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The Last Book in The Library of Babel
Thoughts on impossible libraries, livable wages, art in the age of content, and revealing some new covers.
The library will endure; it is the universe
The first time I read The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges, I was in my sun-warmed hostel in San Diego, California. It was the height of summer and I laid, strewn about and inelegant, across the squeaky twin mattress. I held my book open facing the sun, myself arranged before the coughing window air-conditioning unit. The four walls were bare and gray, with only a bed, slim vertical dresser and tiny flat-screen television on a table, all the varnish chipped, to fill their spaces. After a three-hour flight across the country alone, I spent the afternoon walking around Downtown San Diego's sticky pavement and getting lost trying to find the train. Now, the hostel felt as welcoming as a church.
This was the furthest I had ever been from home. I had saved money at my restaurant job for a round-trip airplane ticket and a three-night stay in the cheapest place I could afford. I was going to meet my then-girlfriend for the first time at San Diego Comic Con. We met online in the dying years of AOL Instant Messenger and spoke for hours and hours every day. For the trip, I brought my book of Borges short stories to pass my hours alone.
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I felt very adult in that. On an adult trip, using my own adult money, to have a very adult relationship with someone who I could keep for myself. I read a very adult book on the plane, by my newly found favorite author, who wrote so beautifully upon the subjects the impossible, the infinite, the sublime.
This wasn't a good or healthy relationship that I was rushing into, but I wasn't fully aware of that yet. I wasn't in a good or healthy place with anyone. I wasn't fully aware of that, either.
With the sun dripping from the clouded window and between the half-opened blinds, I followed Borges' words with the warm tip of my finger. I imagined the leagues of unending hexagons and the floors of books stretching up and down forever, the immutable tomes that filled every chamber. Outside my window, a red brick building and sun-bleached pavement. Beyond that, the bodies of despairing librarians falling down and down and down, their forms, skeletal and unkissed by sun or light, dissolving into the depths of the Library forever.
Borges always fills me with nostalgic feelings, even when what I find myself nostalgic for is rather grim.
O time, thy pyramids
I like to read about the publishing industry. You might think it was my job given the articles and reports I read on these things. My real job, my day job, is as far away from books as you can be. Unlike most people who probably keep up with publishing, I have no delusions of entering the industry. I've had my "debut" already, as it were, my first two books put out by tiny publishers. These days, I put out my own work.
Every so often, I flirt with the idea of seeking representation, or barring that, finding another smaller publisher to work with. I'm not very good at flirting. As it stands, my most noteworthy publishing credit isn't even with a trade or indie book publisher but Image Comics. My few accolades and nominations of note were all from that publication, within the very different world of the comics industry. Me and books don't spend much time together, I guess. I've always been pulled by different things.
Recently, I was reading some reports and statistics on publishing compiled by Bowker. This was prompted by some publishing discourse. That's another thing I keep up with, publishing discourse. I don't know why I do that, either.
"The industry’s self-publishing segment continues to thrive," reported Publisher's Weekly in February 2023. "The number of new self-published titles that have both ISBNs and BISAC codes was 2,298,004 in 2021, a decline from the two previous years, but still well above the 1,551,391 titles registered with Bowker in 2018."
That sounds exciting, right? Business is booming. Self-published author profit is apparently up, in fact, based on a recent Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) survey. According to the numbers crunched by Dean Talbot for WordsRated, there are around 4 million books published worldwide each year. Other sources have pegged it at around 3 million, but let's just say 4 million books. Of that 4 million (a mind-boggling number that does at least account for books published in all formats, categories, and languages, including new editions and reeditions), 500,000 to 1 million of titles are published by traditional publishing houses. An estimated 1.7 million books are published independently, although I have seen higher numbers reported. Since not at all writers use trackable ISBN numbers, there are likely many more self-published books in circulation that we don't know about.
But that's the part that continues to puzzle me. According to Talbot's calculations, that 4 million books annually means that almost 11,000 books are published every day. That's around 457 titles an hour, and 8 titles a minute. Dozens of books will have been published in the time it took you to read this. Many of which can't be tracked, whose existence you will never know of.
