A week in books

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The Independent Culture

Search out those Web sites where the wired élite chat among themselves, and you'll find no shortage of eager prophecies about the coming demise of books made out of trees. I wonder. Herr Gutenberg's clapped-out gadget survived the McLuhan generation of TV fanatics 30 years ago. And a glance at the new figures for UK book production strongly suggests that the Finnish forests have a while to wait before the saws fall silent.

Search out those Web sites where the wired élite chat among themselves, and you'll find no shortage of eager prophecies about the coming demise of books made out of trees. I wonder. Herr Gutenberg's clapped-out gadget survived the McLuhan generation of TV fanatics 30 years ago. And a glance at the new figures for UK book production strongly suggests that the Finnish forests have a while to wait before the saws fall silent.

The annual total for new books first breached the 100,000 barrier in 1997. Last year, a 5 per cent rise pushed the global figure to 110,155; well above 2,000 titles every week. In proportion to the UK population, this torrent of print exceeds the output of any other major economy.

Would-be novelists may still feel rather dismayed, especially as the stats look so tidy. In 1999, British firms issued 5,209 new works of fiction: almost exactly 100 for every week (add all reprints, and the figure nears 10,000). At least the creative word still outperforms computing books, which rose by almost 30 per cent to an aggregate of 3,886. That explosion should make Net fundamentalists pause. Most readers acquire even their grasp of new technology in the antique form of print-on-paper.

The most populous genre is children's books, with 9,099 titles. The rarest class turns out to be "zoology (reptiles and amphibians)" on a mere 11: odd, given the perennial fascination of serpents from Genesis onwards. As for the Original Sin of insular, monoglot British culture, it's worse than ever. Translations accounted for just 1,968 titles: less than 2 per cent. For most UK publishers, there's still a verbal fog in the Channel, with the Continent cut off.

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