From The Telegraph:
In his new book Power of Reading, the sociologist Frank Furedi talks about “the Gutenberg Parenthesis”. This is the idea that the age of the book was, in fact, a 500-year blip; that, thanks to the internet, we’re moving from a written culture back towards an oral one.
It’s the academic version of an argument you often hear. No one buys books. No one reads books – in print, anyway. No one makes books – at least, not the good kind, the kind they used to make before publishing became commercial and commoditised.
But is any of that actually true? I came across the Gutenberg idea because I decided to engage in an experiment: to take the temperature of the book market by looking at every single book published on a particular day. And not just any day, but this coming Thursday, October 8. This is “Super Thursday”, the busiest and most important date in the publishing calendar, when the big firms and big names launch their assault on the Christmas market, accompanied by a three-day promotional blitz under the banner “Books Are My Bag”.
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And if you look at the data, what do you find? For starters, you find the book market in rather better shape than most people expected. The number of books is up – The Bookseller’s Tom Tivnan estimates that there are 20 per cent more top-tier titles than last year. And so are publishers’ profits: after years of fretting about the impact of the internet, sales of print books have risen this year for the first time since 2007. Partly, says Tivnan, this is because of the resurgence of Waterstones, but it’s also because publishers have become savvier about what works online, and what reads best in print.
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A-list celebrities, says Tivnan, “bring in revenue, but they’re a gamble – if you pay high six figures or even low seven figures, you have to sell a lot of books to earn that back”. Over the past couple of years, there were as many misses as hits, including such seemingly safe bets as Stephen Fry and John Cleese.
The celebrity market now is smaller and safer: lower advances, less risk.
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In fact, the picture that emerges from the full list is not one of commercial conformity, but bewildering variety. Of the adult titles published on Super Thursday, roughly 50 are academic, from critical portraits of Kierkegaard to a study of Adolf Hitler’s domestic interiors. Another 50 are educational or vocational. That leaves just over 200 “general” books for adults, of which fewer than a 10th are memoirs of any kind.
Yes, there are 11 books categorised as “humour”, and 10 books about football (Liverpool are top of the table, which isn’t a sentence you often hear, but Tivnan explains that they and Manchester United are the only guaranteed sellers). But taking a random set of titles yields a smorgasbord of topics: “Dogs as pets”, “Human geography”, “Dictionaries; crosswords”, “Poetry anthologies (various poets)”, “Historical maps and atlases”, “Formula One and Grand Prix”.
There is something else that leaps out from the list. These are not, in fact, books for the nation – they are books for its dads and grandads. There’s no chick-lit, for example, and the handful of novels tend to surge with testosterone: Martina Cole on crime, Harris on Rome, Bernard Cornwell on the Vikings, Melvyn Bragg rewriting the Peasants’ Revolt as a saga of blood, sex and pox.
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There’s a parallel here with television. For years, people fretted that online competition and shorter attention spans would see TV become a cultural wasteland. Instead, the big worry now is that we have reached “Peak TV”, with just too much good stuff competing for our attention. The same is true of publishing.
Yes, in the era of “Peak Book”, some worthy titles that hope to make a splash will struggle to muster a ripple.
Link to the rest at The Telegraph and thanks to Meryl for the tip.