129,864,880 is the Loneliest Number

The number of books available to readers is one of the biggest selling points of the potential of ebooks. Ebooks allow instantaneous transfer of books, and also allow readers to carry an entire library with them wherever they go. However, only a tiny fraction of all of the books ever published are available to readers of ebooks. The Google Books blog this week published a number (probably already out of date), of every book ever published (in paper). That number is 129,864,880.

How to put that into perspective? If we say every book is on average about a few hundred grams, we’re talking about about 390,000 metric tons of books. That’s 170,000 African elephants, 144,000 blue whales, or almost one and a half times the entire Empire State building. I don’t know about you, but I was actually surprised by how few there were. Seriously, you could fit every single book that has ever been written onto gear you could buy from Dick Smith’s for a few thousand bucks.

However, the problem with digitising books will likely not be about catching up with the massive backlist, it will be about keeping up with the books published from this point onwards. There are a lot of books published every year. UNESCO monitors the number of books published each year per country, and they say there are about 200,000 published per year in the United States alone (Australia publishes just under 9000). Worldwide the number is likely to be over a million, though it is very difficult to get accurate statistics.

Amazon, the world’s biggest seller of ebooks, has just under 700,000 ebooks available in their US store (the Australian store has about 400,000) – a number which likely includes a huge number of self-published, niche and out-of-copyright titles. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a drop in the bucket.

But don’t worry. In your lifetime, even if you read a lot, you’re probably only going to get through a few thousand books. So the problem isn’t how many books you have access to, but how you’re going to decide which book to read next. You are really going to want to make it count.

*I apologise in advance for any poor mathematical workings-out that appear in the above post.