Why I ...think we have too many books

April 9, 2004

Thrills that never diminish: hitting a ball to the boundary; making an audience laugh; a lively seminar discussion; love. Thrills that eventually diminish to zero or below: chairing a meeting; being on television; seeing your name on the front of a book.

Especially the last one. I now suffer from bibliophobia, a psychotic condition that involves feelings of fear and resentment aroused by bookshops and even libraries. What I once saw as a treasury of knowledge and ideas now just looks like too many books. There are books I'll never read, books that are better than mine, books that are not better than mine but are more successful and possibly books I'd really like to read but I'll never identify. The very idea of a book arouses unpleasant images of harassed and determined young colleagues pressing on with their books too early and too quickly. And of derisory royalty statements and academic publishers who sit on your manuscript for months as if it didn't matter.

And the growing suspicion that they are not wrong.

Forty years ago, when I was 17, my heroes were Albert Camus and George Orwell and I longed to see my name on the front of a book. Paradoxically, I never thought I'd produce as many books as I have: over a dozen, including a couple of non-academic ones. But I certainly thought more notice would be taken of them. I imagined that pipe-smoking strangers on trains would pluck up the courage to say: "I hope you don't mind me asking, but I've always been puzzled by something you said in chapter two of your first book."

Actually I don't travel by train and I find it embarrassing when kindly friends inquire after the success of my publication. I want to reply, "What do you mean, how's it going - it's a book; it doesn't go anywhere."

What went wrong was not the failure to get published, which I feared, nor the book-burning censorship that Camus and Orwell feared. The problem of our age is a sort of hyper-pluralism that multiplies the channels of communication and leaves us clamouring for attention - pissing in the ocean, so to speak. There are more than 120,000 books published every year in the UK, the highest in the world per capita and more than three times as many as when my career started. When it comes to journals - and everything I am saying about books can be said about journal articles - my university gets 12,000, including 3,000 in hard copy.

If you've just cashed your cheque for the Booker prize, you are unlikely to see things as I do. There are also many honest folk whose specialised books and articles were never intended to be read by many people. But there must be many of us in the middle who harbour notions that our work should be of general interest. A reminder of how small beer academic publishing is came to me some years ago at a party. A journalist who had been contemplating writing her first book on contemporary marriage told me that she told a publisher to shove a £10,000 advance. "You wouldn't accept £10,000 for a whole book with no guarantee of any more, would you, dearie?" she asked.

The spread of education, the expansion of universities and technology reducing the overhead cost of production have combined to create a potential world of all authors and no readers. Also being involved in something professionally does tend to take the charm out of it. But there is some blame we can attribute to those who invented and who perpetuate the so-called research assessment exercise, a crazy Soviet-style set of production targets for goods that nobody wants. It coerces even those people who have the decency not to want to publish much into fulfilling their production norms. We got into this just as the Soviet Union itself collapsed. But at least in the old USSR when they published your book it was in editions of 600,000, and out in Omsk and Tomsk they were so bored that they actually read it.

Lincoln Allison is reader in politics University of Warwick and visiting professor in the politics of sport University of Brighton.

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