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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.

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Big Questions
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

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