Thursday, September 12, 2013

Do libraries hurt authors and publishers?

Children's author Terry Deary seems to think so, per the CS Monitor:

"People have to make the choice to buy books. People will happily buy a cinema ticket to see Roald Dahl's Matilda, and expect to get the book for free. It doesn't make sense," he said. "Books aren't public property, and writers aren't Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby. They've got to make a living. Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat. We don't expect to go to a food library to be fed."
There is also a post about this at The Annoyed Librarian.

At present the publishing industry is hurting. Part of the problem is the economy, of course; but the root causes run deeper than the financial meltdown of five years ago.

The publishing industry (and the ranks of writers) are dominated by people who are generally leftwing, generally ignorant of economics and business management, and ill-equipped to make savvy business decisions. Most of these folks lack the business perspicacity needed to run a small lemonade stand, much less a multimillion-dollar (or multi-billion) dollar company.

The industry  swings back and forth between dewy-eyed idealism, and a quasi-aristocratic sense of entitlement. Note how many writers and publishers blog about politically correct topics, and wear their concern for "the poor" on their sleeves. 

At the same time, though, the publishing industry maintains a New York-based, absurdly high cost structure that is incompatible with the streamlining that has taken place in other industries in recent decades. In the electronic age, there is no reason for a low-margin industry like publishing to be based in New York. 

Frustration with the less-than-robust status quo has led some in the industry to lash out--often in bizarre ways. James Patterson recently called for a government bailout of the publishing industry. (Yes, you read that correctly.)  And Terry Deary has decided that the real culprits are libraries--which have existed in the UK (Deary is a Brit) since 1850, and were launched in America by none other than Benjamin Franklin, a reasonably astute capitalist.

Let's get this straight. The publishing industry is hurting because:

1.) Most books are purchased for entertainment. And there is more competition for entertainment dollars than there has ever been before, much of it freely available on the Internet.

2.) Books have become too expensive, relative to other forms of entertainment.

The solution, as I've written before, is not to "give it all away!" as the Cory Doctorows of the world foolishly and naively assert. At the same time, however, the publishing industry needs to realize that $30 hardcover novels and $14.95 ebooks simply don't represent a competitive cost structure. 

So cost structures have to be lowered; and operations need to be made more efficient, as they say in manufacturing. (And the publishing industry can start by getting the heck out of New York.)

But what about those libraries? 

Speaking for myself, a dedicated reader for more than four decades: 

I primarily use libraries to sample new authors. Once I know that I like a given author's work, my inclination is log on to Amazon and buy their work. 

This is not because of any idealistic, altruistic impulse to "support fellow authors." This is because checking books out from the library (and managing waiting lists, due dates, etc.) is an activity that involves more time and effort than I generally want to expend. It's usually a lot easier to simply buy the book.

I borrowed my first Stephen King novel (Salem's Lot) at my high school's library back in 1984. I was an instant fan, and I have bought almost everything that King has written since then. That "free" book at the library was the free sample that got me hooked. 

More recently, I have discovered Bentley Little and Laura Lippman at the library. I have since purchased the work of both authors--on multiple occasions.

I am examining this question from an unabashedly capitalist perspective. I'm not going to close with sanctimonious claptrap about how libraries benefit the economically disadvantaged, as that chestnut has already been beaten to death by others since Deary's comments first came to light. So I'll spare you the touching and self-serving vignettes in which the residents of inner cities flock to the public library in droves to read Dickens, and research the history of the Italian Renaissance. 

This might indeed take place (and it's great if it does); but most of the people I see in public libraries are well-fed, well-dressed suburbanites who possess at least some disposable income. These are readers who will very often purchase the work of authors after initially sampling it for free.  

In short, the library is a marketing venue that benefits authors, publishers, and readers. It's a win-win scenario, if you read books, write books, or otherwise have an interest in selling them.

Public libraries are not eviscerating book sales. Fewer readers (and overly expensive books) are the factors that are undermining the publishing industry's bottom line. 

We must ask, therefore: 

1.) How can books be made more cost-competitive, relative to other, competing forms of entertainment? 


2.) How can the ranks of dedicated, compulsive readers be significantly increased?

Closing the libraries doesn't seem to be the answer to either one of these.