How could you? 3-4 million books, in every format, every language, every age range. Bowker doesn't release data for all traditionally published books. NPD BookScan tracks around 85% of the total U.S. trade book market. But people are buying the books, right?
They have to be. Right?
As stated in a recent blog post from Berrett-Koehler Publishers, using BookScan's own findings:
Only 789 million print books were sold in 2022 in the US in all publishing categories combined, both fiction and nonfiction. Thus, the average book published today is selling less than 300 print copies over its lifetime in the US retail channels. Even if e-book sales, audio sales, sales outside of the US, and sales outside of retail channels are added in, the average new book published today is selling much less than 1,000 copies over its lifetime in all formats and all markets. What is skewing these figures down are the tiny sales of most self-published books that have flooded the marketplace. However, sales of traditionally published books are also shockingly small.
(...) BookScan found that only 6.7 percent of the new titles released by (leading industry publishers) were selling more that 10,000 copies in their first year of sales, only 12.3 percent were selling more than 5,000 copies in their first year, and only 33.9 percent of these titles were selling more than 1,000 copies in their first year.
So, trade publishing is experiencing some pains, but it’s still chugging along. Self-publishing is hot, apparently. We always hear about the success stories, big earners and best-sellers who make a splash on BookTok or get optioned by Netflix. There are hundreds of books published every hour. It has to be working. We still need books, right? We still need those millions of books, right?
Because it's probably fine that publishing is still overwhelmingly white at every level, up to and including who it markets to. Debuts, delicious new IP, are celebrated while the midlist evaporates. The wages for people in the publishing industry are impossible to live on, prompting resignations. HarperCollins employees recently went on a three-month strike. The workforce has been hit by further layoffs. Advances for writers have shrunken to essentially poverty wages. There's so much confusion about when, or if, you will ever sell enough books to earn out.
Marketing efforts have been off-loaded onto writers and unpaid book bloggers, hobbyist reviewers, and TikTok itself to keep costs down. The size of your social media following may or may not affect your ability to get a book deal, depending on who you talk to and on what day of the week it is. Profits flow to the top just the same, like the eye following the line of a pyramid to its crown.
But it's fine, right? We need those millions of books every year. 8 books a minute. It all has to be done this way, this way. We must have profits, after all.
Let heaven exist, though my own place be in hell
More from Bowker for Publisher's Weekly:
The surge in popularity of audiobooks has inspired (self-published) authors to use the medium to showcase their work, (Bowker marketing manager Andy Kovacs) said, adding that the need for fresh content to meet the needs of the film, television, and online streaming industries has also encouraged authors to write books they feel are potentially adaptable to stage or screen.
Kovacs expects that the demand for self-publishing will continue to hold steady as new technologies emerge and the public continues to seek quality content.
At time of writing, the Writers Guild of America is on strike for fair wages in the film and television industry. The streaming boom that authors have been feeding with books written and purchased with Netflix or Amazon in mind has left screenwriters starving. That seems like a thing worth mentioning in this context.
It's a bit sick, right? One medium turned into a content mill for another, and no one got paid a livable wage for it at either end. I've seen the same argument made about the American comics industry for a while now, reduced to little more than an IP farm for TV and film. Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, and all the rest are hemorrhaging profits as the bubble bursts and the party ends for investors and executives.
All over social media this week, I've seen fiction writers tell each other not to cross the picket line and agree to write their own movie or TV adaptations. No scabs allowed. Arms linked together to demand a better life for writers.
And, to be crystal clear, I'm not in the publishing industry. No one cares if I live or die because they're not making any money off my brand. Everything I've just laid out is one idiot's read on a situation that ultimately doesn't impact me. I'm just one person putting out some books or short stories. (I definitely don't make $12k a year on my writing, like the writers in that ALLi survey apparently do.) Don't ask me for insight on how to traverse it or survive it, because I'm not inside the machine to truly know what it takes.
But I keep thinking about those millions and millions of books we keep putting out. The millions and millions of books that must exist to feed an audience hungry for content. Books that only sell 300 or 1000 or 5000 or 10,000 print copies in their lifetimes, depending on whose numbers you're arguing for or against. Because we only hear about the success stories, you know. The brilliant debut, the fashionable hybrid author, the BookTok darling. The name on everyone’s lips.
