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So many books, but not so many more readers

Despite the proliferation of iPods, DVDs, Xboxes, and a gloomy warning last year from the National Endowment for the Arts that reading for pleasure is declining, a new report says publishers are cranking out books in record numbers.

The number of new titles published last year, 195,000, increased by 14 percent over 2003, according to a new report from R.R. Bowker, the publisher of Books in Print and other references. The biggest chunk of the increase was in adult fiction -- the number of novels published in 2004 was 25,184 -- 43 percent higher than 2003.

What's driving the big increase isn't obvious, since sales are not expanding at the same rate. It is clear, however, that small publishers -- and self-publishers -- account for a big part of it.

''Book publishing is bigger than any other entertainment medium, except for television, in revenues," said Andrew Grabois, director of publisher relations and content development for Bowker.

Even so, the flood of books may be daunting for the book-buyer -- the industry has shown only minor sales increases in recent years, according to the authoritative Book Industry Study Group. While the total number of titles published increased 14 percent, total sales jumped only 3 percent over 2003, and are projected to grow only 5 percent this year. Price competition is one of the reasons. The average retail price for adult hardcovers, Bowker found, fell 10 cents in 2004, to $27.52.

Publishers aren't exactly exulting about the tsunami of books. Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum pointed to the increase in the number of titles and said: ''If we could motivate an equal number of book buyers, we would all be more financially rewarded."

With so many new books, publishers have a tougher battle getting individual books noticed, which may partly explain why they're throwing up so many titles, in hopes of making a few stick.

A publisher is not a marketable brand, like Nike or Toyota. ''Each book is a separate product to be marketed separately," said Harold Augenbraum,director of the National Book Foundation. ''If you have 195,000 books, that many different products need to be marketed. If the reading public is growing slowly, as the marketing people tell us they are, the number of titles to be marketed to them is astounding. How many books can you read in a year?"

''The problem is that every book is like a movie -- no one cares if Sony made it or Random House published it," said Patricia Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers. ''But they make fewer movies than books, and pump tons of money into marketing each one." Publishers invest fairly little in advertising, compared to other consumer companies, relying more on reviews, media appearances, and word-of-mouth to drive sales.

For the author, the thousands of new titles and billions of actual books -- 2.2 billion in 2004 -- aren't necessarily cheery news, either. Many more books are chasing not-so-many-more readers.

''With 25,000 fiction titles, that's 500 new titles a week," said Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild. ''Not that it's bad news, but it makes it that much harder to get noticed, to build a career, with this huge number of titles out there. Publishers are spreading their chips around, trying many different titles, hoping some percentage of the total will catch fire and support the rest." Publishers are impatient, Aiken says. ''Writers don't have the latitude they used to have to not sell so well for their first couple of books. It used to be easier for a publisher to say, 'This author writes well and is worth continuing to take a chance on.' "

Aside from aspiring authors, Aiken worries that with so many books, it's harder for even a veteran author to get the public's attention. ''How can we hope to get word of mouth to spread, unless we're fortunate enough to land a slot on the 'Today' show?" he said. Like publishers, bookstores are more impatient than the booksellers of the past. Stores return books that don't sell within 60 to 90 days, and with the vast number of new books, shelf space for each is compressed. Even the biggest bookseller can carry only a fraction of the books available.

Part of the big jump in titles, especially in fiction, is attributable to the new world of self-publishing called print-on-demand, where anyone can pay such operators as iUniverse or Xlibris to design and print a book, and make it available through stores or the Internet. Beyond that, tiny niche publishers are plentiful, and computer-aided composition and printing is so cheap that almost anyone can set up as a publisher and issue new books. The Bowker report says there are 81,000 US publishers. As many as 50,000 of the 195,000 new titles may fall in these categories, Grabois said.

Whoever is doing the publishing, it's clear that books and reading aren't fading away. Another sign: Library use is up.

''It's an exciting thing we're seeing," said Carol Brey-Casiano, president of the American Library Association and director of the El Paso, Texas, public library. Total visits to public libraries are up from 500 million in the mid-1990s to more than 1.2 billion per year, Brey-Casiano said, and circulation has increased from 1.4 billion items to 1.9 billion. ''Seventy-five to 80 percent of that is print material," she said, ''people taking out books and reading them."

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

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