Does More Books Mean More Titles or More Editions? (A critique of that graph going around)

This has been one of the most interesting charts of the week, but it is also one generating a lot of wrong pronouncements I think:

The buzz around this is it shows the influence of copyright — and it definitely does — far less of the 2500 books sampled come from the period of copyright. But the question is what sort of effect of copyright it is demonstrating. For instance, I’ve seen almost all the commentators suggest this indicates that there is a massive gap in our copyright era offerings — the claim is copyright is making titles much less available.

But that’s not necessarily the case. It all comes down to what you mean by title.

Meaning this — when something is in copyright it is published usually by one publisher — maybe a couple publishers if there are overseas agreements. If it’s an absolute classic,  there may be more, but not that many. There are three Kindle versions of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls on the U.S. Amazon site, and one is in Bulgarian, and another in Portuguese. There are five paperback versions listed as “new”, and only one of them actually appears to be in print currently.

On the other hand, there appear to be almost a hundred Kindle versions of Jane Eyre, each with its own ISBN. Go to paperback, and there are 400 versions of Jane Eyre. There’s 298 hardcovers of it.

And it’s not just popular works — Eliot’s forgotten masterpiece Silas Marner has 301 versions, whereas Wolfe’s 1980s classic Bonfire of the Vanities has three.

Want to really freak out? There are almost 5,000 “new” editions of the work of Dickens available. (Again,  these searches are including some out of print works in mint condition — I can’t seem to filter these out — but the point holds). You’d have to lump-sum a city’s worth of single-publisher authors for several years to get to a figure like that.

I can’t see any way that you could conceivably control for this in a random sample, at least given how Amazon’s search is constructed,  so I’m going to assume it wasn’t controlled for — in which case the graphic tells us nothing at this point. Copyright may also be reducing availability of titles — it would make sense that it was, to some extent. But this graph doesn’t tell you anything about that.

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