Bowker calculates that there were 28 million books in English in the world in 2013. Of course we know that counting ISBNs doesn’t really give you an accurate answer — after all the hardback, the trade paperback, the mass market paperback, the Kindle edition, etc., etc. should/will all have different ISBNs. Working in the other direction, we also know that many self-published authors don’t go to the bother and expense of getting an ISBN at all. And what about all those books in libraries which were published before we thought of ISBNs? So is the number of titles more or less than 28 million? Really it doesn’t matter at this level. And of course, as we bring back “into print” more and more books from the past the situation will only get worse. Or should I say better?

Publishing Perspectives finds that most of us don’t think 28 million is too many. Gabriel Zaid, said in So Many Books (2003) “The truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more.”. But I think most of the discussion at the Frankfurt panel almost misses the point: if you grow up in a house with only six books in it, you will read all of them from cover to cover, over and over again. If you live in a world with 28 millions choices, you will use books differently. Sure you’ll read this one from cover to cover, but you’ll dip into that one; refer to the index of this other one; ignore most of them knowing that when and if you need to consult them they’ll be there. My tutor at university, Gus Caesar, once said “The purpose of your education is not to make you to know everything; it’s just to teach you to know where to find it when you need to.” Probably he was thinking mainly of the University Library — they lay claim to a paltry 15 million volumes. The Library of Congress has 23.5 million books out of a total of 158 million physical objects. Who cares? There’s enough to be going on with.

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