Books: a shrinking shelf life?

IMG_3991Books are getting more and more like loaves of bread.

Bakers and bread-sellers ply their trade in an increasingly crowded market, where all sorts of shops offer all sorts of of doughy products in larger quantities than ever before. Compounding their challenge is the fact that bread soon goes too stale to attract consumers, so unsold loaves must be removed from the retailer’s shelf within a day or two of baking.

With books, too, the clear trend is for a greater number to be published each year, while the turnover rate accelerates and the number being bought decreases. (Actually there may have been a recent pause in the pattern of declining unit sales, but they are still well down from their peak.)  So although a particular new book may seem, at least to its fond author, the best thing since sliced bread, its shelf life is likely to be just as pathetically brief. Book industry figures for publication and sales tell a discouraging story.

In 2014 (the most recent stats I’ve found) nearly 21,000 books of various kinds were published in Australia alone. That’s 400 each week! Though only a small proportion of these came from serious publishers producing multiple titles and using regular distribution channels, there’s no doubt that every link in the book chain from authors to readers is being overwhelmed by a glut.

A gigantic avalanche of loaves tumbling from bakery shelves? More like a publication tsunami. Taking a Darwinian view, you might think this swelling, swirling flood isn’t such a bad thing. Many books will sink, OK;  but won’t the fittest still swim and survive?

It’s probably not so simple. Saturation of the book market makes it harder and harder for a diverse range of fine new books, even work by highly accomplished writers, to get reviewed on the diminishing literary pages of major media. Similarly there’s such intense competition for a place on other publicity platforms, like gigs at literary festivals, that many potentially important titles won’t get a look-in. More often than ever before, a marketing ploy can eclipse merit.

Sure, a few will be fortunate enough to receive a fanfare of awards and acclaim, yet the welcoming moment will quickly be forgotten as another huge dumping wave of publications arrives, then another and another. Most authors learn to be grateful if they just avoid drowning.

We’ve all heard the sardonic forecast, attributed to Andy Warhol, that in the future everyone will be famous – for 15 minutes each. Will this soon be the fate of even the most celebrated authors of the most successful books?

Against that sombre background, against the odds, it’s an occasion for rejoicing when a book shows some durability. There’s a special pleasure in seeing any of one’s publlications reissued after a lapse of years. I’m delighted that two of my critical studies will have their shelf life prolonged, decades after their first appearance. Narrative Exchanges, a work of literary theory that came out in 1992, has a new lease of life in the series ‘Routledge Revivals’, and I’ve just heard that my book on English teaching, The Making of Literature: Texts, Contexts and Classroom Practices, is soon to be made available in digital form 32 years after its print debut. The publisher, AATE (Australian Association for the Teaching of English), tells me the book is continuing to generate ‘quite a bit of interest’ internationally. Its reappearance will be timely, as I’ve been invited to give keynote addresses on topics related to this book’s themes at forthcoming conferences of English teachers both at the state level (ETAWA, in Perth this May) and national level (AATE, in Adelaide in July).

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