Since November 1, 2019, Macmillan, one of the Big Five publishers, has enacted an embargo, only allowing libraries to buy one perpetual access copy of new e-book titles during the first two months after release. This copy is sold at half price ($30). Once two months have passed, libraries can buy additional copies of e-book licenses at full price ($60) for two years or 52 lends, whichever occurs first. After that, the libraries must repurchase the licenses. Macmillan’s policy is intended to pressure frustrated library patrons into buying the e-book themselves by confronting them with high wait lists for popular new releases. In response, a number of libraries (recently reported as 89) have responded by refusing to purchase the embargoed titles or, in some cases, any Macmillan e-content.
Library patrons desirous of checking out new e-books from Macmillan may wonder how effective the boycotts have been so far. Are the libraries making any financial impact, or unnecessarily frustrating library patrons by spending their e-book budget on other publishers? Dianne Coan, Division Director of Technical Operations at Fairfax County Public Library (FCPLL), and Carmi Parker, a librarian and ILS administrator, have been updating the public with information on the impact.
The January 16, 2019 reportseems hopeful that libraries are making a difference, and can continue to do so if more libraries join the boycott. The report, especially the linked Google doc, is worth reading in its entirety. Key takeaway points are, however, that a case study of one e-book title indicates that FCPL could reduce Macmillan’s revenue by 83% by boycotting the publisher’s e-books. This takes into account the 8% of library patrons who, when surveyed, said they would buy a title they could not find in the collection. Even if the library purchases more physical hardcovers to meet demand, the report finds, the library would still reduce Macmillan’s revenue because hardcovers are much cheaper for libraries to purchase.
This case study involves one library and one title. To ensure that Macmillan’s revenue remains flat after the embargo, instead of going up, the authors say that one in ten libraries would need to boycott. After that threshold, more boycotting libraries would create a revenue loss. They count boycotting libraries as ones who are not buying Macmillan titles at all, not the libraries who are buying copies after the initial two-month embargo period has passed. They say more study is needed, but it is possible that libraries who buy copies after the embargo period might actually be increasing Macmillan’s revenue, making the embargo successful.
The report goes into more detail on the impact of the boycott on patrons and circulation, among other matters, and certainly is a worthwhile read for those interested in the Macmillan embargo, the subsequent boycotts, and how libraries are being affected by these issues. For now, however, the good news seems to be that libraries might actually be able to leverage their purchasing power to advocate for more equitable access for their patrons–just as long as they stand together.
Complaints that classics are irrelevant and boring and possibly single-handedly responsible for making students loathe reading have been around seemingly forever. I responded to this a couple months ago by explaining that classics actually fostered my love of reading, and the Orangutan Librarian recently argued that classics truly are relevant—and that doesn’t need to mean the same thing as “relatable.”
However, as the claims that classics are dull and fun-squashing and have no value continue, something pops out at me from the conversation: Every single example I have seen of a boring classic that someone hated reading in school has been written by a man. While this could be a positive sign (people actually like classics by women?), I’m worried that something more negative is going on, that perhaps people are not thinking of literature by women as counting as classics at all.
Maybe Classics by Women Are Actually Good?
When I see people mention classics they do like, they often are books by women. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is incredibly popular. There’s a whole book blog community event, Austen in August, devoted to the works of Jane Austen. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was recently named The Great American Read by PBS. Movie and theatre adaptations of all these works are perennially popular, and, of course, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is having a moment in mainstream media due to Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated adaptation.
So it seems clear that people don’t actually unilaterally “hate classics.” There are some classics they love! Yet when people dismiss classics and explain how they hate F. Scott Fitzgerald or William Shakespeare or Ernest Hemingway, their claims are rarely qualified with even a quick admission of, “I guess I do like Jane Eyre,” or an explanation of why some classics might have more value or be more interesting than others. Why?
Are Women Missing from the School Curriculum?
