Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Are Libraries Killing Authors?

By Steve Weddle

Sheesh. Where to start, right?

First, our own Jay Stringer has his OLD GOLD out. It’s a great book. I’ve read it. I dug it. You should read it. In fact, I’ll grab a commenter and get you a copy.

Also, Sean Chercover's THE TRINITY GAME is just out. Look here and you'll have to get your own copy.

There’s this thing about Carroll Bryant.

And I guess I should mention some of this Harrogate-gate stuff. (In America, we end all scandals in “-gate” ever since President James Buchanan was caught one Thursday night, nuts-deep in a bowl of Watergate Salad.) Anyhoo, you can catch up here and here.

A couple of issues raised from the same author. One is alleged racism.

The other is that an author creates a bunch of accounts using faked names and gives himself many positive reviews. We’ve walked around this issue before and, certainly, will do so again.

This week, I’m thinking about books and video games.

Someone said something sometime along the lines of this: “If video games had been invented before books, we’d be telling our kids to quit staring slackjawed at sheets of paper and get interactive by joining their friends playing video games.”

It’s a matter of the more established thing being established because it had been established, I suppose.

So, along the lines of “what if this thing had come before that thing,” today let’s play THE LIBRARY GAME.

Imagine for a second that public lending libraries never existed. If you wanted to read a book, you had to buy it, or perhaps borrow the one book from your friend, who had to buy it.

Heck, maybe used bookstores don’t exist, either.

Imagine a world in which, in order to read a book, you had to purchase a copy of that book. In hardback.

Imagine how happy publishers would be. I picture them all having lunch in Manhattan, frolicking about in their bowls of Watergate Salad. (Do Yankees eat Watergate Salad?)

Consider that the norm for, let’s say, a thousand years.

Now, go out and try to start a public lending library.

Hey, we're going to let you have this book for a few weeks. You don't have to purchase it. Just bring it back when you're done, so we can let someone else read it for free.

Bwahaha. Fat chance, right?

Seems to me that, if libraries didn’t already exist, you’d never be able to start them.

The ebook lending fight is just a small part of it, you know.

Take this, from a PW article last year:
When it comes to e-books, the numbers are especially notable, because only half of the big six currently allow libraries to lend e-books (Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan currently do not enable e-book lending). In 2010, Macmillan CEO John Sargent called library e-books “a thorny problem” for publishers. “It’s like Netflix, but you don’t pay for it,” Sargent famously said. “How is that a good model for us?”

So, the library buys a couple of copies of SALAD RECIPES and lends them out to a couple of people every 14 days. You want to read SALAD RECIPIES, so you add your name to the waiting list. Which is fine, as you’ve been reading THE HARRIET LANE STORY for the past week and are due to get BACHELOR CONFIRMED when a patron returns it within the next few days. You’re set. You read many, many books from the library. Your tax dollars at work!

Publishers, and some authors, get mad when you use the library. Or when you buy a used book. I’m reminded of something Neil Smith said on Twitter one day, many months ago. He said that he didn’t care whether you got his books used or at the library or found them in a dentist’s office. He was just hoping folks read and liked them.

And, yet, there’s a huge disagreement in The Community about whether --
Writers who sell their Kindle books for 99 cents are devaluing writing
Free book pushes online are a bad thing
Libraries are draining sales 
Ebooks being lent is ruinous 
And on and on.

I grew up visiting my town’s library, my school’s library. I’d find books I liked by authors I liked, and I’d end up buying other books by those authors. I think many people do that. The library might have two of seven books from an author. If you like those two, maybe you'll buy the other five.

I don’t get to the library as often now as I did when I was a kid, but I still scan the catalog often. If I’m interested in a disposable book – some thriller I’m not likely to savor – I might check the library. If they don’t have it, I’ll check the bookstore – either physical or digital. Maybe I’ll grab the book there. For me, libraries are still important, still vital to finding new authors.

I’m much more likely to take a chance on an author if I see a good-looking book on the Just Arrived shelf than if I see that same book for $25.95 at my local indie or $12.95 online.

I am not a full-time author. I am not the president of a book publishing company. I don't see libraries as taking money out of my pocket, and I don’t have their much more nuanced understanding of what this means for profits.

I’ve worked in the newspaper industry for (counts fingers, removes socks) years. We’ve always sent subscriptions to local libraries so that patrons can read the paper without having to purchase copies.
I’ve never considered that money out of my pocket.

But publishers and authors are looking for the right “model,” and that’s not exactly the same thing that the libraries are looking for.

Libraries are successful when 1,000 readers line up to read the two copies of GONE GIRL. For publishers, this could be seen as a problem.

You can search the Internet yourself if you want, but various sites suggest that libraries account for about 10 percent of book sales for authors. Do indie bookstores account for more?

Are used bookstores "lost sales" for authors? Are yard sales?

For some authors and publishers, libraries are "lost sales" in the same way piracy is -- or used books.

When someone tells you -- "Oh. Here's my copy of GUN MONKEYS. You have to read it. Here. You'll love it" -- does Victor Gischler die a little inside?

