Do Books Expand to Exceed the Time Available?

By Daniel P. Dern: I don’t remember how long ago it was — 20+ wouldn’t surprise me — that I read a comment that we (the sf field) had passed the point where one person could read and keep up with all the sf being published, e.g. all the new books, magazines, anthologies. I.e., it would take more than a year to read all the new stuff from the year.

It might not have been from a reviewer; I seem to also recall the larger point being made that “it’s no longer possible to keep up with the field, and to the extent that the field can be seen as a conversation with itself, each new story to a large extent building on and/or arguing with what has gone before, have we passed the threshold where this is no longer possible.”

My question is: how many people-reading-years (or, how many people)’s worth of new sf (including fantasy, perhaps also horror and paranormal) is being published, per year, these days? Or, “a given person could only read what fraction?”

Obviously, this would be a rough ballpark. I assume the original stat (or it might have simply been a considered opinion) made some assumptions of average reading speed, average #/hours/week reading, average book size, etc.

It’s obviously more complicated now, because of boundaries, like – publishers but excluding self-pub? (Or some self-pub?)

  • What about fanfic?
  • Just in English?

Perhaps delimit by, say, “Based on being listed in Locus.”

But I’m curious, order-of-magnitude wise. 10 people? 20?

“Available time” isn’t helped by the proliferation of comic books, ditto  movies and TV.

(And ignoring the time consumed with fanzines/sites (sic).)

19 thoughts on “Do Books Expand to Exceed the Time Available?

  1. Asimov made a statement like that in his autobiography (written in the 1970s, I think).

  2. Going by ISFDB statistics:
    In the 2010s they list approximately 5000 novels and 10000 pieces of short fiction per year (first publication). Assuming an average novel has 300 pages and a piece of short fiction has 20 pages this gives 3.5 million pages.

    As a fast reader with a day job I can manage something like 200 pages per day, 500 pages on a weekend day, i.e. 100 000 pages per year. A lot less than half of it would be newly published SFF, but people’s mileage might vary on that.

    So… there are least 35 people-reading years of ISFDB-listed SFF published every year. Plus all sorts of stuff unlisted there.

  3. I think we are long past the point where stories are in dialog with the field as a whole, or even its major threads; swathes of work seem to me to be far more connected to other fields (e.g., romance and/or thriller with a dash of older TV(*)) than SF. I know Don D’Ammassa, who once said he read everything, said he’d given up trying a long time ago; @GiantPanda’s statistics may be a bit pessimistic (when I had a job but little other life I might have managed 300-400 pages/day — although they may have averaged less dense) but seem plausible.
    (*) Yes, I’m looking at you, Gini Koch. And when did we move from Anglicizing “foreign” names (e.g., “Klass” -> “Tenn”) to exoticizing ordinary names (ISFDB says Koch is a pseud for Jeanne Cook)?

  4. I don’t doubt that Asimov said it, but I don’t recall reading it there (particularly since I think I skimmed or simply didn’t read his autobiogs).

    If seventy Filers with seven eyes [1] read for seven months of the year,
    Do you suppose (the Walrus said) they Mount ToBe Read would clear?

    [or 1 Ningauble (of the 7 eyes, via Fritz Leiber, Fahfenugen & the Grey Mouser)]

  5. I’ll see if I can find the quote (I’m curious if I’m remembering it right).

  6. David Hartwell made this point in Age of Wonders back in 1985, and I recall hearing him talk about it on con panels and nodding in agreement–we were of pretty much the same readership cohort. Like David, I was a comprehensive and omnivorous consumer of SF/F–once I got started, I bought and read every issue of every magazine and kept up with much of the book side of the genre. But by the 1970s them days was gone.

    Locus has long tried to be comprehensive, but by the time I started reviewing for the magazine in 1990, even four or five reviewers couldn’t cover everything–my average over the first decade was three titles a month. (Currently it’s two. Music and the internet have eaten some of my time. And some stuff that comes my way just doesn’t appeal to me. But even if it did, it would wind up on the sprawing & teetering TBR stacks.)

    I confess amazement at the volume gotten through by some File 770 posters–even if I didn’t have to take the time to write a column (each one takes 15-20 hours), I couldn’t get through more than a book a week–and if I weren’t reading for review, there would be more non-fiction and mysteries on my list. (That TBR heap consists mostly of about 200 mysteries, waiting for their turn.)

