Felapton Towers Scoop – How Numbers are Disappearing

Look, there’s just some breaking stories that you can only read here thanks to the deep investigative journalism that my crack team of journalists do. In this case – plugging two digit numbers into Google n-gram.


I don’t know what I expected the graph to look like but apparently peak numbers-in-books was sometime in the late 1980s after which the bubble burst plunging books into a deepening two-digit-numbers-as-words recession.

The decline is present in both the US and the UK:


And is present for three digit numbers also:


OK but what about single digits? I hear you ask. Surely the blue-chip of the numerical world are still going strong? Nope. Number 1 obviously has been number 1 for sometime but at the turn of the millenium, even it felt the decline.

Four digit numbers? That’s a whole other ball game. The four digit market is dominated by YEARS. So peak 2000 was shortly after the year 2000 (this impacts two digit numbers a bit as well – 90 gets a bit of a boost in the 1990s).

Here is what I think is going on. The internet and the proliferation of software for sharing numerical data has created other avenues for publishing numerical data. Consequently printed documents with really large amounts of numerical data have become a smaller proportion of books published. Data sets are more likely to be made availbleas downloadable files (text, CSV etc) rather than as printed volumes.

A way to test that hypothesis would be to look at a corpus that was only FICTION. Changes in how data is published shouldn’t impact fiction! However, style habits may impact numbers written as digits – the normal prescription is that smaller numbers should be written in words. So, I’ll look at the number one hundred and twenty three as a test case – it should be written as digits normally.

Unfortunately…the results were inconclusive. When I clicked on the examples the “English Fiction” corpus was drawing from they were all NON-FICTION. Grrrrr Google giving me free tools to explore data to my hearts content and you make them not entirely perfect!

So, I can’t definitively tell you were the numbers have gone. Sorry.


11 thoughts on “Felapton Towers Scoop – How Numbers are Disappearing

  1. I can tell you where the numbers have gone. It doesn’t have much to do with the Internet, which wasn’t really fully cooking until the late 1990’s. It has to do with the wholesale market for books and magazines, which collapsed. (If you run the numbers for magazines, you’ll get similar graphs.)

    In the early 1990’s, there was a big recession, (plus the Gulf War in the U.S. messed things up for a few critical months.) It was the first of the big recessions, which occur at the end/beginning of each decade (we’re due for a new one in the next few years.) In the wake of that recession, which hit retail hard in a number of countries including the U.S. and the U.K., non-bookstore vendors for books, magazines and newspapers such as grocery stores, drug stores, department stores, newsstands, music stores, etc. made some changes. They cut drastically the number of items they sold, first off — fewer books (they sold mainly paperbacks.) And they also reduced drastically the number of wholesale vendors supplying them that they ordered from. As Tom Doherty told me, in the U.S., the wholesale suppliers went from about 600 different companies to 6 large ones within a year or two. This devastated most of the magazine market as well and led to the beginning of the end, etc.

    Mass market paperbacks are not big moneymakers for publishers because they don’t make enough profit with shipping and printing costs and the price discounts on top of the list price. When mass market paperbacks are being returned, vendors rip off the front covers and pulp the books because that’s cheaper than trying to ship them back for the full refund from the publishers, who pay the shipping costs for returns. So unlike hardcover and trade paperback returns, which are returned as full books, returned mm paperbacks can’t be returned to inventory and resold. What makes mm paperbacks useful is that they can be sold in bulk in wide distribution through the wholesale market, which makes up for the costs. When the wholesale, non-bookstore market radically shrunk in terms of distributors and buys from vendors, it was an enormous loss, especially for sectors of the market that do well in mm paperback, such as genre fiction and self-help. The entire fiction market went into a slump from which many sectors still haven’t fully recovered. (Fantasy was spared more than most because it had a bunch of big books doing well in hc.)

