In an July 25, 2020 article in the Globe and Mail called “Overdue: Throwing the Book at Libraries,” Kenneth Whyte, publisher of Sutherland House Books, argues that, even though retailers like Amazon often get the blame for a loss of publisher revenue, publishers should really see libraries as the enemy. Libraries, after all, buy one copy of a book and allow multiple people to check out it; each check out after the first must be considered a loss of publisher profits.
As evidence of how libraries are hurting publishers, Whyte cites the trend of libraries printing on their checkout receipts the amount of money a patron has saved. The message is clear: you should check out books from the library, instead of buying them. Whyte does some calculations to conclude that library patrons in the U.S. saved more money in 2019 than the publishing industry earned. Whyte clearly believes those library patrons owe something to publishers like himself.
Lest readers begin to protest that Amazon is a bigger threat to the publishing industry than libraries, Whyte tries to pit librarians against authors by arguing that the average librarian makes eight times more than the average author made in 2017. He cites $6,080 as the median income for all types of authors (self-published, traditionally published, etc.) and finds it unconscionable that the average library worker reportedly makes $52,000. Apparently, if authors are not making a living wage, no one should be. (And $52,000 is probably, in most areas, just that–a living wage, not a high one.)
Finally, Whyte tries to address obvious objections to his argument:
- Every book borrowed is not a lost sale. Whyte then says libraries can’t advertise one-to-one savings.
- The library buys books and is an important source of revenue for authors. White says one estimate claims libraries only make up 1.3% of the trade market.
- Libraries are important parts of democracy that make information and education accessible to all. Whyte argues they mostly provide entertainment for well-off individuals: “For their funding, libraries rely on the traffic generated by pimping free entertainment to people who can afford it.” He takes exception to libraries stocking bestsellers.
Whyte argues that publishers need to fight back, lauding Macmillan for placing an embargo on the ability of libraries to purchase new ebook titles last year, before a public campaign encouraged them to change their policy. He suggests that libraries should transform into community centers or social services centers instead of lending out books. Or, if nothing else, libraries should begin charging people a subscription fee to use the library each year. He concludes, “A commercial publishing industry is unsustainable if four out of every five readers are reading at no charge. Booksellers and publishers need to make money, and tens of thousands of remarkably talented authors need to be able to dream of someday living as well as librarians.”
Are Libraries Really Worse Than Amazon?
There is a lot to unpack in Whyte’s article, beginning with the controversial premise that libraries are more hurtful to authors and publishers than Amazon. Whyte never really explains this assumption, glossing over all the tactics the internet retailer has used over the years to boost their own bottom line over that of publishers. (Here is why I won’t buy books on Amazon.) To keep it brief:
- Amazon sells books at a loss, often at a price lower than the cost of production. They make up their income by selling non-book products. Smaller publishers struggle to offer these deep discounts
- Amazon has bullied publishers into accepting their low prices. For example in 2020, Amazon took the “buy” buttons off Macmillan titles when the publisher would not agree to their terms.
- Amazon may be selling books that aren’t even from the publisher. A 2017 Vox article reported that the retailer’s algorithm meant sometimes readers were unknowingly buying from third parties–and publishers weren’t the ones providing them with the books, so the publishers (and, by extension, the authors) were not seeing money from these sales.
For years, Amazon has been aggressively pursuing tactics that benefit their own revenue stream, rather than supporting authors and publishers. But, for some reason, Whyte seems to think public libraries loaning out books to people who otherwise could not afford them is more harmful than an internet retailer who basically controls the book market at this point, since its only major competition is now Barnes and Noble.
Are Libraries Hurting the Book Market?
Whyte goes on to suggest that people borrowing library books hurts authors because each loan represents a lost sale. He assumes here that library patrons were always going to purchase all their books, supposing the library became unavailable. This seems obviously ridiculous. Even a wealthy individual might not want to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on books each year, or want to buy more stuff to put into their home. Lower income individuals would probably simply just not access books–unless they could borrow them from friends, take them from a book exchange or Little Free Library, or go to a used bookstore. In this case, publishers like Whyte are still losing revenue. And families with children? Are they really going to buy every single board book and picture book their little ones need to gain early literacy skills? Little ones fly through these books because they are so short, but assuredly the average caregiver is not going to purchase hundreds of picture books at around $20 a book. Whyte may think it is disingenuous for libraries to advertise a one-to-one cost savings to patrons while arguing they do not represent a one-to-one loss to publishers (and maybe it is), but running an ill-advised advertising campaign is not the same as hurting publishers. Whyte is obscuring the issue here.
