The libraries strike back

What have we learned, apart from that I'm stupid and mean?

Two weeks ago, I argued in the Globe & Mail that the increasingly aggressive lending practices of public libraries are seriously undermining bookselling, the publishing industry, and author incomes. The article didn’t sit well with librarians (much more on this below). First, with apologies to those who read it, a quick summary of the piece:

* there are three times as many books borrowed as bought in the US every year, and four times as many in Canada.

* libraries don’t passively lend books, they compete with booksellers by advertising how much people can save by borrowing rather than buying books, and they compete among themselves to lend the most books possible.

* libraries urge people to borrow books because more borrowing builds their case for more public funding (the more patrons, the higher the funding requests).

* libraries claim to deliver nearly $6 of economic activity for every $1 in public funding they receive, a number arrived at by counting each book borrowed as “economic value” equivalent to the purchase price of the book (in fact, book borrowing represents the destruction of economic value, i.e., a lost sales to booksellers and lost income to authors).

* the problem has become more urgent in recent decades as borrowing per capita has roughly doubled in both Canada and the US.

* all this borrowing has been more detrimental to the publishing industry than the rise of Amazon, which discounts books and floods the market with cheap e-books but at least sells books, bringing substantial revenue to publishers and authors, while libraries lend books in much higher volumes, bringing minimal revenue for publishers and authors.

* all this borrowing is the major reason author incomes are at record lows, down 78% in the last 20 years in Canada to $9,380 a year (US author incomes are similarly low and falling).  

* public librarians are now as numerous and far better paid (by a factor of at least five) than the authors who produce the books they lend.

* their own data shows that most public library lending is of books read for entertainment, not edification, by people who can afford to pay for books.


I was clear in the article that I love libraries. I think they do much fine work and are crucial civic institutions, running many outstanding programs and providing many great services, including the lending of books to children and people who genuinely can’t afford them. I use libraries incessantly for research and to read hard-to-find books. I don’t want them to go away. I want their lending practices contained before Big Library swallows what’s left of the commercial publishing world and, along with it, what’s left of author incomes.


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Libraries and librarians tend to think of themselves as humble community-based service organizations, which in some respects is true. In aggregate, however, they are an enormous and largely unchallenged force colonizing the book world. They have shifted from lending mostly for edification to pimping best-sellers in order to increase traffic at their branches. They’ve reordered their floor space to promote more reading for entertainment and installed coffee shops to keep customers borrowing and returning. They’ve doubled down on the events business. They’ve embraced digital and audiobooks so their patrons can access books without leaving home.

That four of every five books picked up by a reader in Canada is borrowed rather than read means Big Library has an 80% market share. That’s very close to Google’s dominance of the search market.

My proposed solutions to these problems are rather modest. One option is for publishers to curtail the supply of books to libraries, either by limiting the number of books sold into libraries or by charging libraries a lot more for what they buy. If we don’t want to curtail borrowing, the other option would be for libraries to better compensate publishers and authors for lending rights. That could be done by massively expanding the federal program that currently pays writers a handful of beans for their lending rights; or by instituting a Netflix-style monthly fee for heavy library users and those who read for entertainment.


Immediately on release of the article, there was a call to arms among librarians on twitter:

As one would expect, the call to arms brought mostly personal attacks. Library twitter is like the rest of twitter. People called me stupid and mean. One tweeter accused me of being against civilization, another of being the sort of person who “would have burned the library at Alexandria.” Several made up arguments that weren’t in my article: that I wanted people to have no access to books, that I was denying that public libraries serve a useful purpose. Some anonymous gentleman called the article “the dumbest shit I have ever read,” a sentiment I appreciated because hardly any of his fellow tweeters had read it.

The ad hominem attacks weren’t all from librarians. Someone who described himself as my “friend” had this to say:

A few Canadian writers jumped in with personal attacks and drivel of their own. This one called for my books to be banned from libraries:

Another one pushed the theory that I wrote the article because my Hoover book didn’t sell:

This one troubled me, a published author comparing bookselling to prostitution:

He wasn’t the only one whose mind ran immediately to sex:

I didn’t respond to most of this. It was news to me that libraries serve porn, although I’m not surprised given their imperial tendencies, and apparently it’s difficult to get kicked out of a library for viewing it. I was sorely tempted to defend Hoover’s impressive sales and the health of my publishing company but that was only going to take the focus from my article. And I’d asked for the abuse. I’d tweeted the article and tagged the American Library Association and other concerned parties, and gone online once in a while to stir the #librarytwitter pot.

My intention in doing so was to eventually find someone who would engage with the substance of my article (it happens, even on twitter). I’d spent a lot of time writing it. I was confident in my arguments but the problems of commercial publishing in a world where literature is mostly free are so little discussed that I had to create my own analytic framework. I was anxious to see how it would stand up under fire. I hoped to engage with some smart, analytical library types. I was disappointed. So were some elements of #librarytwitter:

It’s now been almost two weeks and nothing has changed. Canadian librarians did manage an official response, written by Kitchener librarian Mary Chevreau and published in Publisher’s Weekly.