  7. Given the swamp tsunami that the kindle has enabled, were so far past the volume anyone could keep up with that it’s hardly worth even speculating about. And if you don’t want to include them, the question becomes where are you going to draw the line because there are long time successful authors publishing that way now. It’s kind of a …mess.

  8. That, in part, seems to be part of the new growth of small, local bookstores. There are so many books published and the big box stores are pretty much a dumping ground. But with the smaller ones, they curate for their communities and considering how fast shipping goes, most places can order in anything they don’t have in a day or two.

    That’s one of the things I used File 770 for, essentially to see group consensus on authors I don’t know to see if they are worth a flyer on. (and in specific cases, what authors I specifically don’t want my money supporting)

  9. Dex, I’d disagree on all the big box stores being dumping grounds as the Books A Million here in Portland, Maine has an extremely well stocked genre section that includes such imprints as Angry Robot and Nightshade. Not sure how much latitude they give each store, not much I’d guess given that I was told that their merchandise was ordered by the home office when I asked what they had for Rocket Racoons.

    It’s hard for even a successful local bookstore like our Longfellow Books to really order that deep in the genre as regards new releases shell as space for existing stock and finances geared towards books that might or might not sell well generally limit what they order.

    They’re prolly stocking no more than fifteen hundred individual books total based on a rough count I did a ways ba k. Some three quarters of that is multiple copies of well selling books, say the Earthsee trilogy.

  10. Smashwords, by itself, publishes something like a thousand or 1500 novels a year. Some of those are also published by Amazon, but at a novel a day Smashwords by itself is three to five readers.

  11. ISFDB is very selective about its database. Self-published work is generally not included, with some exceptions.

    The 5,000 novels a year quoted by GiantPanda includes lots of reissued editions. I believe that the actual estimate of first-edition novels they list per year is closer to 1,000.

    It’s my belief that the number of self-published SFF novels currently being first-published per year is at least 10 times that. Some self-pubbers put out a novel every single month (and the thought of how formulaic most of it must be makes me cringe).

  12. One of my self-published novellas is included in my ISFDB entry, though I have no idea why that one was included, especially since everything else listed there are stories published in magazines and anthologies.

    The science fiction section of the Amazon Kindle store lists approx. 3500 science fiction titles released in the last 30 days. Not all of these are novels – there are also shorts, novellas and collections. Some are also only very borderline science fiction such as erotic romances with aliens and the like. But even if you remove those, it’s still a huge number.

    The SF section at the Kindle store also got inflated, because approx. two years ago, a self-publishing guru advised writers to find an underserved but popular genre, analyse what was selling there and write very formulaic books. The subgenre he used as an example was space opera and military SF. And suddenly, everybody flocked to those genres.

  13. Nearly 20 years ago when I was first an undergraduate it was already being said that the number of academic articles written about Shakespeare alone in a given year were so many that no scholar could read them all in that same year; that a large part of the argument for developing a micro-specialty instead of trying to keep up with a subject as broad as “Shakespeare Studies” or something.

  14. @James Davis Nicoll: IIRC, a lot of German names moved to the US were Anglicized, sometimes by Immigration, sometimes during World War I — though the names weren’t as radically changed as those of your monarchs. E.g., my maternal grandfather’s name was Singley; 1-3 generations before it was Zwingli. (No, I don’t know whether I’m related to the reformer; it would be nice to make up for some other relations….) I suspect most people in the US, while they might not recognize German per se and might not identify a specific spelling rule being broken, would consider a name with non-Anglo spelling (e.g., Koch rather than Kotch, Gini rather than Ginny/Jeannie/…) more exotic than one with Anglo spelling.

  15. Reading about and listening to a couple of indie authors, it seems that the intent is to write a series (or at least the first 3-4 books) over a reasonable period of time (12-18 months??) and then release them once a month.

    The motivations for that tactic seem to be to take advantage of the modern habit of binge consumption of entertainment and to build a “back list” more rapidly.

    My random tagline generator.

  16. I just checked “In Memory Yet Green” and can’t find the quote I’m looking for (I’d swear that somewhere where Asimov talked about his pile of index cards listing all the stories he’d read, and ranking each, there’s a quote on the order of “If you had woken me from a deep sleep and asked me about a story, I could have given a synopsis and my rating” before noting that by the 1950s (or 1960s) no one could be completely familiar with all of SF anymore.

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