Some authors, including Neil Smith, love for you to get a used copy.

Some authors, including Paulo Coehlo, love for you to get pirated copies of their ebooks.

Cory Doctorow loves for you to get his ebooks, many of which are free.

Other authors want to hand you a free copy of their first book in a series in hopes that you’ll spend $9.99 up the new second book.

And in with all of this is the fight over ebooks in libraries and, oddly enough, paper books in libraries.

Seems odd to ask if there’s a storm that’s been brewing, that’s getting more stormy -- with libraries on one side and publishers and authors on the other, but, well, there it is.

How did libraries become the bad guy?


Dana King said...

"In 2010, Macmillan CEO John Sargent called library e-books 'a thorny problem' for publishers. 'It’s like Netflix, but you don’t pay for it,' Sargent famously said. 'How is that a good model for us?"

Publishers have more bad business models than Spinal Tap had drummers, and THIS is a problem for them? Libraries?

Best laugh I'll have all day.

Anonymous said...

Speaking purely anecdotaly of myself and others I know, regular library users are also heavy purchasers of books. More than anything readers love to support writers they love. I've never put off purchasing a book because I could get it at the library.

Dennis Tafoya said...

Libraries also BUY books, based on good rankings from Booklist and PW and not just fame or word of mouth. They buy books from unknown authors (like me) and the sales can really help out the struggling new author. I think it's safe to say I wouldn't have otherwise sold books in a lot of the places where libraries bought them.

Unknown said...

I live in the place with the greatest public library in the country. (No, seriously)

I often recommend that they buy a book that I want to read and can't afford. AND THEY ALWAYS DO. Or I suggest that they buy the other five books in the seven-book series that they own only two. And they very often do.

And I even suggest that they buy books that I've already read because I think other people would like to read them. Or that they would benefit in some way from reading them. Or that I think the best public library in the country ought to have a copy.

And (thanks to a generous endowment) they buy lots of those books.

And they get checked out and read.

There are lots of positives for writers and publishers about libraries. Look beyond the surface.

Chuck said...

Libraries are awesome because it's one more place where readers and writers find each other.

And when libraries go away, that's one more axis of discovery gone.

And in my experience, library readers are also purchasers when possible.

-- c.

Sarah W said...

I lurk here a lot, but this is my first comment.

I'm a librarian in a multi-branched public library and I buy a lot of books. Multiple copies per branch for each of my assigned sections--and replacement copies, too, for items that are enjoyed to pieces or illegally adopted by patrons. And Ms. Speer is right--if you ask me to buy something, I'll do my best to get at least one for each location.

And, oddly, enough, libraries seem to work for authors on a 'first taste is free' basis---several of my patrons have tried one or two books from an author and end up buying others out of impatience with reserve queues or out of recognition in bookstores.

When I was getting my degree, I was told by a professor that close to half (somewhere between forty-three or forty-seven, and I apologize for the big range, there) of the popular fiction and nonfiction units sold by the American publishing industry was purchased by public libraries. This was well before eBooks (they don't use papyrus anymore, either) and I don't have the current figure at hand, but I can't imagine it's lower.

But somehow, in the 160+ years (supposedly, dates differ) since the first free public library was established in America, libraries have failed to kill publishing, even when the publishing industry was forced to change their model and pay their authors instead of the other way 'round.

I understand (boy, do I understand) that writers want to sell as many copies of their work as possible. Regular meals are a tough habit to break.

But, very simplistically speaking, if libraries are unable to provide assorted reading materials of all levels to their patrons, a significant number of those patrons won't be able to hone their reading skills. And if reading becomes a unaffordable hassle, many will give it up in favor of entertainment that doesn't take so much money or mental effort. Chances are, their children won't read much either.

And then where will authors or the publishing industry be?

Dana King said...

Sarah mentions something I do, but forgot to point out. I often use my public library to test drive authors I've heard about, but don;t know if I'll like. Once I'm hooked, I usually buy their next books.

I also use them to binge read backlists of authors I have discover late in their careers, and i want to catch up.

My other use of the fiction section of my library--and i'll probably get some grief for this--is to read writers who don't need my money. Every time I read Crais, Child, Parker, or James Lee Burke in a library book, I can better afford another by McFetridge, Stella, Loomis, or Declan Burke.

Thomas Pluck said...

I've been trying to find the news article where publishers had hired a PR firm to get people to think libraries were like Napster, that I read in the late '90s. I still haven't been able to locate it. I'm very glad they failed.
As a writer, I believe we should be paid quite a bit more than the current norm, but I'm also not planning on quitting my day job, ever. However, if I had to choose between independent bookstores and libraries in some terrible future where only one could exist, I'd save the libraries. They are important. Books live long lives in a library.
I donate all my books to my local library. We have a used bookstore and a library in walking distance. If the library doesn't want the book, they can sell it.

Now to the other stuff. Writers need to shut the fuck up. Really. This celebrity culture has made us think that our opinions and peccadilloes are important, or make great drama. Just because a few reality show morons are making serious coin off being stupid doesn't mean it's a good business model.

Steve Weddle said...

winner of the copy of OLD GOLD