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Information Overload

Information Overload

That’s staggering when you think about it. At this rate (and it shows no signs of letting up), U.S. publishers double their rate of new titles every eight years. That kind of growth makes sense when you’re talking about a new invention, like MP players or something, but books? Books have been around forever.

Or have they? Certainly the book world of today is very different from the book world of just a few years ago. has been around less than 10 years. Barnes & Noble and Borders superstores have been around only since the ’90s. Prior to that, if you went to a bookstore, it was likely to be relatively small, and you probably did not have the option of buying a cup of coffee, let alone a tall double skinny latte with a slice of heaven from The Cheesecake Factory.

In many ways, the change we have witnessed in the book industry is symptomatic of the pervasive cultural transformation wrought by close technological cousins the microchip and the Internet. Publishing is only one of many, many industries that has been swept into the aftermath of this technological revolution. In fact, one could argue that every major sector of the economy has been revolutionized by post-industrial technology.

So what are we to make of this dramatic increase in the number of titles published each year? Well, for one thing, it gives us more variety, and we have more options to choose from. I don’t know about you, but I like variety! I like choices. On the downside, it is just one more example of information overload. Other examples include the increase of channels available on TV, the infinite sea of websites and the ballooning number of periodicals now available. (A friend and I recently noticed there is a magazine for people who not only hunt, but hunt with a pointer dog. Now that’s niche!).

The very phrase “information overload,” so popular these days, implies there is such a thing as an excess of information. But when? When does the necessary amount of information stop and an excessive amount begin? Perhaps it’s when we are no longer able to pick up and take in and respond to each bit of information that is coming at us.

I also think the phrase refers particularly to advertising, which seems a ubiquitous intrusion, whether we’re on the web (where popups are especially invasive), driving down a highway, watching TV or listening to the radio. I was recently bamboozled into forking over $10 for membership into Blockbuster’s Rewards program when all I came for was a $1.99 rental. The ad came so quickly from the clerk across the counter, I couldn’t process the information fast enough and made a snap decision. A dumb move on my part, I admit, but it serves to illustrate the negative effects of information overload.

I’m not terribly afraid I’ll spend too much money in a snap decision to purchase a book, but isn’t it inevitable that if publishers are doubling their rate of production every eight years, the number of lousy books will increase? Might we be sold a bill of goods the next time we go to Borders? It’s interesting to note that when the printing press was invented, the only book being published was the Bible. In many ways it’s all been downhill from there.

My point is that when we go to a bookseller and stare at all the spines and covers that beckon for our bills, we’ll have to be smart about what we decide to pick up and take home. If we aren’t, odds are we’ll buy one of the bad ones.

[Chad Allen is an acquisitions editor for a book publisher in Grand Rapids, Mich.]

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