Living in the Information Age, we are accustomed to having answers to every question we could possibly have right at our fingertips. However, there are still questions that don’t have definitive answers and these are the ones that tend to drive us a bit crazy. For avid readers like us, one of these haunting questions is a simple one: how many books are in the world?
It’s a deceptively simple question. Sure, you could browse our ISBN database, which boasts a list of over 34 million unique ISBNs, which are used to classify books—but that would not be the correct answer.
If you’ve ever wondered how many books are in the world, we’ve done our best to find the answer.
Google had the best estimate.
In 2010, Google tried to definitively count how many books are in the world, counting 129,864,880.
Beginning with the invention of the printing press in 1440, Google counted data from ISBNs, libraries, and other sources to reach their number. However, the company did not count journals, individual essays, serials… the list goes on. Even more, there may be duplicates included in Google’s number.
Though 129,864,880 sounds like a believable number, this project was completed in 2010, meaning there have been 13 years worth of books published since then. So how many books are in the world, as of 2023?
UNESCO estimates that 2.2 million books are published every year.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, better known as UNESCO, is a leading source for information regarding publishing statistics.
The organization estimates that 2.2 million new titles are published every year, so if we add that number to Google’s count, we can surmise that there are roughly 158,464,880 unique books in the world as of 2023.
Unfortunately, this is only an estimate, as it’s nearly impossible to know the exact number.
Why Is It So Hard to Pinpoint an Exact Number of Books in the World?
Considering the sheer number of books that have been written since mankind learned to pick up a pen, counting all the books in the world is akin to counting individual grains of sand on a beach. Many are unaccounted for, while others slip through your fingers.
Even worse, we have to define what makes a book. Should this number only count novels? Or should we include comic books, magazines, and scientific journals, as well?
While we can’t pinpoint an exact number, the earlier estimate of 158,464,880 is our best bet. This ballpark figure accounts for the many literary contributions throughout history and into the modern era, but it’s still a rough estimate, as the actual count could vary. Here’s why:
1. Digital Publishing
As much as we love holding a physical book in our hands, it would be remiss of us to understate the importance of the e-book. With digital publishing growing exponentially, tracking and accounting for all of the e-books and digital publications out there is a monumental task.
Earlier numbers have been based on estimates from publishing houses, but nowadays, self-publishing your book online is easier and more accessible than ever. Unfortunately, this results in an innumerable amount of self-published books being left out of traditional publishing statistics, giving us a less accurate number of how many books are in the world.
3. Orphan Works
The term “orphan work” is used to describe books (and other types of media) that are copyright-protected, but the copyright holder, such as an author, is unknown or unable to be contacted. For example, this can look like historical books that were written anonymously, under a pseudonym, or the author has been lost to time.
Orphan works are typically not included in publishing numbers, but many have amassed throughout the years. To give you an idea of just how many orphan works may be out there, this 2009 study estimated that there are about 25 million orphan works in the public sector collections in the UK alone.
4. Variations and Repetitions
Throughout the years, titles across the globe have been reproduced in different editions, translations, and reprints, all of which further complicate the counting process. As a result, any all-time book counts have likely included dozens of variations of a single title.
How Many Books Are In The World?
Since the best we can do is an estimate, the true answer will remain an enigma. The question of how many books are out there is indeed a mystery, but that’s what makes the literary world so enchanting. It’s a realm without boundaries, where new creations continuously emerge alongside timeless classics. Each book offers a unique perspective, a world to explore, or knowledge to gain.