Perhaps this is partially because women writers are often missing from official school curricula and syllabi (though hopefully the tide on this is changing). When I think back to the books I read for literature classes in middle school and high school, only a few by women come to mind: Summer of My German Soldier, To Kill a Mockingbird, Ethan Frome, and Frankenstein. I’m sure we read short stories and excerpts of longer works by women, but these were the only major novels I can think of in seven years’ worth of schooling. If I didn’t go on to major in English in college, my knowledge of classics purely from schoolwork (not books I read on my own time), would certainly have been dominated by men.
My position might be slightly unique. I went to smaller schools, which means I had the same literature teacher for sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, who was a man. I had a female English teacher my first year of high school, but I had one male teacher for the next three years. This means not just that the books I read were largely chosen by men; for six years of school, exactly two men had control over my reading list, and I know for a fact that their personal reading preferences did influence the syllabus. In fact, Little Womenused to be assigned in my middle school—before a female English teacher left, and her replacement decided that it was a girl book that the boys wouldn’t want to read (or maybe he didn’t want to read).
However, I think it’s fair to say in general that male authors are probably being assigned more than female authors, so when people think of classics, or think of just “required school reading,” books by men come more immediately to mind.
Does This Devalue the Work of Women?
I worry, however, that the frequent citation of classics as works by men and the complete omission of any mention of books by women means that people are not considering work by women as classics at all. Perhaps these readers find Pride & Prejudice and Jane Eyre interesting…but they’re somehow categorizing them as separate. They’re “just” romances or “just” books about the narrowness of women’s experiences, not sweeping narratives like the Iliad that deal with themes of the world and war. This ties into the trend that today’s authors have noticed wherebooks by women are frequently assumed to be young adult novels, even when nothing about the books’ descriptions, plots, or marketing would suggest they are written for younger readers rather than adults.
If people actually do enjoy some classics by women, I would like to see that reflected in the continued conversation about whether classics have value/should be taught/are all boring and stifling a love of reading. It makes sense to me to argue that a particular book is a bit dull or should be replaced by another in the classroom; it makes a lot less sense to me to imply that are classics are by and about men (particularly old men, which I point out is not true in this post). Classics by women exist, and the question of whether they should be taught in the classroom deserves a lot more attention than it’s currently getting.
Earlier this year, a Missouri bill proposed the creation of parental oversight boards that would have the final say on which materials libraries are allowed to shelf in certain areas, and who is allowed to check them out. The boards, which are to be comprised of five community members, but not librarians, will decide what materials are sexually “inappropriate” for minors and remove them from areas minors can access them. The bill specifies that librarians who allow minors to check out the books could face a fine up to $500 or imprisonment.
Now, a new Tennessee bill is proposing the same: a parental oversight board will have authority over what materials libraries shelf and where, and librarians can be fined or imprisoned if they are found not to be in compliance with the board’s decisions. The bill is again specifically aimed against depictions of sexuality deemed by the board to be “inappropriate” for minors.
Libraries already have internal processes in place to ensure that materials in each section are age appropriate. These decisions are made by professionals trained in the field. Libraries also already have in place processes for when parents or community members challenge books that are shelved in the library. Adding another review board that has authority over librarians–individuals who are actually trained to develop age appropriate collections–is unnecessary and insulting. It is also a troubling sign that some community members are hoping to limit others’ ability to access certain materials they find personally objectionable.
These new bills are a form of censorship. They seek to prevent individuals in the community from checking out specific books. But a review board should have no authority to tell other people what their children can or cannot read. That is the responsibility of the parents, not of the government.
The Missouri bill alone was troubling, though perhaps individuals who do not live or vote in Missouri overlooked its significance. The new Tennessee bill, which has wording that seems just about identical to the Missouri bill, shows that there are enthusiastic censors in states across the U.S. If these bills prove successful, and if they inspire similar legislation in more states, we may be facing dark days ahead.
This is the #1 post with the most comments on our blog, which makes me happy in large part because it’s a post actually about books. (Many of the posts that generated the most discussion are about blogging.) In it, Krysta discusses how the YA market has changed and whether books for younger teens are being edged out.
It’s interesting this generated a lot of discussion because most of the comments are, of course, from people who are already book bloggers. However, it was great to see other people’s advice and what they wished they would have known or done differently when the first started blogging.
