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. Speaking 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.
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.
Moreover, 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.
Too 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. Visitors 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.