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Power Laws

Understanding power laws has been giving me fits. They’re used to estimate sizes of earthquakes, moon craters, etc. and all sorts of statistical phenomena. Power laws were mentioned in an interesting article in this month’s MIT Technology Review titled “The Evolution of English Words and Phrases Since 1520.” A Slovenian researcher at the University of Maribor named Matjaz Perc surveyed the 5 million books digitized by the Google Books Project to determine which English words and phrases were most common from 1520 to 2008. “The most popular 5-word phrase in 1520, the first year for which data is available, is ‘the pope and his followers’.” Naturally I noticed that “in the Bodleian Library” was 5th most popular in 1604, when “God forbid it should be” came in first. 300 years ago, five of the first six 5-word phrases contained the word “sin,” and in 1912 they were “on the part of the,” “at the end of the,” and “in the case of the.” Perc’s phrase tables can be seen at www.matjazperc.com.

2012’s phrases will be problematic, though. 9,260 books were published in 1907, but an online article by Pat Bertram titled “How Many Books Are Going to be Published in 2012?” reports that publishing had grown from 300,000 to 411,422 in 2007, 1,052,803 in 2009, and “approximately 3,000,000 in 2011.” Furthermore, Bowkers, the major reference source for publishing, also issues the International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) that distinguishes each edition of books from all others, has issued 15 million ISBNs for 2012. Bertram notes that “some ISBNs don’t get used, some titles have a different ISBN for every edition, and some ebooks are published without ISBNs. As a frame of reference, 407,000 ISBNs were issued in 2007.”

The surge in publishing stats is largely attributable to computers, once considered the nemesis of books. The first book written by a computer is 2008’s “True Love,” which combined Anna Karenina characters in a plot written “in the style of Japanese author Haruki Murakami” by software written by a Russian publisher. It’s awfully bland, and it’s revealing that neither Amazon.com nor Bookfinder.com offer it.

Phillip Parker had done his bit to spike publishing stats. Customers request a book on an esoteric subject, and Parker obliges for a fee. His patented algorithm searches the huge databases of information he’s compiled and then extracts the needed information, and packages it in book-form. Amazon sells over 100,000 of the 700,000 titles offered by Parker’s company, ICON Group International. These titles can be incredibly obscure with little demand, so they often cost a lot. They range from “The 2007-2012 World Outlook for Wood Toilet Seats” ($795.) and “The World Market for Rubber Sheath Contraceptives” ($325.), to “Webster’s English to Haitian Creole Crossword Puzzles” ($14.95).

The question of which novel was the first written with a word processor remains undecided. Sci-Fi author Jerry Pournelle’s “Oath of Fealty” came out sometime in 1981, while crime novelist Stuart Woods’ “Chiefs” was published in March 1981, However, “Dune” author Frank Herbert sent drafts of books to his agent on 8-inch floppy disks in the 1970s, and John Hersey wrote “My Petition for More” on a word processor prototype at the Yale School of Art in 1972, becoming known as “the first to commit acts of literacy on a computer.”

The first book written on a computer and sold in bookstores is certain; Ralph and Terry Kovel wrote “The Complete Antiques Price List” using “28,000 keypunch cards and a few days of hand-sorting cards alphabetically” in 1967, according to www.kovel.com. “It went from start to manuscript to published book in less than a year, a good six months earlier than it could have been done by the usual, non-computer-aided, methods.”

Local interest in antiques is strong, and three copies of the 2013 edition of Kovel’s is already at your public library, along with an online antiques database from p4A.com, that surveys 140 U.S. auction houses for their price estimates. Kovel’s book includes record prices for items like a penny ($1,150,000 for a 1792 experimental copper coin), sports memorabilia ($4,415,658 for Babe Ruth’s 1920 Yankee’s jersey), and handbag ($203,150 for a red Hermes crocodile handbag).

There’s some sort of power law at play here, and while understanding it might be difficult, I’m not worried with a fully-charged public library in town. As one librarian put it, “In these days when customer support means hours on hold or an e-mail response, the opportunity to talk to a trained specialist about a problem is priceless.” And powerful!