It’s NOT the 1000-Monkey Scenario

At Transparency Revolution, I just published a piece responding to an observation by Charlie Stross on the ubiquity of photography:

Right now we’re living through the Photography Singularity; 10% of all photos ever taken were taken in the past 12 months, and the exponential up-slope is continuing.

The “photography singularity”* is an instance of an overall information explosion which is occurring here in the age of the the Internet and the Smartphone. It is not alone. A similar explosion is taking place in the realm of book publishing, where the growing popularity of self-published eBooks is producing some truly startling results. A while back, blogger Pat Bertram explained it in these terms:

300,000 books were published in the U.S. 2003.

411,422 books were published in the U.S. in 2007.

1,052,803 books were published in the U.S. 2009.

Approximately 3,000,000 books were published in the U.S. in 2011.

And . . . drum roll, please . . . in an online interview, Seth Godin suggests that 15,000, 000 books will be published in 2012.

15,000,000. Yikes.

Bertram is quoting Bowkers, the company that issues ISBN numbers, before he gets to Seth Godin’s prediction. I haven’t seen any official numbers for 2012 yet, but if the total was even half of what Godin predicted, that’s an astounding number.

But how significant is it, really? At Forbes, Nick Morgan offers the following analysis of the situation (relying on very different numbers from Bertram’s:

Here’s the problem with self-publishing: no one cares about your book. That’s it in a nutshell. There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe. Many of those – perhaps as many as half or even more – are self-published. On average, they sell less than 250 copies each. Your book won’t stand out. Hilary Clinton’s will. Yours won’t.

Morgan’s assertion that any given reader’s book won’t stand out is refuted by a few exceptional cases — call them the Justin Biebers of the book publishing world — whose numbers appear to be growing.

In any case, not everyone is looking for Hilary-level success. Like the smartphones that are turning us all into photographers, digital publishing enables many more individual writers to be published authors than ever would have before. Just being a published author is a big deal for many; selling 250 copies would be icing on the cake. The traditional publishing industry is driven by harsh economics;  there is a set threshold of sales that must be reached in order to declare a book a success. But with the digital option you can publish a book that has a potential audience of only 10 readers and achieve something that the traditional book publishers have never come close to: 100% market saturation.

I mentioned recently how one of our recommended solutions, Boomwriter, provides a shared space for collaboration. Students write alternative versions of chapters of a book and then vote to decide which becomes the next official chapter. The finished product is published as an actual book, which usually has a fairly small readership — members of the class, their friends, their families. But the number of copies distributed doesn’t diminish the sense of accomplishment experienced by each of the authors.

Plus, with thousands of kids in hundreds of classrooms churning out book after book, there’s a very real real possibility that some of the finished works will have much broader appeal. This isn’t about having  1000 monkeys pounding on typewriters until they produce one of Shakespeare’s plays. As noted in my piece last week, having an audience seems to be a real factor in helping writers improve the quality of their work. And self-publishing helps works that otherwise would not have had the chance to find an audience. How long before a bestseller emerges from some 4th grade classroom in Iowa? How long before Hollywood is negotiating a three-picture deal with some middle-schoolers from Baltimore?

* The word “singularity” in Stross’s quote and as used by me here is a reference to the technological singularity, the hypothesis that we will soon see the emergence of a greater than human intelligence, changing the world in ways that are unpredictable and unimaginable. In common usage (disapproved of by some singularity purists) there are any number of smaller singularities occurring as we approach this big one — radical changes to society brought about by the sudden adoption of new technology. The “book singularity” is one such.

One thought on “It’s NOT the 1000-Monkey Scenario

  1. It’s NOT the 1000-Monkey Scenario | Social EdTech

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