When It Comes to Books, Less is More

In a move that will probably upset fellow reading devotees, Jordan Barber applies the paradox of choice to books. By printing fewer titles and limiting selection, publishers can ensure a higher standard of literature.

We need to publish fewer books. More specifically, we need fewer books to choose from–in libraries, in bookstores, everywhere. There should be a limit. This could perhaps extend to other cultural mediums (like music or film), but I’m just going to concentrate on books today, because this ire-filled idea originally came to me at a local bookstore. I realized most of the books I was browsing were either not interesting or not worth purchasing. This is particularly true in the autobiographical section, where anyone with a name in the news for five minutes could get a book on the shelf. Who wants to read a book from George Tenet about himself? Or a book on Natalee Holloway?

I don’t mean to select these people because of anything they’ve done, or even their literary value (I’ve never read either). The point being made is that these people were known only briefly in the popular news and have since vanished, which is apparently still enough to write a book. As exasperating as it may sound, we are publishing too many books because it’s become very easy to publish. Thus, with a lower benchmark for publishing comes a lower standard of quality. We are in a book market where supply has flooded bookstores with an overwhelming number of choices.

In many ways, the overwhelming increase in book selection has led to some positive effects. Books that are extremely topic-specific can be published, because the revenue generated from a single book tends to be so low (as there are a million other books to choose from). So yes, your book on the Northern Mongolian Green Pea is available at Borders. Publishers can also take a little more risk in publishing no-names, especially when it comes to nonfiction. So yes, your dream of achieving literary success by blindly submitting your first novel to a huge publishing house is possible.

We can also make the argument that the more books we publish, the more likely we’ll publish really good ones that otherwise would never see the light of day or publish ones that turn out to be astonishingly popular (A Million Little Pieces, perhaps). So aren’t we better off with a huge number of published books?

Maybe. But I feel like we’re losing something here. The main problem is that there are an astonishing number of terrible books that are published all the time. This might be more apparent when looking at movies or television. I know it’s difficult to despise a book you’ve bought and spent time on, but I must admit that I’ve made some awful book purchases in the last couple years. Especially when blind purchasing in a bookstore (as in, without reading reviews), I often find myself stuck with something mediocre. It’s probably the pretty cover that gets me or the thousand words of praise that cover the back like chickenpox. (I’m fairly certain that every book has been praised as “inspirational.”) There are some books that I’d never care to read (sorry Tenet), but some just trick me into buying them.

If there were fewer books, the publishing industry would be more selective. If they were more selective, then (ideally) they would pick out the weeds and only publish the flowers. Another extension of this idea, I think, is that we would see fewer books that provide solely instant gratification. Think Natalee Holloway. Her story is more relevant to a visual medium than a book. I mean, books last forever; how long do we remember seeing Natalee on CNN? Who pulls out their book on Laura Bush ten years after they read it? Publishers would be more inclined to offer choices that last forever; that are capable of several print runs. In short, books would be more book-y.

There are problems with this idea, of course. The first is how publishers would be encouraged to publish fewer books. Let’s imagine that there was some arbitrary limit imposed by law: Publishers would only be allowed to print a certain number of books a year. Let’s ignore distressing details like how different sized publishing houses would cope or anything else particular.

What are the effects of such a limit? It might sound like a dictatorial cultural system: Our culture is preselected for consumption. But of course, this happens already, especially because books require private businesses. In addition, we have informal selection processes that filter out potential books we could read. We read book reviews from reviewers who only read particular books. Some bookstores only stock particular books. Even now the books we have bought were filtered and selected before we even saw them at the bookstore. We always do our best to wade through the unwanted books to find the true treasures, whether we realize it or not.

Other problems arise. Wouldn’t a limited selection force unpopular books like poetry or esoteric topical books to be eliminated? Or that first time writers would be passed over in favor of established names? Probably, but there would still be a demand for all of those, just a smaller selection. It’s true that it would limit selection from what would normally be available. But imagine every poetry anthology: Have you read all of them? So whatever you’re potentially missing, you probably won’t read anyway. The truth is that people don’t read much, so having fewer books won’t result in a selection problem. There will still be plenty of things you won’t have time to read.

This brings about a point I’ve discussed in another article. If we limited the number of books published, then more people will read the same thing. There would be a community of readers who would relate to each other. A sense of connection and communication would emerge that readers lost long ago when it became impossible to keep up with every book. There might be a narrower selection of books, but at least people could have a conversation about them. Books might actually become more popular and more valued because there are fewer of them.

Jordan Barber is proud that the internet allows him to criticize, admonish, and irritate people from his own living room. And though this immense power only comes to the few, he promises to wield his hammer of judgment with a standoffish, thoughtful outlook.