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How Many Books Have Ever Been Published?

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When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, he couldn’t have foreseen how his humble creation would eventually lead to a global industry churning out millions of books each year. In the centuries since, new books continue getting published while old books pile up so that the total number of books that exist would be inconceivable to a man who placed every letter by hand. While counting up all the actual individual texts populating bookstores, public libraries, and private collections throughout the world would be a Sisyphean task, there might be a way to at least approximate how many unique book titles have ever been published.

Trying to determine how many books there are first raises a deceptively simple question: What is a book, anyway? That can get deeply philosophical very quickly, and there’s no single answer to it. The team behind Google Books (whose ambitious goal is to digitize all printed material, allowing unprecedented access to the world’s knowledge in a single database) came up with their own definition in 2010, in an attempt to answer this thorny query: What they refer to as a “tome” comprises an “idealized bound volume,” covering the range from a bestselling novel with copies available at every airport newsstand to a rare, leather-bound out-of-print edition to a single catalogued manuscript of someone’s PhD dissertation going quietly unread in a university collection.

On its surface, this definition replicates the concept underlying International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN), the universal identifiers for all books in the commercial marketplace. However, ISBNs have only existed since the mid-1960s and have yet to be widely adopted in non-Western regions of the world, so relying solely on that single number omits vast portions of printed material. Even when they are used, the process of assigning ISBNs isn’t particularly rigorous, so plenty of “book-like objects” that are definitely not books come with an ISBN: audiobooks, instructional DVDs, flash cards, etc. Relying solely on ISBNs to determine the number of published books offers a murky, unsatisfying answer.

Other institutions have attempted to standardize their comprehensive book catalogs, among them WorldCat and the Library of Congress, but these numbers are even more likely to be assigned in multiples to the same titles due to different cataloguing rules. Simple titles, author names, and publishing companies are less reliable still, as human error in transcribing all that information into a database can also lead to duplicates.

The success of Google Books’s attempt at solving this problem takes into account all these various shortcomings, and uses them to cross-reference nearly a billion raw records from 150 distinct providers to narrow down the number to just one of each book. After weeding out all the assumed duplicates, there are still certain non-book entries that need to be discarded, including two million videos, two million maps, and a turkey probe that was once added to a library card catalog as an April Fools' Day joke. All told, Google Books came up with—drumroll, please!—129,864,880 books total. Phew.

But wait, there’s more! Despite Google’s best efforts, their algorithm fails to account for certain crucial factors: Not only is their calculation outdated, having been tallied in 2010, but it predates the recent surge in self-publishing, especially in digital formats. Though ISBNs are recommended for all titles, they are not required for self-published works carried in most e-book marketplaces, and there is no reliable system for keeping track of them otherwise. As the popularity of self-publishing increases, with nearly half a million new titles released in 2013 alone, the Google Books algorithm only gets further from reality.

Until Google updates its methodology, we can at least do a little extrapolation with the data we have to figure out a more accurate number of published books in existence in 2016. It’s a moving target, relies on unreliable ISBNs, and will require some educated guessing along the way, but here it goes anyway.

According to Bowker, the organization responsible for keeping track of all newly assigned ISBNs in the United States, the years 2011 to 2013 saw the publication of nearly one million new titles (and maybe a few reprints). A U.S. Industry and Trade Outlook statistic indicates that the United States produces about 40 percent of the world’s printed material; if it would be fair to assume that the U.S. is responsible for a similar percentage of non-printed text, it becomes possible to estimate a figure for total global book production, which comes out to about 2,267,265 new books published worldwide from 2011 to 2013.

More recent data is hard to come by, so the best way of filling in the gap between 2013 and now may be to average book production over the last three years (755,755 new titles annually worldwide) and add that to the 2013 total. After some basic arithmetic, it seems that a low threshold for the number of unique books in existence as of halfway through 2016 is (another drumroll, please) 134,021,533 total. And that’s all she wrote—for now, anyway.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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