Whyte also obscures the positive impact of libraries on the market by choosing a low estimate of what percentage of the trade market libraries comprise. Unwritten is that libraries are the primary market for many types of books. For example, while booksellers like Barnes and Noble tend to stock mainly bestsellers, libraries tend to focus more on purchasing midlist authors and books they see as “valuable” if overlooked. Libraries also support niche markets, buying things like academic books or expensive nonfiction titles (for children and adults) that the general public is unlikely to buy at all.
Who Is Using Libraries?
Whyte then goes on to suggest that libraries represent lost revenue because they are not really serving the disadvantaged, but simply providing entertainment to the well off. There are a lot of assumptions embedded in this part of the argument. First of all, Whyte provides no numbers to back up the assertion that the well off are using the library more than the disadvantaged, or that entertainment services are happening more frequently than services providing people with information to complete their homework, find a new job, or learn a new skill–or whatever it is that Whyte presumably sees are more valuable and as the “real” function of a library.
Whyte also assumes that entertainment has no inherent value. But reading for entertainment can:
- help people build literacy skills and a love of reading
- introduce them to new ideas
- teach them about people who are different from them
- help people learn how to communicate and write
- provide a means of escape for those experiencing stress or difficulty in their personal lives
- create community by enabling people to bond over shared interests
- teach lessons or skills (like emotional literacy or manners) in a fun, accessible way.
Entertainment is never really “just” entertainment.
Are Librarians Really the Enemies of Authors?
Finally, I take exception to Whyte’s attempt to pit librarians against authors by suggesting that it is somehow unconscionable for librarians to be earning a living wage simply because someone else (authors) in this case, is not. The implication is that librarians are climbing up the ladder of wealth on the backs of the authors whose income they have stolen by lending out free books. Whyte again is obscuring the fact that $52,000 is hardly unimaginable wealth and that, since it is a median, there are plenty of librarians making less than that. (For example, I checked my local listings and a full-time librarian position was advertised at $36,000. That is is not a living wage. You cannot afford rent on that where I live and would have to be supported by a parent or a spouse. Also keep in mind that librarian positions usually require a Master’s degree.) The real issue here is not that some librarians are making enough money to pay rent and buy food, but that authors are not. The solution is to figure out how to pay everyone a living wage, not complain about the people who are.
Can We Re-Imagine Libraries as Whyte Suggests?
Whyte concludes that something needs to be done. Publishers need to withhold books from libraries or libraries need to charge patrons money to use them. Or maybe libraries should just give up on books entirely and become community centers or social services centers.
Whyte’s first two suggestions would merely threaten equal access. A publisher embargo means that only people with money can access materials as they are released because libraries would not be able to buy new titles. A subscription model means that a number of people would stop using the library because they would be discouraged by the prospect of paying, or perhaps unable to pay. Whyte suggests that low income individuals could be exempt from the subscription fee, but there is always a segment of people who are above the financial aid cutoff but still unable to pay. But the subscription model seems redundant, anyway, since local and state tax dollars already go to the library. What are those taxes if not a person’s annual subscription?
Re-imagining the library as a community center or a social services center also seems redundant. It is true that many libraries are already acting in these roles, but that is often because there is not adequate funding to provide these other services to the community. In an ideal world, the library would not be replicating services that already exist, but fulfilling its own mission of providing access to the community and simply playing a supporting role in helping community centers and social services centers fulfill their missions.
Do Libraries Help Publishers and Authors at All?
The trouble currently is that libraries are not particularly good at gathering data and demonstrating their value to the community. They can provide number of items circulated and number of cards issued and number of people who come to programs, but I am not aware that many libraries have successfully translated those numbers into something meaningful like, “We helped X people get jobs this year, stimulating the economy” or “We helped X people graduate” or “We helped X authors with our free marketing for them.” And maybe it is not possible to get this evidence, except as personal testimonials. However, I do think libraries help publishers and authors, even if their impact cannot necessarily be measured in numbers.
- purchase midlist authors that booksellers and major publisher advertising campaigns do not really advertise
- purchase niche titles like academic works or expensive nonfiction the general public does not usually buy
- introduce people to authors and books they might not have tried on their own
- introduce people to books and authors they later purchase
- provide free advertising with displays, email blasts, and social media
- host events where authors can get promoted and sell their books
- create and nurture cultures of reading that create lifelong readers, who will later buy books.
None of this work is meaningless. It just is not counted by publishers like Whyte.
But that raises the question: Are libraries supposed to exist primarily to boost the revenue of publishers, anyway? Of course, librarians are book lovers and they want to support authors and publishers financially, so they can keep producing the books we love. But should Whyte really be looking to libraries to save the publishing industry? So much has changed in the publishing world from the shift to e-books to the growth of the used book industry to the rise of Amazon. Publishers’ financial woes stem from a variety of factors. To blame libraries as the biggest factor in declining revenues seems more like an attempt to stimulate controversy than it seems like a well-reasoned argument.
What do you think? Should publishers see libraries as the enemies of profit?