On January 28th, 1911, Publishers Weekly announced that in 1910, American publishers had produced an unprecedented number of books. The trade journal recorded 13,470 titles that year, 11,671 of which were new, and the rest were new editions or previously published books. Somewhat ironically, Publishers Weekly reported these record-setting numbers with something akin to disgust: “More and more appalling becomes the flood of books which apply to the Publishers Weekly for bibliographical register and ever more difficult the task of selection for this annual retrospective.”
Nineteen years later, in their 1930 Annual Summary Number, Publishers Weekly ran an article by former Little, Brown president Alfred R. McIntyre under the alarmist headline “Too Many Books.” McIntyre argued that the industry’s rate of production was financially unsustainable and urged publishers to scale back their output. “We have over-production,” he wrote, “and over-production should cease. How many publishers are there in America who, taking overhead into account, do not lose money on one-fourth of the books they publish?”
Thirty-six years later, in 1966, American publishers produced 30,050 titles, roughly three times the number bemoaned by McIntyre. By 1996, that number reached 63,689 and in 2009, an estimated 288,355 different titles were published in the United States.1
One of the steadiest uptrends in U.S. title output, according to Publishers Weekly’s data, began in 1959. Publishers Weekly reported 14,876 titles that year, out-producing the previous year by 1,414 titles, a substantial single-year increase. The following year saw 15,102 titles, a remarkable showing that was immediately trumped in 1961 with 18,060 titles. From 1959 to 1966—a period that marks the beginning of an explosion in publishing—the industry experienced an unbroken surge in productivity.
What led to the publishing boom of the late 1950s and 1960s? The January 18th, 1960, issue of Publishers Weekly attributes it to “New publishers, new series, both paperbound and clothbound, in the lines of established publishers, new publishers of paperbounds, progressive enlargement of the lists of publishers of both mass-market and quality paperbounds.” A rapidly emerging paperback market, the proliferation of genre fiction such as mystery and science fiction, expanding publishers’ lists—by and large, the 1960s represented everything anathema to McIntyre’s vision of a lower-output, smaller-list industry. From 1960 to 1970, book production rose by an extraordinary 140 percent, with an average annual growth rate of 14 percent. By comparison, book production during the previous decade—1950 to 1960—rose by 36 percent, with an average annual growth rate of 3.6 percent.
1 Publishers Weekly, published by R.R. Bowker, began tabulating weekly book output in 1872. Their figures, however, are approximate at best. Publishers Weekly‘s pre-1997 data, for example, exclude books that are not cataloged by the Library of Congress. Consequently, inexpensive editions, annuals, small-press and self-published books are mostly absent from these numbers. Between 1880 and 1928, pamphlets were included in Publishers Weekly’s production tally but excluded thereafter. And mass-market paperbacks were almost never accurately counted before 1981 when ISBN numbers became the definitive standard. To make matters murkier, the definition of a “book” has changed. Publishers Weekly categorized a “book” as any volume of more than sixty-five pages until 1959 when the magazine adopted UNESCO’s definition of a book as any non-periodical volume of more than forty-nine pages. In addition, counting methods changed in 1967, 1997, and again in 2006. Starting in 1967, books were counted by title rather than by volume. In 1997, Bowker began compiling figures using its Books in Print database rather than the Library of Congress’s catalog. Due to the adoption of a more exhaustive methodological approach, total U.S. output suddenly skyrocketed after 2006. That year, R.R. Bowker, the agency responsible for issuing ISBNs in the U.S., included in its numbers any bound volume that had been issued an ISBN. Unclassifiable books and those without prices—items previously excluded from the count—were included in the total. Using this new methodology, R.R. Bowker restated its figures as far back as 2002. Still, it is possible to observe trends within certain periods and be reasonably sure that spikes in output are not actually the result of new, more comprehensive methodology.