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Libraries, Readers, and The Future of Publishing

Recently, Terry Deary, author of the children’s books Horrible Histories, created a bit of a stir when he claimed that libraries are no longer relevant and that they hurt authors and the publishing industry. Terry DearySpeaking at his local council meeting, Deary said:

We’ve got this idea that we’ve got an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council taxpayers. This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that…The libraries are doing nothing for the book industry. They give nothing back…Why are all the authors coming out in support of libraries when libraries are cutting their throats and slashing their purses?

Of course, the response was swift and passionate.

“Selfish & stupid, shortsighted & sad. Mostly selfish. Terry Deary gets avaricious & anti-library:bit.ly/15de7Ve” – Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) February 13, 2013

Others questioned Deary’s arguments about royalties. For instance, not only do libraries purchase their books from publishers, putting money into author’s pockets; but also under the UK’s Public Lending Right, Deary has personally earned 6.2p every time his book was borrowed (with a cap of £6,600). He also assumes that borrowing and buying books are mutually exclusive choices.

book of romance by breathing2004Moreover, although Deary also believes schools offer sufficient exposure to literature, it has been my experience that schools offer only limited exposure to genre fiction. Therefore, many fans of genre fiction are left to scour their local libraries for books about magic, dragons, and elves.

When I was young, I loved going to the library because I was free to pick books I liked and ignore those I didn’t. I could develop my own tastes, free from the pressures of book report assignments and tests. I discovered new authors and series, and those discoveries led to lifetime of reading. To this day, I buy many books, and I still borrow many books.

But why do I bring up Deary’s comments on this site? While it’s easy to attack Deary’s remarks, I think what has been lost in the shuffle is how his remarks fit into the larger discussion of the future of the publishing industry. Think about the issues Deary mentioned: pricing, royalty payments, access to books, and discovery of new authors. These are the same underlying issues that surface during discussions of traditional publishing vs. self-publishing; book pirating; and comparing the advice of friends, booksellers, and librarians to the algorithms of Amazon or Goodreads.

BookstoreToo often these discussions about the future of publishing predict game-changing technologies, dramatic and rapid shifts, and a world that is radically different from the current state of things. Understandably, these predictions or calls to action can be upsetting to many (rightly so in the case of Deary, I’d say). Change can be an uncomfortable process. But I am willing to bet that for the most part, the future of publishing will look a lot like the present. Why? Just take a look at the libraries Deary wishes to do away with.

On the one hand, libraries are more or less the same as they ever were: a place where the community can access a wide variety of books. They remain places of education and culture. On the other hand, they have also evolved and adapted to the twenty-first century. Destiny Rewritten by Erwin MadridVisitors can borrow ebooks and audio books. Visitors can “borrow” computers and access the internet. They can also take classes on subjects such a programming and web design. Libraries are the same, yet different. They have experienced evolutionary change, not revolutionary. Perhaps this is why at a time when bookstores are becoming an endangered species, libraries survive.

So when you hear arguments like Deary’s or predictions that publishing’s end times are near, don’t get angry or assume the worst. Instead, get to a library, and get reading. After all, for readers like me, the old publishing industry will always live on because there are few pleasures that can compare with walking down aisle after aisle of books, looking at colorful covers, holding a newly discovered book in your hands, and breathing in the scent of ink and paper.

Title image by Miháy Bodó.

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6 Comments

  1. Fordy says:

    Great article – though I do have a couple of issues.
    As an author this is one I’ve struggled with for a while. Rather than jump on the authors-love-libraries bandwagon I can kind of see Terry Deary’s point. However, I also recognise the importance of libraries for the disadvantaged, particularly children, and for those who lack internet access.
    Personally I haven’t used a library in years, though I wouldn’t want to see them shut down just because I don’t use them. I loved the library as a kid for much the same reason as you – the greater choice of genre fiction (the stuff I wanted to read), but ultimately I recognise the best way to support authors is to buy their books – from bookshops. The less this happens the closer we’re getting to Amazon’s ‘all books are self-published and available to download at £0.99′ ideal, and then we’ll only have novels available on Kindle that no one wants to read because pro authors can’t afford to live, and conventional publishers go out of business.
    The notion that libraries put money into author’s pockets is a facile one – I made £8.49 this year from the PLR, although some years I’ve made around £100 from the PLR and ALCS combined. Clearly I won’t be retiring to that mansion in the Maldives just yet.
    I’d also take issue with the notion that libraries have survived because they have evolved where as bookshops have remained relatively static. Let’s remember that libraries are publicly funded institutions, and therefore not exposed to the vagaries of the free market. Back in 2004, long before the cuts, there were predictions that libraries would be closed by 2020 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/3661831.stm). We’ll have to wait and see.

  2. Interesting fact, libraries are responsible for keeping a number of books in print over the years. When I worked in a bookstore years ago, a publisher rep informed me that a number of works had gone out of print. The reason, the reduced budgets of libraries, reduced their ability purchase replacement copies. Without the library buying replacements, the publisher was not print new copies. So without libraries a number of books would stay in print in years to come.

  3. Michelle Roberts says:

    I agree with Sean. Libraries are essential. Libraries are more than likely helping authors more than they are harming. I use my library a LOT, but if I read the first book in a series and I love it, then I will usually buy that book and the rest of the books in the series that come out in the future. For voracious readers, like me, a library is essential. I wouldn’t be reading anything, really, without a library.

    This article by literary agent Rachelle Gardner says it all better than I can. http://www.rachellegardner.com/2011/11/are-libraries-good-for-authors/

  4. Rachel says:

    As mentioned in previous comments, the freedom of choice available in a library to those people who do not have the money to buy their own novels is astounding. Children can try many different books and figure out what genres they prefer without spending any money at all. A library was a staple of my childhood, and the fact that I had access to books for free has not made me a cheapskate in any sense of the word. I have three, bulging, 7-foot tall bookcases in my bedroom containing the books that I have purchased, and I’m only 22 years old. If nothing else, the library has encouraged me to be a book owner. Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted my own library in my house–very similar to the one in “Beauty and the Beast,” mind you–and I intend to have it.

  5. A.J. Zaethe says:

    Not to mention the fact that libraries pay more for a book than your average consumer. Libraries pay more to the publisher for a book because they know they will have more than one person reading a book.

  6. Xen says:

    It was because of a library that I bought a book after borrowing it from them! Really now.

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