“What happens when the amount of books available to read exceeds the market’s ability to read them?” Martyn Daniels asked at Brave New World a couple of years ago. He seems to see the arrival of the ebook as a threat to our ability to cope.

I’m not sure why that would be a worry. In so far as it means anything, wasn’t that point reached long ago anyway? More books are available than any one person could ever dream of reading. However if we lined up all the readers in the world and set them, in a organized way, to read every book available, dividing the books up between the readers, I guess we could get the job done quite quickly. Is Mr Daniels worrying about a situation where there’d be too many books for us to be able to do even that? We are told there are a billion illiterate people in the world, which leaves about 6⅓ billion who are literate to some extent. Let’s assume half of those are children, and about a billion are only functionally literate: that might leave about 2 billion readers standing ready at our starting gate able to cope with a book. Apparently Google has calculated that 130 million books have been published in modern history. Let’s double that to cover the time before “the modern era” and we can see our available readers outnumber the supply of books by almost ten to one. This hardly seems a problem worth losing any sleep over.

Is he worried that publishers will go out of business when we have published more books than can be purchased? We are already in that situation and always have been: publish books which nobody wants and you will end up bankrupt. But the fact is books are not like washing machines. If you have one, you are quite likely to want another. If you publish good books, lots of people will want more of them. How many books would we need to bring out for our world of readers, and the libraries serving them, to find there were just too many for them to want another? “I’ve got fifty thousand books I’ve got to read in the next few years. I can’t possibly be expected to buy another — just go away.” Come on Brave New World, it doesn’t work like that: just because you can’t find time to read it yourself doesn’t mean that you don’t want a book to exist. Or can’t con yourself into thinking you’ll find time for it.

I suspect that oversupply is simply impossible when it comes to books. Even if there is a book which nobody (apart perhaps from the author) is ever going to read from start to finish, what’s wrong with that? If someone just looks inside it and looks up one thing, it may have performed a valuable function. And even if that never happens: what’s the harm?

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