    With the mammoth losses in the wholesale non-bookstore markets, that meant trying to get more mm paperbacks moved into bookstores. And the bookstores didn’t really want them because they don’t make money for them because they don’t sell most of their stock in bulk. Which is why a lot more fiction started coming out first in hardcover and trade paperback than they used to do — to get the bookstores to play ball and make decent margins. The bookstores are also fewer in number, so even if they wanted to, they couldn’t make up the loss of market. The big chains were opening up their superstores in the 1990s, so they did take some large numbers of mm paperbacks in bulk, but they also deliberately wiped out a lot of the independent bookstores, so that the overall number of bookstores decreased throughout the 1990’s. That meant even fewer vendors for publishers since the wholesale market didn’t come back and in fact got worse. And the big chains were owned/bought by corporations that didn’t really care about their success in the weird world of book-selling but instead pressed for constant growth beyond what the stores could do and milked the chains for cash/stock buybacks by slashing staff, etc. That’s what took out Borders and it’s currently killing Barnes & Noble.

    When Amazon lit up the tiny e-book retail market a decade ago, that helped since e-book sales took the place of some of the lost mm paperback sales. But e-books, requiring electronic equipment, Internet hook-up, etc., were always going to be more limited a market, and when Amazon kept trying to keep a monopoly on the whole market — largely successfully — that even more limited the market. So e-books have leveled off in sales, especially as Amazon has less and less interest in them (they only make up a tiny part of its sales, like 3% out of 7% total for all book sales.) Neither e-books, nor fishing the best self-pub products for reprint were going to save book sales. The YA and middle grade book expansion — which was largely hardcover and trade paperback — in the early oughts did boost those sections considerably but that has also leveled off though continues to be strong. A pricing war between WalMart, Target and Amazon — all wholesale accounts — helped things in the U.S. for about a year. Renewed Hollywood interest in adapting books for t.v., streaming and film helped, (it also had declined in the 1990’s.)

    Book sales have improved, a lot of indies have done well, smaller chains that can manage their inventory and space rent or mortgages have done well. The U.K. market is actually a lot healthier than the bigger U.S. one. The industry is basically doing the sort of growth rate that it did before corporations kept pushing for bigger returns in the 1980’s and 1990’s — low, small percent growth, narrow margins. More books are put out now than before and the market got much better globally. But there are fewer vendors, bookstore and non-bookstore than there were in 1990. The wholesale market is still shrunk, hurting lots of different products. They need more places that sell books and that they can sell to in bulk amounts. And they haven’t figured out a solution to that yet. They can’t go to China for sales like the movies or music. And it doesn’t help that book readers are marketing resistant, especially for fiction, and tend to not buy ancillary merchandise to books, unlike other entertainment and info products. (Piracy doesn’t help either.)

    So there you go, that’s why the numbers drop off after the late 1980’s — the wholesale market went bye-bye and no good replacements for its shrunken husk has emerged, nor have they been able to grow it back enough yet. But book-selling can survive on very low rates of growth, unlike most other products because the people who do buy books regularly (about 25% of the population,) tend to keep doing it, plus the educational market remains fairly steady and successful.

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    1. While that is a true story it doesn’t explain the graphs. The figures are relative proportions to the year of the data, so overall shifts in publishing are already accounted for. So this is a relative decline in *digits* appearing in published texts.

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  2. Where have all the numbers gone?

    “10” was your best bet for a long time if you’re investing in numbers, although not since the 80’s has it been worthwhile. Perhaps one should short it. “11” seems to be the only one that’s made up even a bit of the drop. Inflation, perhaps?


  3. Ah, I completely misunderstood what numbers-in-books meant, lol. Next time I should look more closely at the actual graphs.

    As the late great Gilda would say, “Never mind.”

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  4. I have to wonder to what degree the earlier counts are off due to poor scan quality or confusing typography, leading to OCR errors such that numerals in the text are incorrectly identified as non-numerals, and vice-versa.

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  5. Leafing through old notebooks, I found a sketch of four people sitting around a game board, looking extremely bored themselves. The caption: “Number Scrabble.”


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