The Publishing World Is Drowning In Books


And now for my hottest take in a minute: There are already too many books in the world. As a reader, I’m constantly overwhelmed with new material, and I know I’m not alone. And this is before we factor in how the market is flooded with AI-generated ripoffs for sale on Amazon.

Please don’t misunderstand me: there are wonderful new books being published every day, ones that are challenging and boundary-pushing or innovative or simply escapist fun, and I’m eager to read as many as I can. I very much want to see the book publishing world continue to grow and evolve, but in order to do so corporate publishers need to be more discerning, not less. But try telling that to the people in the book world who actually make the decisions.

In a January 30 interview newly installed Penguin Random House CEO Nihar Malaviya told New York Times reporter Liz Harris that after the deal to acquire Simon & Schuster fell through, he envisions a new strategy for increasing market share. “Much of its growth will have to come organically—by selling more books. Mr. Malaviya said that, hopefully, A.I. will help, making it easier to publish more titles without hiring ever more employees.”

Let’s leave aside the appalling yet very-popular-amongst-executives idea that AI can easily replace human talent in creative industries. This is not an essay about AI (stay tuned). It’s about the very American and capitalist idea that more is always better: that constantly churning out new products will help companies achieve year over year growth which, of course, is the paramount goal. In the corporate world, output seems to be becoming more and more of a percentage game. You throw a bunch of products against the wall, see what sticks, and write off the ones (a vast majority) that don’t.

I’ve spoken to in-house editors and publicists who are more inundated than ever, unable to give each of their titles the attention they deserve. Their submissions and workloads have increased even as marketing and editorial resources for individual titles have tapered off. Their authors increasingly wonder if they should reach inside their own wallets and hire outside help, not because the people working on their books are too lazy to do their jobs, but because freelance publicists and marketers are more likely to have the bandwidth to be thorough.

It’s become too common for books that are acquired by major publishers to be neglected later in the publishing process.

We need more resources for books that are already under contract. It’s become too common for books that are acquired by major publishers to be neglected later in the publishing process in favor of titles with more in-house support, or simply because too many other titles in the same season are crashes (titles that are published on an accelerated schedule).

What a remarkable change it would be if corporations would allow their employees to do the best job they can with each book that the company has chosen to buy, rather than allowing them to flail. (Once again I’m only talking about major publishers, but small presses are vital, and if self-published books can one day divest from Amazon they too will be crucial in creating a healthy publishing ecosystem).

I had always thought that “discoverability” was a unique problem for books because so much browsing happens online rather than in carefully curated physical stores, but the world of streaming TV and movies has begun to catch up. What do corporate publishing and streaming have in common? They’re very often run by people who don’t engage with the products they put out.

That leaves consumers faced with a morass of seemingly unvetted choices, presented to us through useless algorithms and very little human intervention. I’m thinking specifically of when HBO became MAX and I couldn’t easily find the one thing I wanted to watch (Succession, RIP) because it was obscured by various Discovery reality TV shows (not that reality TV is necessarily bad, but there is just a lot of it). If I wanted to endlessly scroll I would just go to social media!

Those of us who love to read understand implicitly that books are not widgets, much as those of us who love film and TV know that they are not simply vehicles from which to sell merch. Simply increasing output without offering adequate organizational support is not good for creators, and it’s not good for consumers, either. We have plenty of the literary equivalent to Dr. Pimple Popper; what we need is more thoughtful fare.



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