Are Libraries Good for Authors?
Guest blogger: Kristin Laughtin
Listen: there are buildings in every city that let you read books without cost. Literary pirate vessels? Nope. Though often manned by strange individuals, they’re just libraries. As a long-time library worker, I’m here to dispel the comparison of libraries to piracy and shed light on how much libraries help book sales.
The analogy of libraries to pirates stems from the idea that libraries buy one copy of a book that is then available for anyone to read, causing lost sales. By definition, though, libraries are the exact opposite of pirates. Libraries acquire, through legal channels, all the books they provide. Even if they are loaned many times, they are still paid for.
But people can borrow them for free!
That’s not really true. Tax dollars fund anything public. Patrons contribute a tiny portion of each book’s cost, which gives them the right to borrow, but not own, any of the library’s communal resources. A friend could borrow a book from you or from the library; either way, the author only gets paid for one copy.
But one copy is shared by so many!
This usually isn’t really the case, either. Most library books don’t circulate as much as you think. As few as 6 to 20% of the books drive 80% of the circulation. (Link.) The rest sit on the shelves, if they’re not weeded to make room for new stuff, having been checked out only a few times—or zero.
For popular titles, most libraries buy multiple copies to meet demand. Depending on the size of the library system, they might even buy 50 to 100 copies or more of bestselling titles, especially when you count all formats: hardcover, large print, audio CD, and now e-book.
It’s also a necessity for libraries to buy multiple copies, as books wear out quickly, often after 25 check-outs or so. One copy just won’t last for 1,000 uses.
For e-books, chances are libraries aren’t paying the same $10-per-book you would. They have to purchase lending rights, and the fees get higher as more flexibility is added to the license.
Publishers count on a significant portion of their revenue from libraries. In 2009, public libraries and educational institutions (which include school and college libraries) bought $14.6 billion of the $40 billion in books sold. Over a tenth of net book sales are to libraries. The absence of libraries would be noticed! (Link.)
But wouldn’t people buy more books if they couldn’t borrow?
Perhaps—there’s nothing to confirm what publishers might have sold. Experience inclines me to think that people who want to buy will do so anyway, and heaviest usage is by those who can’t afford all the books they want. Some might cave and buy what they can’t borrow, but more might pirate instead—in which case the author makes zip.
Libraries also provide a platform for discovery, allowing readers to try an author, see them at an event, or receive a recommendation, before going out to buy all their books. We can’t gauge the cause and effect exactly, but libraries are definitely not a threat to a publisher’s bottom line. They may even drive sales more than hinder them.
As an author, how do you feel about libraries? As a reader, do you use them?
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In addition to being an aspiring SFF writer, Kristin Laughtin works in collection development at a large academic library while completing her MLIS. She serves on the committee for a local literary festival and has lectured on genre fiction at UCLA. You can find her blog at http://kristinlaughtin.blogspot.com.