It’s called a “slow fire,” this continuous acidification and subsequent embrittlement of paper that was created with the seeds of its own ruin in its very fibers. In a 1987 documentary on the subject, the deputy Librarian of Congress William Welsh takes an embrittled, acid-burned book and begins tearing pages out by the handful, crumbling them into shards with an ease reminiscent of stepping on a dried-up insect carcass.
The destruction is inevitable. Depending on how a book was made and how it’s been stored, embrittlement can happen in as little as 30 to 100 years. Already, books have been lost, and the methods of preservation are too limited, time-consuming, and expensive to address the scale of the problem. Mass deacidification, where an alkaline neutralizing agent is introduced via a spray or solution applied to paper, once seemed like the golden solution; but while it can be used to prevent slightly acidified paper from deteriorating, it doesn’t reverse the effects of prior damage. The fallback is digitization—a fancy way to say mass-scanning, and the most used method of saving the content of a text, but not the book itself. In an article about the Library of Congress’ digitization efforts, Kyle Chayka reports that it would take literally decades of scanning to preserve the institution’s over 160 million object collection. At our existing technology’s current scanning pace, preserving the prints and photographs division alone would take about 300 years.
According to the latest report from ProQuest affiliate Bowker, self-publishing grew at a rate of 40 percent in 2018 – and shows no signs of slowing down.
Bowker’s annual study, “Self-Publishing in the United States, 2013-2018,” highlights self-publishing trends based on the number of ISBNs registered in the Bowker Books In Print® database. A book’s ISBN is a 13-digit product identifier used by libraries, booksellers, publishers and internet retailers for ordering, listing, sales records and inventory.
The combined total of self-published print books and ebooks with registered ISBNs grew from almost 1.2 million in 2017 to more than 1.6 million in 2018. The vast majority of those books came from the top three independent publishing platforms.
“The self-publishing landscape continues to improve, creating more and more opportunities for authors to manage their own path through the process,” said Beat Barblan, Vice President of Publishing and Data Services at Bowker and chairman of the board of the International ISBN Agency. “As more authors take advantage of the abundant tools now available to publish, distribute and market their own books, we expect that self-publishing will continue to grow at a steady pace.”