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literary culture

Unsurprising statistics from the United States: The number of self-published books published in that country annually, both print and e-books, has grown 287 per cent since 2006. That makes close to 250,000 self-published titles a year out there. These statistics were gathered by the company that oversees ISBNs (international standard book numbers) in the U.S.

I haven't found equivalent stats for Canada, but common sense says the trend is true for all countries. Never before in history has there been more available to read. That idea makes some people excited – for surely somewhere swirling in this frothy swelling surf is revolutionary insight that may not have ever taken shape in more hierarchical systems – and left others feeling strangely uneasy about the rising flood of words, most of them banal, far too many to ever be read or even adequately curated.

One would think that the vast majority of these new titles are e-books, but that isn't the case. Print books still make up 63 per cent of these self-published titles, although the e-book percentage is mounting dramatically every year. The majority of all self-published books, both print and electronic, are created with the help of large companies (Smashwords, CreateSpace, Author Solutions) that sell publishing services to authors. In other words, the market for these books is not you or me, the general public; the market is the authors themselves. Once the book is in existence, virtual or otherwise, it's up to the author to distribute and promote it, and that's exactly where most of these projects stall and languish – in that great silent forest of falling trees, cyberspace.

Of course all the companies involved in this business like to point out how many self-published books have somehow attracted mass audiences and made it to The New York Times bestseller lists. The Joy of Cooking, Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Celestine Prophecy, Fifty Shades of Grey … these are the great flashing beacons of hope for every net-forum fan-fiction writer in the world. Of course those cases are so rare as to be statistically negligible, but hope in art is a kind of religion; it survives through irrational faith alone.

What effect does this massive outpouring of expression and opinion have on literary culture, and on the world of ideas generally? The moderns are thrilled at the new democracy of ideas and the loosening of restraints on what is considered literature. They love the idea that the strictly formulaic sub-genres of fantasy fiction are pleasing a mass audience as pleasing a mass audience is exactly what the best art should do. They love the fact that teenagers have cultivated their own online free publishing networks for the kinds of stories that teenagers like. They point to popular music and the great word-of-mouth successes of bands without major labels.

They also point to the great thinkers of history and what subversive methods they have had to use to release radical or unpopular ideas into conservative atmospheres. Here's just one of many famous examples: An American statistician called Edward Tufte revolutionized the new field of information design with a book called The Visual Display of Quantitative Information – a book that was turned down by major presses and self-published by Tufte in 1982. He took out a second mortgage on his home to do so. The book is now the bible of the discipline. How many Edward Tuftes were silenced by cautious publishers in that era, and how many more original ideas will be buoyed to the surface by the instantaneously international word-of-mouth that the Internet now provides? We can only benefit from more, from more of everything.

The ancients are simply weary of self-expression, suffering from ennui perhaps, queasy at the notion of more of everything, especially more of the mundane – more books that are extended status updates, more fantasy genres with codified rules, more pseudo-Buddhist self-help – and queasy at the notion of yet more teenager influence on the culture at large. And they are skeptical of the economic benefits of a giant self-publishing industry with no readers.

This is a jaded stance: One does not have to read or even see anything one doesn't want to. (The ubiquitous promotion of crap, however, is not invisible, at least for anyone who participates in social media.) In fact, the massive new stream of memoirs and teenage werewolves doesn't make any difference to anyone who isn't seeking those things out.