Putting the lie to libraries
How recent events have exposed the cost of all that free reading
Welcome to the 131st edition of SHuSH, the weekly newsletter of Sutherland House Books. If you’re new here, hit the button—it’s free:
Those of you who have been reading SHuSH for a while know that I suspect public libraries are doing harm to the publishing industry and author incomes.
Before the shooting starts, my standard qualifiers: I love libraries; they do a lot of fine work and are crucial civic institutions, running many outstanding programs and providing many necessary services, including the lending of books to children and people who genuinely can’t afford to buy them; I am always in libraries for research and to borrow and read hard-to-find books; I don’t want libraries to go away; I don’t want them harmed; I want their lending practices adjusted before they swallow what’s left of commercial publishing, book retailing, and, along with it, what’s left of author incomes.
By way of background, I’ve written at length in previous newsletters about how public libraries in the last decades of the last century abandoned their traditional role as gatekeepers of the culture, responsible for the moral, intellectual, and aesthetic growth of the public, choosing instead to pander to their patrons. They began pimping the likes of Mickey Spillane and Jacqueline Susann to goose the foot traffic and circulation stats they habitually use to demand of their political masters more funding and better buildings.
Over time, librarians have trained people who can afford to buy books for their own entertainment—the vast majority of library reading is for entertainment—to borrow them instead. Today, three out of four books read in the US and four out of five read in Canada are borrowed, not bought. That is bad for publishing, bookselling, and author incomes.
People on the library side haven’t appreciated my earnest researches. They’ve called me stupid and mean, fingered me as the sort of person who “would have burned the library at Alexandria,” and tweeted that I must have failed as an author, failed as a publisher, or been kicked out of a library for watching internet porn. All of them deny a problem, although none have controverted my data.
Some of my saner adversaries claim that people who borrow books also buy books, which is true but beside the point since the vast majority of books are still being borrowed rather than bought.
Others point out that libraries pay for the books on their shelves and encourage people to read which helps book sales, which is also true but library buying is scarcely material in the scheme of things and, again, the vast majority of books are borrowed rather than bought.
The library side further argues that every instance of a person borrowing a book does not represent a lost book sale: some borrowers were never going to pay for that book they took out of the library.
While I agree that there probably isn’t a one-to-one relationship between borrowed books and lost sales, that doesn’t mean all those borrowed books don’t represent substantial lost sales.
If there wasn’t some switching between buying and borrowing, why would libraries work so hard to impress upon patrons how much money they can save by borrowing rather than buying books? The American Library Association (ALA) circulates a handy savings calculator if you can’t do the math in your head.
A BookNet survey asked Canadians why they used libraries, and pretty much all of us admitted to
being cheapskates preferring free books to bought books:
I believe it is self-evident that spending loads of taxpayer money to make the most popular books available at no charge at dozens of points around a city (as well as online) undermines retail sales of books, as it would if the same were done for coffee, running shoes, or Leafs’ tickets.
I have to admit, at the same time, that I’ve lacked hard evidence showing a portion of book borrowing represents lost sales. Nobody has thoroughly researched the question (it certainly isn’t in the interests of libraries to do so). The absence of a smoking gun has made it easy for library defenders to throw up their hands: maybe there’s a relationship, maybe not. People love free shit and will cheerfully strangle good faith to retain access to it.
I’ve tried to devise ways to prove conclusively that libraries are seriously undermining book sales. Maybe some huge experiment where we closed the public libraries in a large jurisdiction and studied what happened to retail book sales. But who was going to organize that? It seemed impossible until COVID-19 stepped up.
Libraries across North America and, indeed, around the world, have been closed, semi-closed, or otherwise limited in their borrowing activities throughout the two-year course of the pandemic. According to Library Journal, total circulation of library materials collapsed by 25.7% in 2020 (notwithstanding a huge spike in e-book borrowing). It looks like physical borrowing fell by roughly half. The 2021 numbers aren’t out yet but individual library reports suggest they will look a lot like 2020.
Meanwhile, over in publishing land, the champagne corks are flying. US book sales, which grew healthily in the first pandemic year 2020, grew again in 2021 and are now 19% ahead of the pre-pandemic year, 2019. All the major publishers have reported smashing sales (attributing the increase to their own genius). All categories are up, including adult fiction (31% over 2019) and adult non-fiction (10% over 2019).
