It’s difficult to fathom, but nearly 175,000 books were published in 2003, a 19 percent increase from the previous year, and a mountainous climb from the 45,000 published in 1991, when the number started rising exponentially. Mostly, the difference is the output of thousands of new small publishers and self-publishers that seem to multiply, rabbit-like, every year. At last count, the Publishers Marketing Association tallied 86,641 legitimate publishers with at least ten books in print. Of those, 1,804 were more substantial, with two hundred or more books to their name. Meanwhile, the miles of shelf space at Barnes & Noble outlets and the vast virtual warehouse of Amazon have made this abundance easily accessible.
But this literary cornucopia is only half the story. The past fifteen years have seen great flux in the publishing business. It is a world caught between its storied past, when challenging, risky books were championed, often at a loss, and its apparent future, one modeled on Hollywood, where only the certain blockbusters get their names on the marquee. As soon as chain stores presented the possibility of selling huge quantities of books, marketing took center stage at most publishing houses. More and more houses were also bought up by giant media conglomerates, and these new owners raised the pressure on publishers and editors to increase profit margins. An industry that for decades saw only single-digit profits was expected to match the much higher profit margins of other communications sectors. This naturally led to a concentration of resources and marketing dollars on the big books, the ones sure to sell in the millions.
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