This post generated discussion for two main reasons: 1) many people don’t know about Amazon’s predatory pricing practices and their unchecked influence on publishers/authors/the book market in general and 2) many people wanted to explain why they do shop primarily on Amazon, even if they don’t agree with their business practices.
In terms of predictions, this wasn’t my most accurate; the majority of bloggers are still going solo. However, I think this post sparked discussion because it explains just how much book bloggers do (generally unpaid!) and how much of that work can be unexpected when you’re starting out and how much of it is overlooked by non-bloggers. Who knew you had to try your hand at photography, social media marketing, and SEO to blog?!
One of our more “controversial” posts, but it did generate a lot of discussion! Many people pointed out that Christian fiction is its own genre, but this post is more about the lack of representation of religious characters in mainstream media (particularly ones who actually practice their religion or have sincere faith) and, of course, is about characters of every religion, not just Christian ones.
Krysta reflects on the pressure that social media can put on us, both in our personal lives and in blogging, and how it can take away the joy even of reading if we feel that what we’re reading and writing about isn’t getting us the numbers we want. (Maybe this explains why she doesn’t run any of the social media accounts for our blog!)
An interesting discussion because people have strong feelings about Bookstagram and the fact it can seem to commercialize reading or imply that you need to own tons of books and buy tons of custom props in order to get attractive pictures and find followers. I talked about why I do use library books, and some people commenters explained why they also do or why they felt uncomfortable doing it or thought it wouldn’t be well-received.
Simply by blogging for awhile and by reading discussion posts about what bloggers like to see in other blogs, why they blog, why they follow other bloggers, etc., I have gleaned some of the unwritten rules, which I understand as follows….
Spoilers! Only read if you have finished A Heart So Fierce and Broken!
Brigid Kemmerer is one of my favorite contemporary YA authors, so I was not wholly surprised to discover that she can write a compelling fantasy series, as well. The heart of her stories has always been her characters, who seem vibrantly alive, and who seem destined to capture the sympathies of readers. Naturally, I fell in love with Harper and Rhen and Grey when I read A Curse So Dark and Lonely. Naturally, I fell in love all over again in A Heart So Fierce and Broken, and I found new characters to love, as well. The strength of A Heart So Fierce and Broken is, for me, the conflict between Rhen and Grey. I remember rooting for Rhen, wanting him desperately to save himself and to save his country. It is heart-breaking that now he appears to be the enemy. I feel compelled to root for Grey now, but I wonder what happened. How could Rhen seemingly change so much? And how can Harper still stand by his side? A Heart So Fierce and Broken is so extraordinary because it makes readers feel what Grey feels: the recognition that Rhen no longer seems to be a good ruler, but a reluctance to stand against a man who seemed so good. And maybe, just maybe, a dash of realization that Rhen was not that good all along–he did lie to his people–but we wanted to support him, anyway.
A Heart So Fierce and Broken places the conflict between Rhen and Grey at the center of the story, setting readers up for a final showdown in which Grey must decide if he is willing to fight his brother to save the people of Emberfall, and in which Rhen must decide if he is willing to sacrifice everyone to cling to his throne. The premise is original and striking. Fantasy series very often rely on the “good guys” fighting a dark lord or an otherwise evil villain. Not very often does one find a story in which the “good guys” must reluctantly face a former ally in order to preserve what they see as the greater good. The concept is rich and nuanced, because it actually does not seem right to march to war against Rhen. No matter how many cruel things he has done to save his own title, we know Rhen. We loved Rhen. We still want to believe in him.
This richness is why the ending of A Heart So Fierce and Broken is so deeply unsatisfying. By raising Lilith from the dead, so to speak, Kemmerer erases all the moves she made during the course of the story and resets it so that Grey and Rhen have to fight the same villain once more in the third installment of the book. Far from being a thrilling cliffhanger, Lilith’s emergence is boring and somewhat unimaginative. A more interesting story would be Grey fighting his brother, and torn apart about it. Grey eventually finding out Rhen is still being controlled by the same old villain and joining with him to defeat her has a “been there, done that” feel. I would much prefer a story in which Grey and Rhen actually have to rely on their wits and their hearts to find a peaceable solution, instead of presumably just joining together against a common enemy.
