Are Libraries Hurting Publishers?

Are Libraries Hurting Publishers

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:

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.

Libraries:

  • 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?

39 thoughts on “Are Libraries Hurting Publishers?

    • Krysta says:

      I think there are a lot of complicated issues at work in the publishing industry and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to single out libraries of all things as the main culprit.

      Like

  1. danielle pitter says:

    Whyte sounds like a jealous, obnoxious turd. As someone who has worked in publishing and has goals to transition into working as a librarian, both libraries and publishers are on different sides of the spectrum. They both do different things for the same purpose: to provide information and entertainment for the public’s consumption. I’ve never understood this ongoing battle between the two parties. It makes me sad and a little mad when I see one side trashing the other when they both need each other. I don’t want to fight Amazon either but I feel like they’re the real culprit here.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      I think Whyte is possibly missing the bigger picture here. Libraries create readers. Readers become book buyers. There is nothing wrong with libraries creating more readers. There are so many other factors affecting the publishing industry, but for some reason he is more concerned about libraries than he is concerned about something like book piracy? Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

      Liked by 3 people

      • danielle pitter says:

        It doesn’t make sense. I’m sure there are valid points but don’t blame libraries for the decreasing amount of accessibility from publishers.

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          I understand his math. Libraries pay for one copy and it circulates more than one time. But publishers are also facing: the need to sell to Amazon at below production cost, competition from used book stores and third party sellers online, the advent of ebooks and consumer unwillingness to pay the same price as they would for a physical book, and an increase in piracy since the advent of ebooks and the internet. The answer isn’t really as simple as, “It’s the libraries!” In fact, I would think the real issue is that the internet has changed the game and publishers have not yet managed to account for that.

          Like

  2. Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

    Wow… I can’t believe someone thought that was good enough to be published. I might have bought a lot more books than normal this year, but I have borrowed far more books. And honestly, if I couldn’t borrow books, I’d end up getting them secondhand or maybe just watching more Netflix.

    Books aren’t just competing between being bought and borrowed, they’re also competing against netflix, youtube, etc.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Part of me wonders if it was just written as some sort of click bait. Maybe they thought they’d just rile up the library lovers a bit for views. Who knows.

      But I do think you’re right. If your product isn’t selling, maybe you need to create more readers? But guess what. Libraries do just that!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Canada does that, too, and I have plans to write an article on whether that’s feasible in the U.S. The short version is it seems like the pool of money very small and the bestselling, big name authors get most of it, so it doesn’t really help the authors who need it most, anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    This is ridiculous on so many levels.

    If I didn’t have a library, sure, I’d buy a few more books than I do now, but I would buy 100+ books a year. And when I did buy books, it would probably be the big ones that was pretty sure I’d like. Libraries really do give midlist books sales and chances they otherwise would not have had, and they allow readers to try books they would never buy.

    So, what? I’d buy a couple more books a year but then just find a new hobby, or borrow books from friends, or read free classics online or something. Getting rid of libraries would not be this great boon to publishers, and it would really only help the authors who are big in the first place.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I read about 200 books a year (including picture books). If the libraries closed, I wouldn’t buy 200 books. And, yes, the books I do buy now are the big name ones I’m excited about, generally. My last purchase, for instance, was the new Hunger Games prequel. Before that it might have been the first Kyoshi book. The midlist authors would struggle the most, I think, to compete and get purchases.

      And, yeah, I think if the libraries closed most people would turn to borrowing books or buying used books or going to a place like Book Outlet. They’re not all going to buy the latest hardcover at full price.

      Like

  4. Elspeth says:

    Okay. Putting on my tin foil hat here.

    Consider that this steady, increasingly frequent drumbeat against libraries is really more about controlling access to information than enriching publishers. The evidence you present clearly demonstrates that there is at least one greater threat to the publishing industry than public libraries. It’s not even hard to find for those who want to know it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Part of me wonders if the article wasn’t just some sort of click bait because I can name a number of reasons publishers are struggling, and libraries are not the top of the list. Amazon for one, but also e-book piracy, used book sellers having increased reach online, the rise of e-books and consumer unwillingness to pay full price for them. Maybe the libraries seemed like an easy target, though. I don’t know. But I think you’re right. It is concerning that we seem to be seeing an increase in outcry against public libraries. It would be very dangerous for us to listen to these arguments and agree that lining publishers’ pockets is more beneficial to society than providing equal access to information.

