If your car is on the road, traffic is a bad thing. If your content is online, traffic is a good thing. You can be in traffic or you can have traffic, which changes everything.
When it comes to book cultures, traffic is not so much about how many books get sold than how much they move around. Like road traffic, it’s not so much a question of selling cars than putting them on the road. Not on all the roads, otherwise traffic wouldn’t be a problem. It’s about creating flow and bottlenecks in critical places. The same with books. It’s the stories, ideas and the sharing of content which creates traffic. In the Gutenberg age, newly printed books created traffic because ideas contained in those books were challenging old roads and got people engaging creatively (but also destructively) with each other at critical cultural points. In theology, philosophy, science and art, books circulated while ideas created traffic.
Traffic is a major source of cultural change. Pliny the Younger noted that April was the rush hour of book traffic with ‘scarcely a day when someone wasn’t giving a reading’. In an orality-dominated culture like Pliny’s ancient Rome, book traffic congested the airwaves. The Forum was the show-square of every face and voice book in town. Everyone was stuck in traffic, but only a few were generating enough traffic to get noticed.
Pliny’s advice to aspiring young authors is this: if you want to count, make sure you get your car stuck in traffic.