaul, and Tacitus (working on that now) more quickly than I would have otherwise. However, there are some books I wouldn’t care for as much on the Reader, even if available in the format: my Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships 1906-1921 and 1922-1945 come to mind. A few others, while available in electronic form, would be suboptimal (lots of necessary maps) and don’t seem to be priced for the market, to say the least: Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon, I’m lookin’ at you. I got my hardcover copy for $20 used a few years ago; the eBook edition is three times that. Still others aren’t available at all, at least not yet: Duffy’s The Army of Frederick the Great comes to mind.

Still others are available only in PDF, which is a…not so hot experience on the Sony, at least. Changing the type size causes evil and baffling things to happen to the line breaks. Tried it with a journal article, and shied away from buying in PDF thereafter. I did buy Barnett’s Restoring the Lost Constitution in PDF, but after reading it twice from the university law library I figured I owed the professor a royalty. :)

I will be moving some of my existing “mass market” physical books (Wouk, Tolkien, Heinlein, Hammett, etc.) to eBooks over the next few years, but that’s mainly to save shelf space.

Henri Hein July 25, 2011 at 9:00 pm

“I was reading my kindle in the car on the way from the airport yesterday”

I hope you weren’t driving.

Methinks1776 July 25, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Multitasking is my middle name :)

No.

Ron H July 26, 2011 at 4:50 am

May I assume you weren’t the driver?

Frank33328 July 25, 2011 at 5:08 pm

I am not sure how a Borders can compete on inventory control/availability versus an Amazon (or similar). In any case I think what Mr. Carroll truly laments is the loss of control to what the public CAN read that was once imposed by the few large book outlets.

Jim July 25, 2011 at 7:44 pm

Sounds like that to me too, Frank.

Craig July 25, 2011 at 8:10 pm

““the shrinking number of published book reviews”

That says more about the decline of journalism than it does about a decline in literacy.

nailheadtom July 25, 2011 at 8:41 pm

“The unforgiving dynamic of predatory capitalism had seized the book business by its throat.” Writing this kind of stuff is actually why he can’t seem to get published anymore.

joey July 25, 2011 at 9:45 pm

I am looking into e-publishing as I cannot get past editors to break in to the traditional books.

Observer_Guy1 July 25, 2011 at 10:02 pm

Amazon, and its Kindle, should be praised. They have saved countless CO2 sucking-trees from the lumber yard, and given unknown and obscure authors a more favorable venue for publishing. They have also freed up these large box stores for more profitable enterprises.

jorod July 25, 2011 at 10:22 pm

A lot of debt, no working capital and declining revenues had something to do with it as well.

warren smith July 25, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Mr. Carroll should read Bastiat’s.
“Law”

SheetWise July 26, 2011 at 12:44 am

Either that or watch “You’ve Got Mail” …

Stone Glasgow July 25, 2011 at 11:08 pm

Sometimes after reading drivel like this, I wonder if the author uses his nose, or simply allows his mouth to hang open all day; his lap constantly drenched in an infinite torrent of saliva rolling off his chin and slipping past the corners of his mouth.

And then I wonder if he uses more than two fingers to type, and how he manages to avoid falling down the stairs each morning, or drowning in the shower.

Evan Gould July 28, 2011 at 4:25 pm

Funny!

Richard Stands July 26, 2011 at 2:15 am

As of this comment, a couple dozen people have just self-published electronically on this thread. As to what I find culturally enriching or impoverishing, I’ll keep my own counsel rather than rely on Mr. Carroll’s.

ettubloge July 26, 2011 at 7:12 am

Borders was discovered by the public to be a sweatshop created to force over-priced coffee on the public while denying us the right to preview unpurchased books while sitting on the john.

Jim July 26, 2011 at 2:05 pm

You raise an interesting point. I’ve always marveled at Borders’ value proposition; over-built, over-priced, yet in the most important area, no local book knowledge or book selection and delivery added-value for the customer.

It is close to the opposite of what I would consider a great local bookstore that could compete with electronic delivery systems. I’m surprised they lasted this long.

Ken July 26, 2011 at 8:44 pm

I think that’s one reason why, at least for the present, Barnes and Noble is still standing. Barnes and Noble Press sort of prefigured (very imperfect analogy, to be sure, but view it with a generous eye and I think one might understand) the eBook revolution by taking selected out-of-print titles that had an audience, even a niche audience, and put them back in print in editions of reasonable quality at a reasonable price. B&N still served as a gatekeeper, but seen as an attempt to respond to market signals with available technology, it was not a bad effort at all.

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