A Labor Day sigh over summer books

Publishers are churning out fewer titles. But could that be a good thing?

With the arrival of Labor Day, a curtain falls on a summer reading season known not only for books for the beach, but also a few shadows on the book trade itself.

In an apparent response to declining fortunes, the traditional book industry published fewer titles in 2008 than in 2007, and given the economic slump, the trend could continue.

But could readers and writers benefit from having fewer books in the publishing pipeline? That notion might seem heretical to all those bibliophiles – and I count myself among them – who usually embrace the principle that the world can never have enough books.

A casual glance at the numbers reveals that the real problem in book publishing might not be scarcity but glut. Even with an estimated 3.2 percent drop in the release of new titles last year over 2007, publishers still churned out 275,232 new titles and editions in 2008, according to Bowker, a company that tracks industry trends. And new technologies, such as books on demand, are adding thousands more.

I sometimes feel as if every one of those titles has landed on my book-cluttered nightstand, each one waiting – often for months and often in vain – to be read.

As an author, I've benefited from a literary marketplace so varied and accommodating that even I could find a publisher for my work. However, as I know from firsthand experience, the plenitude of newly published books creates a lot of white noise that tends to drown out authors who are trying to be heard.

I felt fortunate to have my book reviewed in a modest number of newspapers and magazines, though gaining a profile was an uphill climb. Many fellow authors have told me of their disappointment at not being reviewed at all.

None of this surprised me, since I've seen the challenge from the other side of the coin as an occasional reviewer. I'm routinely bombarded by requests to review more books than I can possibly handle. As many newspapers and magazines cut space and staff devoted to books coverage, the challenge for authors grows harder.

Books are creatures of commerce, and the market will eventually find equilibrium when it comes to literary output. If the traditional book trade tips toward less production, authors and their audiences might actually find a few silver linings.

A librarian tells me that culling bookshelves is one of the best ways to increase circulation, since a thinned-out forest lets browsers finally see the trees. That less-is-more model might also have promise for the book trade as a whole.

The question of book production also brings to mind the story of V.S. Pritchett, who was reviewing books at the start of World War II when a paper shortage dramatically reduced the number of new titles being published. Denied new material, Pritchett reread the classics, and the experience helped deepen him into a great author and critic.

Might all readers benefit from such a small pause in the flood of books that arrives each day, clamoring for attention? My bedroom nightstand, covered with summer reading still untouched in this fading season, tells me this may be so.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of "A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House."

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