Tuesday, 13 January 2009


In a recent conversation I found myself making outrageous claims for Britain’s publishing industry in order to prop up an argument about national artistry and inventiveness.

The starting point for the debate was the different pronunciations of the word ‘patent’ and my understanding that “pat–tent” is the licence to make or sell an invention whereas “pay-tent” is the shiny leather. This led to a dimly remembered fact that, until only recently, Britain led the world in patents issued, a ‘fact’ that I regret to inform failed to withstand closer scrutiny.

I went on to say that Britain led the world in publishing more new titles per year than any other country, a bold claim that I thought I ought to check. What I found was interesting, as it seems UNESCO monitors national publishing output as an indicator of standards of living and education and publishes a list of their findings.

Of the 79 countries for which they have figures, Niger comes 79th having published 5 books in 1995, the last year for which numbers are available, whereas Eritrea broke the three digit barrier with 106 published books (1993). Towards the other end of the table things hot up. In 1996 France published 34,766 books, barely more than the Netherlands' 34,067, which seems odd given the disparity in the size of their populations while the Russian Federation published over ten thousand fewer new titles than Spain’s 46,330 which seems yet odder. I also read that Egypt published 2,215 new titles in 1995, which made me wonder if there is a library at Alexandria – I’m sure there must be. Oh to be the librarian! – and how large the building has to be in this modern era.

At the top of the table are two countries for which publishing output for 2005 is listed. One published no fewer than 206,000 new titles, the other 172,000. And yes, the United Kingdom tops the table, leading the world with new titles. For those with an interest in such things, the UK’s publishing sector is the second largest in Europe, employs some 167,000 people and represents 0.6% of the working population. The result of this labour in 2008 was 236.9 million books published making the trade worth £1.77bn

It is the second time Britain has overtaken the USA in twenty years, the last being in 2001, and in 2005-6 our new titles numbers increased by no less than 28% while US output contracted by 18%. It will be interesting to see if the election of a highly literate new president will affect this trend, whether a ‘professor’ President will inspire new authors and publishing companies more than the previous incumbent’s word-mangling ways managed.

Given Britain’s extraordinary literary production per capita, I now wonder why we haven’t participated in another UNESCO programme, that of World Book Capital City. Aimed at ‘promoting books and fostering reading’, previous holders have included Madrid, Bogota, Antwerp, Montreal and last year Amsterdam. Surely London would make a fine World Book Capital City before the much-vaunted ‘death of the book’ occurs in a rising tide of Kindles and other ‘readers’. I foresee a sort of Reading Olympics; serried ranks of spectators watching authors compete in such events as the 1000 word sprint and reading the high-speed output on giant screens, the multi-clausal jump in which authors have to maintain syntactical accuracy for as long as possible in a sentence peppered with subjects and predicates before returning to the original theme.

In fact this is such a good idea that I’ll stop there and give it some proper thought. Hell, it’s such a good idea I may patent it. Or even publish.





Richard Lewis said...

I know a guy who worked as an editor for unesco here in paris. apparently, the august body is responsible for half of those new titles itself. many of which never make it out of the unesco basement. can't think why The Hedge Toad and its Influence on Secularisation in the Maldives wasn't a hit. But I blame Nigella.

LF Barfe said...

Diagram Prize Gold, innit?