Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Obscurity Problem

I just started my subscription to Shelf-Awareness, a very nice daily newsletter put out Jenn Risko, and PW veteran, John Mutter. One of the sections in Wednesday's edition was a listing of new titles that were coming out this week. This section, on the surface, seemed innocuous enough, but as I thought about it, I became more and more disturbed.

At first I noticed that none of my customer's books were there. Then I noticed that almost all of the 20 or so books listed were from the big houses - predominantly, Random House, Harper, and S&S. It made me wonder, did they pay for those listings?

So, I dug a little further, and checked our database to see what was publishing next week. I came up with a listing of over 900 titles! Well, that made me think, 'no wonder the list was so short, there is no way they could show all the titles out there'. As we have roughly 15% of the total active titles in the market in our database, if we have 900 publishing, then there must be on the order of 6,000 titles - throughout the industry - publishing this week!

In my role as the leader of Quality Solutions, I attend many different conferences. In many of them over the past couple of years, we have been hearing many people say that too many books are being published. We hear annual statistics so often that - and maybe this is just me - their impact is minor. But, when I found 900+ titles in our database publishing this week, I was truly amazed at the scale of that number.

How can so many titles be flooded into the market and hope to sell? This reminds me of when I was a little kid, learning about what happens when a dandelion sends out it's seeds. Some fall to the ground and get trampled, some get eaten by birds, and some actually find a conducive spot and grow. Is that what we - as an industry - are trying to do with our books? Throw out a flood of titles and let natural selection take over?

I know that every individual publisher we work with would disavow that assertion, but it is hard when you aggregate the numbers to ignore the issue. At the Google conference in NYC a few weeks ago, several of the speakers put a different spin on the issue. Their thesis was that it is not that too many books are being published, but that the volume is causing a problem of 'obscurity'. Each individual title is obscured because what might have been in the past, "15 minutes of fame" is now generally less than 15 seconds.

And, we are a people of many interests and many tastes. So there are markets for these titles, it is just that finding that 'fertile soil' is a rather large challenge - and maybe they are smaller markets than publishers would like.

I think that it is interesting how 'mass market paperback' retailers address this. They have limited shelf space, and every week or so they completely restock the shelves keeping only the hottest books and authors. Talk about natural selection!

In upcoming posts, I'll be visiting this topic repeatedly. If you have any comments, please email me ftoolan at qsolution dot com.

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