She accused me of “a broader disdain for public services” and making “an argument for privatization” of libraries, which I guess is true if you believe that allowing a commercial publishing business to survive amounts to the privatization of books.

She says “bookstores and libraries have coexisted harmoniously and supported each other for decades,” never mind the abundant evidence in my article and still more here showing librarians deliberately competing with bookstores for market share.

Instead of addressing my evidence that four in five books read in Canada are borrowed rather than bought, she claims the real problem is Amazon, which represents 42% of book sales. She does not seem to appreciate that Amazon at least charges for books.

She says libraries serve writers and publishers by purchasing their books and promoting authors and their work, as though patting writers on the head after buying one of their books and lending it out ten or twenty times—destroying, by Chevreau’s own math, ten or twenty sales—is a service to literature. (Chevreau is on record as another librarian who believes that each book lent by her library generates $16 in “economic activity” by saving the borrower the price of the book.)

Finally, Chevreau points to a library-sponsored study that shows library users are more likely than non-library users to purchase books. This is a favorite ruse of librarians. I’ve never understood their fondness for it. They seem to think that library borrowing stimulates book sales. Reference to the study is often accompanied by anecdotes of individuals discovering a new author in a library and buying that author’s next book in a bookstore. I’m sure that happens. It doesn’t change the fact, which Chevreau won’t address, that the vast majority of books are borrowed rather than bought. All her study says is that librarians have yet to figure out how to capture the last vestiges of commercial publishing, leaving some readers with no choice but to buy books.

She goes on claim that I want to deny books to people who can’t afford them (I expressly said the opposite). I’m accused of being anti-entertainment (in fact, I like it so much I think people will pay for it).

She argues that libraries are critical institutions of civility and democratic life, as though that places them above criticism and entitles them to do anything they want.

She has no answers to my data on the wild amount of lending, nothing to say about the deliberation with which libraries compete with bookstores, or the library community’s dishonest representation of the “economic value” of lending. She is silent on the perverse outcome that people who lend for free another’s work earn at least five times as much as creators of the work. She voices no concern for the plight of authors, and seems to agree with the sentiment I encountered several times on #librarytwitter that libraries are more important than the people who produce books.

In sum, the response of the libraries has been bankrupt.


A more interesting retort to my article came from anti-copyright crusader Michael Geist. Michael thinks most content should be free. I disagree with him but he’s a smart and interesting guy. He takes issue with me describing as “a handful of beans” the $800-a-year the average writer receives from a federal government program that compensates authors for library borrowing.

Michael estimates that the average author royalty for a book sale is $4, so the average author, pulling in $800 from the feds, is compensated for about 200 borrowings a year. That’s not nothing, he says.

I agree the program is worthwhile, and that $800 is not nothing. But it’s next to nothing.

Say an author has a reasonable success and her new book finds its way into half of Canada’s 1,600 public libraries and is loaned out eight times a year (which is average for a book). That’s 6,400 borrowings. The federal program is capped at $467 a book/year, enough to compensate our author for 122 borrowings, or 1.9 per cent of the total. If she’s a breakout author and gets into every bookstore, or if many libraries buy multiple copies of her book, bringing her copies in circulating to 1,600 books, she’s compensated for 0.9 per cent of the total. To me, that’s beans.

In my Globe piece, I disagreed with the librarians’ estimate that each book borrowed represents a lost sale. My guess is that maybe one in four borrowings represent a lost sale. Michael adopts this one-in-four model to suggest that authors are well-compensated for lost sales, if not borrowings. It’s true that the numbers look better when you focus on lost sales. That author with a book in every second library would be compensated for 7.6% of her lost sales. It’s a bigger handful of beans, to be sure, but still beans.


There was one counter-argument to the Globe article to which I have no response. It is a more extreme version of Geist’s content-should-be-free approach. Someone suggested that it makes no difference how unfairly writers and publishers are treated, they’ll still produce books:

He or she has a point. Many writers will still write regardless of the shape of the book market. If you want to be callous about it, let writers and editors and publishers starve—there will still be great stuff to read.

It reminded me of a Turkish ambassador to Canada I met some years ago. I raised the subject of the Armenian genocide. He was a large, slow-moving man who smoked those long black Turkish cigarettes. He winked at me as he lit one: “If Turkey had committed genocide against the Armenians, would there be so many Armenians running around today complaining of how they were mistreated?”

No, no, no, I’m not suggesting we are committing genocide against writers. I’m just noting that the ambassador, too, left me speechless.


One last comment on libraries. There’s no reason I should have the last word on this subject. What we need is an independent third-party study to examine the impact of libraries on publishing. I’m not talking about another library-sponsored conjuring of fake “economic value.” Some level of government that funds libraries needs to hire Boston Consulting or KPMG or some other credible outfit to quantify the impact of borrowing on the commercial publishing industry and author incomes. Given the vast sums we spend on our libraries annually, isn’t it something we want to know?


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