Monday, 16 February 2015

Do We Already Have Too Many Books In The World?

And by books, I mean works of fiction - there is always going to be the need for new works of non-fiction (for obvious reasons). Whichever conclusion you reach, I think you're going to find the question interesting.

In a recent Blog post I explained an interesting way that we could justify the contention that top sports stars could be argued to be overpaid. If we hold the view that sports stars are overpaid because wages have escalated beyond their reasonable level of utility, we can extend that kind of consideration into books too, because the writers' market is a noteworthy one for this kind of thought experiment. Consider how many books of fiction you think you'll get to read in your lifetime. You'll soon realise that when you compare the average reading time most of us afford ourselves in a lifetime against the time it would take to read all the excellent books ever written, it's clear that there are many more excellent works of fiction in the world than you'll ever get a chance to read. In other words, there are enough books in the world already to keep every one of us replete with good reading material, which in market terms could suggest the world doesn't need any more books written.

Now don't misunderstand, as we'll see in a moment, I am in favour of more books being written, and I'm glad that book writing doesn't come to a halt - but if there are enough high quality books of fiction in the world already, this suggests that every new book of fiction written imposes a social cost on the world.

You may protest that if, say, Donna Tarrt produces a new novel, and you buy it and really enjoy it, then that novel has brought about a social benefit to your life (and doubtless many others), not a social cost. To see what's wrong with that protestation, let me first briefly explain how markets give exhibition to social costs.

The writers' market is one of those oft-called winner-takes-all markets* (much like sport, movies and music industries) where those at the top-end of the profession earn very large sums of money and the rest comparably very little. But yet it is the allure of those very large sums of money (and the social kudos) for which many entrants still try to break into the writing market - which amounts to each new entrant lowering the probability for every other person in the writers' pool. Because of this, new entrants into the market have a very low probability of success - such low probability, in fact, that many of them would confer more societal value if they tried their hand at something else instead.

Because of the efficiency of a supply and demand market, price signals direct extraneous resources to their most valuable and effectual uses. When there is a surfeit of a resource there is supplier gain in re-direction. Or put more simply; in a world with too many apples, the market says Bob the greengrocer would be wise to buy more oranges and bananas. Consequently, then, in a world with enough books already, the market says a great many budding authors would contribute more value to society if they did something else.

Your willingness to purchase a Donna Tartt book for £10 is not just about conferring £10 (or more) worth of value to you, nor is it about the money that goes to the Tartt estate - it is about the total societal gain measured against the societal costs. To make things clearer, imagine it's just Donna Tarrt and you in the transaction, and multiply the ratios for a wider audience. Donna Tartt figures that with £7 worth of effort she can produce a book for which you will willingly pay £12. By selling it at the retail price of £10, Donna Tartt induces you to buy her book instead of buying a book from the list of superb books already written. In buying her book, the societal gain for you is £2 pleasure (because you paid £10, and valued the book at £12) + the reading, and for her it is £3 (because she expended £7 worth of effort and sold the product for £10), making a total societal gain of £5**.

The point being, to say that every new book contributes little societal value overall is not to say they are not good books - it's to say that there are hidden deadweight costs, not just in the already superb books not being purchased, but in the fact that in writing these new books society is being robbed of whatever else Donna Tartt would contribute to that society if she weren't writing novels. Whatever she would have done as an alternative to writing - a mobile hairdresser, a psychologist, a baker, a jewellery maker, or whatever the market dictates - is what is missing from the world due to her being a writer. So we have to factor in not just the £5 societal value from a Donna Tartt book, we must include the hairdressing she never undertook, or the psychotherapy she never practiced, or the bread or jewellery she never made, as well as counting the cost to the estates of the aforementioned past excellent authors in the list of books that make up all the books we need, and of which we already have enough.

Notice this is the same conclusion we reached with the top paid sports stars in the last Blog. Just like Donna Tarrt, it is the societal value lost by choosing sport instead of whatever else they would have done. If this kind of thinking seems strange to you, it's probably because you're not used to paying attention to those deadweight costs that hide behind the more palpable benefits that grab the attention first. Conversely, though, it's worth noting that many writers enjoy writing to the extent that even if they remained unpublished the projects would still be intrinsically rewarding enough to confer net benefits on the writer - and that must be offset against those deadweight costs.

As well as that, and despite the question "Do We Already Have Too Many Books In The World?" being an interesting one" (and despite evident social costs with every new book), I will now say why I still want to see new books being written so freely. The assumption that enough superb books have already been written to satiate us for a lifetime is possibly a precipitous and ill-conceived one - because who is to say that future writers won't take literary writing to a whole new level beyond our current expectations?  Just as some people in Roman times thought every invention that could ever be invented had been invented already, so too might the people brought up on Homer, Herodotus and Sophocles have hastily thought that this is the best literature can ever be.  How wrong they'd have been. Just as the Greeks and Romans couldn't forecast what was to come with the likes of Dante, Shakespeare and Flaubert, so too might we be ill-equipped to foresee what kind of literary quality might lie ahead in the future. Therefore we might be missing out if we assume everything that has already been written is enough.

And as well as saying that we really have no idea what future writers will produce to confound our expectations, and that they may well take literary writing to a whole new level beyond our current anticipations - the other important thing to say is this. Let's say on that basis of market superfluity we stopped producing works of fiction from this point on. There is another caveat that must be brought to bear - namely, for how long would we keep this up? Because humankind would eventually reach a point at which all books were so old that there would be nothing in the fiction market to which those with a contemporary backdrop could relate.

In conclusion, then, even though in terms of time and reading potential there are actually already enough books in the world already to keep every one of us replete with good reading material, and that in a winner-takes-all market each new entrant into the market lowers the probability for every other person in the writers' pool, I think we should prefer that books of fiction do actually carry on being written - the deadweight costs are probably compensated for by the treasures thrown up. One thing though - while you continue to enjoy the fresh and current material, always try to find time for the classic works of literature if possible. You won't be sorry!

* This notion was first popularly posited in Robert Frank's well known tome - "The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us", and has now become standard fare in most popular economics textbooks.

** Now, of course, writing a book takes more than £7 worth of effort, but obviously the marginal value scales up per item where the book only has to be written once, and sales can keep increasing while the net effort costs do not increase.