      Like

  5. Charvi says:

    This is so infuriating, saying that libraries are hurting authors and publishers is ridiculous and ableist. If it weren’t for libraries, I and many other readers would never have gotten into reading. Not only do libraries buy books and spread love for these among readers, if a reader loves a book they go ahead and purchase their own copy.
    And honestly, the reviews and awareness and overall market for books would reduce significantly if there were no libraries because many of us wouldn’t be able to afford books at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I think it’s overly simplistic to point to libraries as the problem when there are so many challenges publishers are facing, such ebook piracy or people selling used books online. There are a lot of reasons publishers are seeing loss of revenue. Why attack the libraries of all things when they are doing so much good?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Chana @ Paper Procrastinators says:

    This was SO INTERESTING!! Thank you so much for writing this post! I think that saying that publishers should withhold books from libraries is a little ridiculous, especially given the rising prices of books. Now books retail at $28 apiece, it’s ridiculous to think that consumers (whether high or low income) would readily dish that out on a book. I think that like you said, libraries make up a large portion of the publishers’ customers, and I don’t think that if publishers withheld books from libraries it would increase their sales in other areas.

    Just from a personal place, my parents stopped letting me visit the library in my early teens because of bed bug problems that were happening, and instead of leading to me buying more books, I just ended up reading less because I no longer had access to those titles. This is a really interesting discussion, and I can’t wait to see if libraries and publishing houses make changes to address this issue!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      That’s a great point. I think limiting access would hurt children and families a lot. Children because they don’t usually have an income or money to buy books and families because it’s kind of hard to buy a lot of books if you have multiple kids or one kid who just reads an awful lot. Especially young kids. I’ve seen families who check out probably 50 picture books at a time from the library. I guarantee those parents would not be buying 50 picture books a week if the library closed.

      Also homeschooling families. They check out many books–often nonfiction that has no general market.

      All around, making libraries suffer so publishers can earn a little more harms people who need libraries the most.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Jennifer says:

    God, I had to take a HUGE breath after this to release all the frustration. Great examination of the arguments on both sides.

    What I can’t get over is that this kind of thinking was JUST DISPROVED with the whole Macmillan embargo!!! Did Whyte not actually pay any attention to that? If he wants to talk money, he should look at how Macmillian began facing 85% revenue losses with the embargo — and that was only on ebooks!! — in favor of 8.5% gain in retail sales. Essentially they came out with a 76.5% loss, and that was only at 10% of libraries stopping purchases. I just have no idea how he’s coming out with this.

    Facts and figures n above references here:
    http://www.readersfirst.org/news/2020/1/16/is-the-macmillan-boycott-working
    https://www.wcls.org/macmillan-updates/

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Well, he seems to approve of the Macmillan embargo and just thinks it was a dirty trick that libraries protested and started a national campaign against the embargo. But I think he has to consider that public opinion, in this case, was with libraries. So, yeah, it is essentially a poor business move to side against libraries because public opinion matters for sales, too. I think the public outcry probably played a role in the decision of the rest of the Big Five to not try an embargo of their own.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Samantha D. says:

    I have nothing new to contribute to this conversation but I have read your words, and all the comments and I think this was just REALLY well done. Thank you so much for posting.

    I will say this though, the part that makes me the most mad about his accusations I think, is the implication that libraries cater to and only “entertain” the rich. That makes my blood boil because libraries stand for equality of information. We are present so that EVERYONE regardless of financial, cultural, political, etc. standing, EVERYONE has access to all the same materials and information. It is truly one of the few equalizers in society right now. Where your pocketbook doesn’t restrict your access.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think we also have to consider what it means to be “well off.” You can be above the poverty line, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have a ton of extra money to buy books after you pay for rent, food, transportation, health insurance, etc. Even the “well off” often need the library if they have a lot of kids who each need a bunch of books, or one kid who reads a lot, or if they homeschool. “Well off” doesn’t necessarily equate to hundreds or thousands of dollars available to spend on books.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Faith E. Hough says:

    This is a great response, Krysta. Did the writer of that article actually talk to many authors before writing his piece? I am currently unpublished but have dozens of dear friends who are published authors–and they would all say that librarians have been huge helps to their careers.
    And where is he getting his data that libraries don’t serve the underprivileged? Even if their primary “customers” are more financially secure, that doesn’t mean that small percent of lower income families don’t really need their help. I have seven kids; I homeschool them (that equals the need for a LOT of books); I’ve been considerably below the poverty line more than a few years. Without libraries, my children’s education would have suffered and my development of a career in writing would have been far more difficult. I’ve never needed to utilize this service, but my library also draws in lower income families by offering free lunches for children once a week every summer–they might come for the food, but they leave with arms full of books they couldn’t have otherwise read.
    Even with a low income, I DO support authors by buying their books as often as I can (I haven’t been to a movie in years–all my entertainment budget goes to books. And I think there are a lot of book lovers in the same boat). But I don’t want to waste my money (or the earth’s resources!) by purchasing books I won’t like. Almost every book I buy is one I’ve previously checked out from the library–or by an author with whom I’m familiar because of my great librarians’ recommendations.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I was also thinking about his argument the underprivileged don’t there, and it’s absurd just on the level that there are obviously different levels of economic security. I’m middle class, but I use the library a lot. I’m not struggling, but I also don’t have the discretionary income to buy 100+ books a year! Who does he think is using the library? The one percent? They probably ARE already buying most of their books.

