Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Readers & Publishers, Awash in a Book Flood

By Carole Goldberg
Hartford Courant
Sunday, February 15, 2004; Page D06

Like an assembly line stuck in high gear, the U.S. publishing industry is churning out ever more books each year, an embarrassment of riches for publishers, reviewers and readers alike.

R.R. Bowker, the company that maintains the authoritative Books in Print database, says the most recent figures show that, in 2002, total output of new titles and editions in the United States grew by nearly 6 percent, to 150,000. General adult fiction exceeded 17,000 -- the strongest category. Juvenile titles topped 10,000, the highest total ever recorded. And there were more than 10,300 new publishers, mostly small or self-publishers.

No wonder we're all running out of shelf space.

Depending on whether you're a producer or a consumer, that's either good or frustrating.

"Year after year," says Pat Johnson, executive vice president of publishing for Alfred A. Knopf, "we gasp in horror at the numbers, knowing we have to fight for readers." But, Johnson says, "The industry has an amazing capacity for good books to find their way." Although there is intense competition for publicity, reviews and space in stores, "the cream usually rises to the top," she says.

Alexander Taylor, co-director of Curbstone Press in Willimantic, Conn., has a different perspective.

"You can never publish too many if they're of good quality, but for independent presses, it's getting more and more difficult" to compete, Taylor says. "We've learned that we have to communicate directly with our audience through our Web site and direct e-mails to our readers."

Jenny Minton Quigley of West Hartford, Conn., recently left Knopf, where she was a senior editor.

"Publishing is not a business driven by focus groups or market studies but by word of mouth. Every book is a gamble," Minton Quigley says. "Publishers rely on their editors, and sometimes they hit it right on the nose, and sometimes they miss. So the publisher puts out a big list," though only about 10 percent of books each year "earn out" what was invested in them.

It's all about "the risk-reward ratio," she says. "A small advance can lead to a big success, and to attract 'cash cow' authors, you must have a big assortment, a big list."

Laura Miller, whose take-no-prisoners reviews appear in the New York Times and on Salon.com, says a "throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks" mentality prevails.

"There's an economy of scale in the publishing industry. Editors are being urged to acquire books, even those they are not so enthusiastic about. The pressure comes from above -- one winner will pay for many losses," Miller says.

Minton Quigley says because of the dizzying avalanche of books, "as an individual reader, I've lost the capability to discover a good book for myself. There are just too many, so I rely on the media."

But reviewers feel just as overwhelmed.

Kyle Smith, book editor at People magazine whose own debut novel, "Love Monkey," was published earlier this month by HarperCollins, says, "To be a book review editor is to wade to work in hip boots every day. I get bombarded with books from self-published authors and tiny publishing houses that stand zero chance, considering how many books from the heavyweights I leave hopping up and down on the sidelines begging for a chance to get in the game.

"There are many worthy books that aren't going to make it, even though I do brief reviews, which affords me [the chance] to cram in two or three books per page of the magazine," Smith says.

"Everyone's in this business hoping to see the next 'Nanny Diaries' or 'Da Vinci Code,' but if the book is merely worthy, it's probably not going to make much of an impression."

Miller says she relies on a close community of reviewers, book scouts, editors and others in the business to help her decide what to review.

"I don't know that I could do my job without talking to others," she says.

"Even if I just read the first 50 pages of every reasonably serious fiction [book published each month], I'd have no time to do anything else," says Miller, who writes about 30 reviews a year. She spends about 15 percent of her time just sorting and storing the copies she receives for possible reviews.

And although reviewing can be like being a kid let loose in a candy store, Miller points out that "there are a million jars and packages in that store, and a lot of it is joke candy that tastes really bad."

Rebecca Skloot, a science writer for magazines who frequently reviews books on medical and scientific topics and is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, says managing the flow of review copies is "an organizational nightmare" and "endless joke" to her Manhattan apartment building's doormen.

"Reviewing is a labor of love," Skloot says, "but the sheer volume of books is so great that some get lost in the shuffle." Yet even though she wishes publishers would not send out "blanket mailings" of review copies, "the system does work. I can pass along books to others who may review them," she says.

From a bookseller's point of view, says Suzy Staubach, general manager of the University of Connecticut's Co-op Bookstore, "there can't be too many books," though it is getting harder for an author to break out and readers are relying more on "brand name" authors.

"It would be nice to be able to carry everything and to know what every book is about. But there are too many now," Staubach says.

"What people need is more quiet time to be able to focus and read."

Minton Quigley says that despite the intense competition, good books still sell.

"The wonderful thing is, quality books can find passionate audiences," she says.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

Readers & Publishers, Awash in a Book Flood (washingtonpost.com)

No comments:

Search This Blog