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For a long time, I’ve been saying that perhaps the biggest problem in the book publishing industry today is that there are simply too many books. My idea is not new and it isn’t a secret, and there have been others sounding the alarm as well.

Now, the argument is put forth with some credibility and forcefulness, because Thomas Nelson Chairman Michael Hyatt has addressed the problem with clarity and courage.

Recently blogging about the problem of 300,000 new titles being pumped into the market last year by American publishers – a significant number of those simply must be mediocre – Hyatt has proposed that publishers trim their lists, and he’s putting his money where his mouth is, saying that Nelson will reduce its new titles from 700 to half that in the next year.

Having interviewed Hyatt once for this column (and I hope we do it again in the coming weeks, since he is also something of a social media guru), I believe he is what I’d call a quirky visionary. A guy who tweets often, blogs frequently and keeps his finger on the pulse of publishing. His willingness to confront the elephant in the publishing room, too many books, is helpful for everyone. First-time, self-published authors all the way to company giants can learn from the wisdom that says emphasize quality over quantity!

Amazingly, Hyatt acknowledges that publishers seem to be addicted to churning out more titles. Everyone is keen on surviving in this economy, and shockingly, most publishers are using a model decades old: Toss-up 50 titles this time; we know eight of them are can’t-miss, and we hope a few others catch on.

Insanity.

Hyatt reveals that only 23 percent of Nelson’s titles produce 90 percent of the company’s revenue. Cliché of clichés: do the math. If I were in charge, I’d cut the list by 75 percent.

This is also an indication of another complex problem, one that feeds into the obese publishing lists: Publishers must choose carefully, knowing their “A” list authors are almost always homeruns (think Max Lucado). At the same time, publishers must continue to look for terrific new authors and great writing.

Do you want my opinion? I’ll give it anyway. I believe one of the reasons that more writers aren’t given a chance by top publishers is that there aren’t many writers that measure up.

It is incumbent upon writers to hone their craft – while also recognizing that writing is in some part God-given ability. In his blog, Hyatt also mentioned a number of titles he started in the last year, but didn’t finish. The reason of course is because the books didn’t hold his interest. Hyatt is well-read, so I don’t believe he is prejudiced against these titles he couldn’t finish. Rather, he is being honest.

A related topic is the continuing, unfolding “battle” between traditional publishing and the new technologies, which I continue to find fascinating.

Here is an interesting note from Publisher’s Weekly: Despite the belief in many quarters that the growth of e-books will mean the death of the printed book, the number of books produced by traditional publishers rose five percent in 2010, to a projected 316,480, according to preliminary figures released Wednesday morning from R. R. Bowker. That number, however, is dwarfed by the growth in output of nontraditional titles, which jumped 169 percent to 2,766,260. As Bowker notes, the majority of nontraditional titles consists largely of print-on-demand editions of public domain titles. Self-published titles are also included in the figure. Based on the preliminary figures, the combination of traditional and nontraditional books totaled a projected 3,092,740 in 2010, up 132 percent from 2010.

On the surface, this seems to satisfy the interests of both traditional readers, who love to hold a printed book, and those into e-publishing. I actually believe that if houses would trim their new-title lists to some degree, we’d not waste as much paper and ink, and the lessened workload would help produce better books.

By making some hard choices, I have no doubt the book publishing industry can reach new Hyatts.


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