The Golden Age of Literature?

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With over 1 000 000 new books published this year worldwide (by May 27 according to http://www.worldometers.info/books/) and about ⅓ them in English we live in a golden age of literature. Even taking into account that many of ISBNs refer to the same titles (each version of the book, eg,: print, EPUB, .mobi, .pdf, etc. gets its own ISBN) it is safe to say that an English-speaking reader has at least 120 000 new titles at his/hers disposal. Consider this number for a while. Let’s assume that an avid reader is able to read 3000 books in his/hers life (one book per week for 60 years). That means English-speaking readers got 40 lifetimes of reading material within last five months alone.

Moreover, regardless of an unprecedented surge in the number of new titles published, overall book sales are shrinking. At this moment, an average book is sold in only 250 copies with less than 5% of the titles exceeding 5000 units sold. Publishers adapt by offering more titles in smaller editions and authors adapt by writing short, action-packed novels.

Another factor is fierce competition from self-publishers. While within the last 15 years the number of new books/ebooks published increased tenfold, the number of publishers with more than 200 new ISBNs (International Standard Book Number) rose by a mere 50%. This means most of the new titles available on the market are self-published. Tools provided by online ebook distributors like Amazon and Smashwords allow costless publishing for everyone giving “power to the people”.

For self-publishers with a rudimentary knowledge of a supply/demand economics model, a natural instinct is to offer their books for free in the hope of building an audience for their future titles. As a result about 15% of all titles are available at no cost whatsoever (based on Smashwords.com data for ebooks only). Keep in mind that it equals to about 360 years of reading for a very dedicated reader.

The inevitable result of both factors is a slump in the average quality of a published book. This leads to a paradox: with all the titles to choose from, people turn to well-known writers for quality, which creates a strong polarization of the authors’ earnings spectrum with a handful of lucky multimillionaires and a legion of skillful but severely underpaid pretenders.

So is it really a golden age of literature or merely a false impression of one? There actually is a third option. The democratization of storytelling, no matter how confusing for casual readers, paves the way to a true revolution in literature. When the market settles, the easy access to publishing combined with a set of trustworthy rankings to point to valuable content will result in a variety of better choices for a reader.

The good news is, the market is maturing right before our eyes and is now ready for the quality shift to follow the first few years of rapid growth turmoil. With storytellers’ desires to publish saturated, it is time to regain the trust of readers and even the inequalities. The most important responsibility is with writers themselves to provide extraordinary content, but it is up to all of us to promote well-published books among our peers and punish the disappointing ones with bad publicity.

Publishing is just the first step in a cultural revolution, ebook files being the smallest and easiest to make, but the same patterns will emerge in music, films, and gaming. Even now there are numerous albums distributed solely online, Youtube and Netflix are becoming more popular than television and indie games take over Steam and PSN. Those markets are a few years behind publishing but will revolutionize the culture we know today. All we need is quality.

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One thought on “The Golden Age of Literature?

    […] countless free stories available, many more than can be ever read (more details on this phenomenon here). Hence, you need to find people who might be interested in your work and shout out to them. Use […]

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