Going by these numbers, it appears that a roughly 25% reduction in library borrowing leads over a two-year period to an increase of 19% in bookselling. I wouldn’t bank on those numbers, or even on the rough proportions, but I think the data demonstrates that when you make books more difficult to borrow for free, people turn more frequently to booksellers.
The skeptics will say it has nothing to do with libraries. We’re in a pandemic, you idiot. People are locked down. More of us are reading, and probably a lot of us who’ve always been readers are reading more than we have in the past, accounting for the extra buying.
That seemed a plausible counter, and it was sufficient to keep me from spouting off until this week when new data emerged from Pew Research.
Pew has been surveying book readership in the US for the last decade. Its latest results show that 75% of Americans read a book last year which, pandemic notwithstanding, is not out of the ordinary. Over the last decade, between 72% and 78% of Americans have reported reading a book in a given year.
That indicates tee increase in book sales hasn’t come from new readers. It must have come from the usual readers buying more books than in the past.
Not according to Pew. Americans “read an average (mean) of roughly 14 books during the previous 12 months and the typical (median) American read five books in that period.” That is not out of the ordinary, either. In fact, those numbers are identical to 2011 when not a soul was locked down.
I can hear the protests: what does Pew know? It’s just one survey…
But Gallup this week chimed in with a second study. It finds that 17% of American adults did not read a book in the past year, which is consistent with several other Gallup surveys dating back to 2002, so no change there.
It also reveals that the average American read 12.6 books (all or part-way through) in 2021, down from 15.6 five years ago, and a high of 18.5 in 1999. That’s a significant decline in reading, pandemic notwithstanding.
There has been no spike in book reading that accounts for a whopping 19% increase in book sales during COVID-19’s run. If the same number of people are reading the same number of books (or fewer), the only logical explanation is that readers are now buying their books because it’s temporarily difficult to borrow them.
It’s time for librarians to own up to their impact on publishing, bookselling, and especially author incomes. In previous articles, I used the ALA’s own calculator to determine that the 2.16 billion items borrowed annually in American public libraries (pre-pandemic) “saved” readers $30.5 billion annually, which is almost four times the $7.9 billion in revenue at all U.S. trade publishers. In Canada, where we use our libraries more and our publishing industry is relatively anemic, the situation is even uglier. With the best of intentions, public libraries have become an overwhelming presence, trampling publishing, bookselling, and especially authors.
As I wrote just over a year ago, “the U.S. Authors Guild declared that literary incomes were becoming a ‘crisis of epic proportions.’ The median haul for its members, including full-time, part-time, traditionally published and self-published authors, was US$6,080 in 2017, down from US$10,500 in 2009. If you isolate what the authors made on book sales (as opposed to speech-making and pole dancing), their median income was US$3,100. Gentrified authors, those working with traditional publishing houses, made US$12,400. The crisis is just as epic in Canada, where the average writer made $9,380 last year, according to the Writers’ Union of Canada. That’s down 78 percent from 1998.”
I won’t repeat the salaries of librarians (although you can find them here), or mention their benefits and pensions. I’ll just note, again, that they do very well, working off the backs of the publishing and literary communities. They need to set aside, for the time being, their relentless campaigns for the welfare of libraries and librarians—Big Library has as single-minded and blinkered a lobby as Big Pharma—to address the damage they’re doing to writing and publishing.
There are solutions to this problem that won’t do harm to the real work of libraries, including user fees for some patrons, a much more robust public lending right, and exclusive new release windows for the retail trade. I discussed a few of them here. Surely the ALA can come up with better ideas if it put its mind to it.
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Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)
Art Kavanagh’s Talk about books: Book discussion and criticism.
Gayla Gray’s SoNovelicious: Books, reading, writing, and bookstores.
Esoterica Magazine: Literature and popular culture.
Benjamin Errett’s Get Wit Quick, literature and other fun stuff
Jeet Heer’s The Time of Monsters: political culture and cultural politics
Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.
Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.
Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)
Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different
Art Canada Institute: a reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion
Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world
Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations
Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice
John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations
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