A Story of Statistics

No matter what your college class was like, I am here to tell you that statistics are not boring. In fact, they can tell quite a story. Here’s this week’s story:

Once upon a time there was a company named Bowker. This company is the keeper of all bibliographic information and does everything from issuing ISBNs to compiling statistics on the industry. Every year Bowker releases information on how things are going in terms of book production. Depending on one’s perspective the information can be good or bad, but regardless of how it is perceived it is essential information that drives all players in it. The annual report for 2009 was released in April, and I thought it might be fun to see how it could impact BiblioBuffet if we chose to let it. Bear in mind this is only a game. First the facts:

Fact 1: In every year, excepting leap years, there are 525,949 minutes.
Fact 2: Bowker has projected that a total of 288,355 traditional titles were released in 2009.
Fact 3: Bowker has projected that a total of 764,448 non-traditional titles were released in 2009.

Now, let’s take a quick detour to define traditional and non-traditional titles. Traditional titles are those that come from commercial publishers including university houses. Non-traditional titles, and I am quoting Bowker here, are “books, marketed almost exclusively on the web, . . . largely on-demand titles produced by reprint houses specializing in public domain works and by presses catering to self-publishers and ‘micro-niche’ publications.” In other words, these are books you are much less likely if at all to see on any bookstore shelf.

Moving on, let’s take the facts we quoted above, whirl them up a bit in the blender, and see what comes out. With 525,949 minutes and 288,355 books per year that  means that in 2009 one “traditional” book was published every two minutes. Around the clock. No meal breaks. No weekends or holidays. No sleep. Every two minutes a new book came out. (Of that number, fiction accounted for 45, 181 books that year meaning a novel was published every 11.6 minutes. And remember, this is just for “traditional” books.)

Non-traditional books by themselves are projected to total 764,448. That’s more than three-quarters of a million of those books in just one year, which means that during every one of those 525,949 minutes 1.5 non-traditional books was published. Again, around the clock.

Is it any wonder that BiblioBuffet has established review guidelines for book submissions that excludes, for the most part, these non-traditional books? Even if the quality was equal to what the commercial/university presses put out—and it’s nowhere near that—it would simply be impossible.

Going on with a bit more math—and don’t worry, I’ve done it all for you—here is what would happen if BiblioBuffet did attempt to review every commercially published book. We would need 10,114 reviewers writing every other week to cover them all. In just one year. Just for “traditional” books.

If we were to consider adding the non-traditional books (for a total of 1,052,803 books)  we would need an unimaginable 40,492 reviewers writing bi-weekly to cover them all.

My head. It hurts.

My point is that while statistics can lie, they can also point up some real truths. It is impossible to know even a respectable percentage of what is out there. We can only pick and choose the books that interest us from the books we know about. It’s limited, but it’s also the best we can do.

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