The ending of A Heart So Fierce and Broken feels a little like a betrayal because it sets readers up for one story only to take that away at the last minute in exchange for a cheap plot twist. I was excited to read a fantasy series that seemed poised to move away from the black-and-white battles between the protagonists and the evil wielder of magic and instead focus on a battle drawn in shades of grey. Now, that all seems to be gone. We will be retreading old ground in the next book, fighting a villain who really ought to be dead.
A recurring piece of “advice” for authors, circulated on Twitter but likely other platforms as well, is that “bloggers don’t influence book sales.” I don’t have widespread statistics on whether this is true (Does anyone?), and I’m certainly under no delusion that I, as an individual blogger, am inspiring mass purchases. I admit that very few people come to my blog, read a review, and then prance off to their bookseller of choice to purchase a book I just praised. (Bloggers who have affiliate links might have a little more insight on direct purchases, but they still can’t tell if someone bought a book later because of their review or bought it in-store or bought it but not through the affiliate link.)
However, of course no individual person is going to sell a significant number of books. The real question is whether bloggers in aggregate sell books–or essentially whether the existence of blogs has any marketing value at all. I’m certain they do, and anyone dismissing bloggers out of hand is likely giving up a lot of free publicity.
Think of Bloggers As Word of Mouth Publicity
It might be helpful to start by thinking of bloggers as word of mouth publicity, something which is also difficult to measure–but which most people would say is valuable. Bloggers are, essentially, avid readers and book fans who like to talk about books publicly and recommend them to other people. Again, of course most people aren’t going to hear about a book just once, even from their best and most trusted friend, and then immediately purchase it–but bloggers provide more than one time exposure. When bloggers pick up a book, readers see and here about that book from multiple sources. There’s a marketing theory that suggests that someone needs to hear about a product about five times before they consider buying it. Bloggers do the work of making sure people hear about a book multiple times, which puts it on their radar and makes them more likely to read or purchase it.
Book Bloggers Do More Than Blog
Next, consider that most bloggers aren’t just writing a book review on their blog and calling it a day. They are promoting the review across multiple platforms, often across days or even weeks. A single blogger who reads and review a book could promote it on:
Their own blog
Barnes & Noble
Other review sites
And they might continue to promote the book by mentioning it in subsequent blog posts like lists of favorite books or round-ups. They might even do a giveaway and pay for a copy of the book with their own money to give to another reader.
Bloggers Are Often Book Pushers in Their Day Jobs
Also take into account that a disproportionate number of book bloggers are involved in the book industry in more than just blogging. Many are teachers, library workers, and booksellers. So a blogger who came across a book solely from blogging (i.e. would not have received or read an ARC or other promotional material at work, even if they do work at a library or bookstore) now has the opportunity to recommend the book to students, patrons, and customers.
And Most Book Bloggers Do This Free
And this is all free publicity and marketing for the book. Some bloggers do charge and make some money from blogging (especially if they’re actually more popular on platforms like Bookstagram or Booktube), but the reality is that the vast majority of book bloggers are doing all this work free. If the price of having a single blogger (never mind dozens or even hundreds of them) write thoughtful reviews distributed across multiple platforms and create social media mentions across multiple networks is basically nothing, it seems strange to say that bloggers are irrelevant, don’t influence book sales, and aren’t worth authors’ time.
Yes, of course, things like individual booksellers stocking and hand selling your book and getting an interview on a major television show or getting a movie deal are going to be massive movers for books. But bloggers aren’t exactly doing nothing to market and sell books either, and for an investment of literally $0 (or maybe the cost of a review copy), it’s worth giving them a chance.
Public libraries support Amazon in various ways. Some buy books from Amazon when their regular distributors do not carry the books they need. Some buy their programming supplies from Amazon. Some encourage their patrons to shop at Amazon by advertising on their websites that patrons can shop on Amazon Smile and donate to the library. Some buy Amazon gift cards as prizes for raffles and reading challenges.
