Saturday, October 29, 2011

New Titles Over Time

I came across a tabulation not quite by chance today. It was in a book titled The Book Publishing Industry by Albert N. Greco, published in 2003 by Psychology press. The data came from R.R. Bowker, the gatekeeper on books. I was looking at total new title output from 1880 through 1989 by decades. The listing is visible here and excludes backlist books, thus reprints of older titles. I thought I’d chart these data against population growth. Here is the result:

What struck me here is the meandering pattern from 1880 through about 1959—and then the sudden upward explosion in titles. As always when the subject is books, we have multiple measures, of which “title” is one, “number of copies sold” is another—and “content” is the most mysterious third. If we look back to the very beginnings of book publishing using machines, the “content” was Bibles. Back in the hand-made book ages, the most common content was “prayer book.” Now looking at this image, we’ve no precise idea of the content heading for the skies there.

Once I had these data, I could also do a kind of approximation of new titles per capita, which I show next—albeit the measure I’m using is new titles per 1 million population:

The first bar pretty much encompasses the period known as The Gilded Age. A surge in reading was evidently not a feature of it. The early peak corresponds to World War I—but if war causes reading, what happened in 1940-1949? What this chart tells me, however, is that the first eight decades in this period may be more representative of “normalcy” and the last three signal some sort of “anomaly.” All population data in the two graphics are population at the midpoint of each decade.

Tantalizing. But today is a busy day, so enough.

1 comment:

  1. I would guess that what we're really seeing there is a lagging measure of the fixed cost-per-title for a book: editing, typesetting, etc. Editorial and production costs always struck me as the real gatekeeper on the decision whether to publish a book. So perhaps the rising numbers in the 60s through 80s is a result of big impact that improved and digital production processes -- computerized typesetting, etc. -- had on the publishing production process. The commercial threshold for printing a book was lowered, and so it made increasing sense to publish books that would by design have smaller markets and print runs. My corollary guess would be that the growth in titles per million has skyrocketed in the 1990s and 2000s.