      Like

    • Krysta says:

      He had a vague hand-wavy line about people not liking to admit the libraries are really hurting them instead of Amazon, but he didn’t give any quotes from authors, no. I think he’s just using his status as a publisher to call out libraries.

      But I agree. Just because someone is “well off” on paper doesn’t mean they have a lot of money to buy tons of books are expenses like rent and food are paid. Libraries are especially important to families and homeschooling families because, for most, it’s not possible to buy hundreds of books, even if you are “well off.”

      Like

  10. Enobong says:

    The whole Whyte article makes me so mad because he’s basically saying that if you can’t afford to buy books then you shouldn’t have access to them. If you’re only looking at monetary gains then libraries are a bad idea in more ways than just the “damage” they do to the book industry. They offer so many services to the community for free. But money isn’t everything. Libraries offer books to those who can’t afford and to those who can. And I bet that any writer worth anything would say they would rather earn a little less for their books and have more people read it than earn more but it’s only available for a small, rich, elite.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, exactly! Libraries do so much good and it seems odd to target them as the enemy when the publishing industry is facing so many challenges from Amazon to piracy to the rise of ebooks. Why single out libraries as the reason publishers aren’t making enough money?

      Like

  11. Nicole says:

    Wow, I have so many thoughts on this! Like many, I don’t think the two should be pitted against each other. As you mentioned in a comment, libraries help to create readers as well as helping to stimulate readers. I can imagine that people are really grateful to libraries right now with the pandemic since many have lost their jobs. I personally love the library because I know that I’m helping elongate the life cycle of a book so that less trees are used, etc.
    I also think that Amazon sounds like the bigger evil.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, that’s a good point. Libraries are the most needed in times of economic crisis. Not everyone has the ability to buy all their books all the time, even if they want to.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Milliebot says:

    Ugh, that article makes me so mad. It’s also so narrow-minded (let’s not even get into the whole Amazon crap) to think that libraries and publishing companies can’t co-exist. It has to be one benefitting from readers or the other. I’m someone who primarily buys her own books, but that’s a privilege I have and funded by the fact that I choose not to spend money on other things. But I also use the library to check out new authors. If I really love a book I’ve read at the library, then I’m going to buy my own copy, because I feel the need to own the books I love. If I’m pretty unsure about the book, then I’m just not going to buy it. But if I can borrow it and I end up loving the author, then they have my sale. If I can’t borrow it…then chances are I’ll never buy it at all!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I don’t think publishers and libraries have to be pitted against each other! Bookstores and libraries serve different functions. Most avid readers will use both at some point in their lives.

      Like

  13. Katie @ Doing Dewey says:

    Wow, what an absurd article from Whyte! Like Briana, I would probably buy a few more new books every year if it weren’t for the library, but I read so many books that I’d still be looking for other ways to get books to save money. I’d borrow from friends, I’d buy used, and I’d participate in book exchanges far more than I do now.

    It also seems like a lot of the arguments in this article are pretty disingenuous. I agree with you that libraries telling patrons they’ve saved the entire cost of the book is in no way the same as actually claiming every one of those patrons would have bought the book. It’s just advertising! And the comparison of librarian and author salaries is infuriating. Honestly, as a publisher, I suspect Whyte could do more to improve what authors are paid than librarians could. I also agree with you that the problem isn’t that librarians are making so much money (I think they should be paid more!), but that authors make so little.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I mean…I do think when publishers say authors aren’t earning enough, it sounds kind funny because they are the ones paying the authors…. I suppose this would never work, but perhaps instead of offering authors six figure deals for the prestige of publishing a work that will never earn back that money, they should distribute payments more equally? So instead of one author getting 500,000 for a book and another one getting 10,000 for a book, everyone gets, say, 30,000 for a book and then authors potentially get more from any royalties earned.

      But I suppose all the publishers would have to agree on a payment scale, or else people would just go for the publisher offering 500,000.

      Also, yeah, I think librarians should be paid more, too. A lot of the salaries I’ve seen offered are more like 30,000 than 50,000, which is basically just squeaking by–and you probably need someone else supporting you or at least a couple of roommates.

      Like

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