We never hear about the single mom who’s trying to feed her kids on unpredictable Kindle Unlimited revenue, or the midlister who gets a $5000 advance (paid in installments) for their third book they wrote around a day job or two. I keep thinking about those hexagonal rooms in The Library of Babel, each with their bookshelves the size of their respective walls. Each shelf holding 32 books with exactly 410 pages, 40 lines on each page, each line approximately 80 black letters.
How many of these books are loved? How many were written with love? Of the 33 million books that I've read are kept in the depths of Amazon's servers, how many have been read? Amazon, the beast who has swallowed the world and all its books and remade it in its image. Thief of joy and lives. How many of these books have never been read? With 3 to 4 million published each year, with 1 to 2 million of them self-published and potentially untraceable, will we ever know what they contain?
Some of them, a lot of them, I presume, are junk books. Garbage written to feed the algorithm. Some of it is written by chatbots, from what I've read, one of the 8 books published every minute. Like the incomprehensible character slurry found in the Library's infinite catalog, pages of things written for bots in languages we either don't or can never understand. But some of them have to have been made with care. Surely, there exist books that will never see light or air that contain beautiful words in their pages.
A science fiction book.
A fable for children.
A love story.
Grandma's recipe book. Her memoirs of hills or rivers that no longer exist. A fleeting life committed to the page in the hope that someone, somewhere, will read it.
Unlike Borges' impossible Library, one day, Amazon's servers will die, whether by entropy or by force. Books will rot and return to the soil or be swallowed by flame and reborn as dust. Hardware will corrode and the data it stores will be snuffed out. It makes me wonder what will come of those books in the depths of the Library, those last books never read.
What is the point of a book if it's not read?
I guess it just becomes content.
To speak is to fall into tautology
Back in January, I planned and/or announced that I would be redoing the covers of all my short stories, collections, and novellas. I think I said something to that effect in my first newsletter of the year.
In April, I finally decided to commit to the process of updating my published work. Those original covers were very old, out-dated, and not so much me as I think of myself these days. I cut my teeth writing horror and weird tale, or I guess bizarro as it was called back then. Moving to stories about monsters and romance was always informed by my inclination toward death, despair, capitalist alienation, and climate collapse.
I don’t want to be any specific kind of [insert genre] writer because [insert genre] writer doesn’t encompass what I want to accomplish. I hope these covers reflect that. All of the stories below contain sex, some graphic, some less so, but that’s my whole deal so go with God on that one.
Let’s take it from the top. Links are in the titles to allow you to read more or purchase wherever ebooks are sold.
A short collection. Short horror stories and weird tales spanning my early career from 2011 to 2015. Octopus women, people with black holes for hearts, demon deals, and interdimensional beings. Death, undeath, fates worse than death — and, perhaps, survival. (Please do check the author’s notes for the scope of themes addressed in this collection.)
Short story. A fable for adults in the tradition of Beauty and the Beast. In a town on the brink of ecological devastation, humans send a maiden as offering to an ancient mountain beast. Love might yet survive this climate collapse.
Short story. A woman falls in love with a haunted house and all the spirits inside. She loves each spirit like she loves the house that shelters them. Their killer may yet love her back.
Short story. A vampire who cannot give voice to her true desires. A willing woman who desires to be fed upon. Longing and bruised hearts make strange bedfellows.
Short story. An isolated man feels himself drift away from humanity. One night in the forest, he happens upon a pack of werewolves. The story of love and desire and community at the edge of humanity.
A short collection. Four short stories about the love of women, human and otherwise. Ghosts, killers, vampires, witches, and demons. Ranging from the melancholy and romantic to the off-beat and erotic.
Novella. A veiled lady lives in a manor, hidden in plain sight from a changing world. A curious woman accepts an offer to be companion and lover to the mysterious lady. There is only one rule: do not take off the blindfold.
I’m quite fond of these stories. I’m proud of more than a few of them. I hope these new covers give them a second chance at life.
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