Supporting Amazon seems beneficial as Amazon has low prices, which means libraries can spread tax dollars farther. It also seems to make sense. Everyone already seems to have Amazon Prime, so why not ask them to donate the library when they shop? Why not give out gift cards patrons will want to use? But Amazon engages in unethical business practices, many of which harm the book industry as a whole. Libraries arguably should not be using tax payer dollars to support a business that pressures publishers into unfavorable terms and subjects to their employees to harmful working conditions. Public libraries can–and should–do better with the money with which they are entrusted.
Amazon Pressures Publishers into Unsustainable Business Deals
Many consumers, including public libraries, purchase from Amazon because of their low prices. However, it is well-known that Amazon sells books at a loss and makes up the difference by selling non-book items–meaning other book sellers, particularly indies, cannot compete with their prices
Buying books from Amazon is desirable to customers because they want to pay less. However, in the long run, supporting Amazon instead of other sellers hurts the book industry as a whole because it gives Amazon unprecedented power to negotiate unfavorable deals with publishers, hurting their bottom line and thus making them less able to produce more books and less able to take risks on books that may not sell well.
Amazon Engages in Aggressive Behavior to Pressure Publishers to Agree to Their Terms
Removing books from the Amazon website is a powerful weapon because so many consumers use Amazon to shop. In 2018, Amazon had 199 million unique monthly visitors and 100 million Prime subscribers; they were estimated to have made 7.7% of retail sales. In the book market, 42% of book sales and 89% of e-book sales were attributed to Amazon. If Amazon refuses to sell a publisher’s books, a publisher will struggle to sell as many books.
Amazon Sales May Not Benefit the Publisher or the Author at All
In 2017, Vox reported that Amazon changed their “buy” button so that consumers might be purchasing from third parties, rather than from Amazon itself. Amazon buys the books directly from the publisher, and owes a percentage of the sale to the publisher (and thus the author) as a result. However, when a third party sells on Amazon, Amazon gets a percentage and the seller gets a percentage–the publisher and the author do not get paid at all.
The new system relies on an algorithm that prioritizes sellers with low prices. Sometimes Amazon wins the algorithm, but sometimes a third party does instead. Consumers who simply press “buy” might not realize they are not supporting an author with their money, but rather a third party who is selling books fromsources even the publishers cannot figure out.
Amazon Faces Accusations of Unfair Treatment of Employees
Libraries are entrusted with taxpayer dollars in order to serve the community. But who is benefiting when libraries buy from Amazon? Mostly Amazon. Supporting Amazon financially and giving the company control over the bookselling market could have a negative impact long-term, causing publishers to earn less money, leading them in turn to publish fewer books and to take fewer risks on books that do not seem like bestseller material. This means authors could earn less money and readers could have less choice.
Furthermore, despite Amazon’s protests, complaints about the way they mistreat employees continue to proliferate. Employees explain that giving everyone free one- or two-day shipping comes at a human cost: injury, fatigue, and burnout. If public libraries are to support their community, they should support businesses who treat their employees well.
Finally, Amazon seems to have little regard for the mission of libraries, to provide equal access to all. Instead, they are producing exclusive content they do not allow libraries to purchase, thereby creating social inequity. Libraries should spend their money on retailers who in turn support libraries.
Support local businesses with their money. Many local businesses have their own gift cards that can be used as prizes or reading incentives, instead of Amazon gift cards.
Partner with local indies. Consumers love Amazon because they love the low prices. But indies can give consumers other value–for example, by hosting author visits with libraries. Patrons get to meet authors and have their books signed. Indies get to sell their books.
What Can Library Patrons Do?
Find out if your local library buys from Amazon. Write to the director asking that the library support a more ethical business. Explain why you are asking for this change; the director may not be aware of Amazon’s business practices.
Attend a library board meeting and ask for the library to end or limit Amazon purchases. All members of the community are stakeholders in the library and the public is allowed to attend library board meetings and comment. Meetings should be announced on the library website.