My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, August 7, 2020

Libraries vs. "Pay Authors" (....Wait. WHAT???)


Recently I posted a tweet encouraging people to use a library's audiobook program instead of Audible. 

Right. With me so far? Great.

I got all the "Usual Suspect" responses––the good advice like checking WHICH audiobook program your local library uses (they don't all use Overdrive), the typical "great taste/less filling" arguments about owning vs. borrowing, and the all-too-predictable breathtakingly privileged comments that inadvertently intimate that only people with financial means should be able to have access to books, usually by complaining that a six-week wait for a popular title means that libraries are less than useless (rather than just criminally underfunded). And I'm a guy who likes me some instant gratification, don't get me wrong.

Keeping up? Wonderful.

There was nothing surprising in about any of these reactions. I've been at this WAY too long not to have seen this all before. One was the sort of good "drill down" nuance you get when you post almost any kind of tweet. Because even at its vastly improved 280 characters, Twitter is where nuance goes to die. The other two were basically what you get when you post anything encouraging people to use libraries. Some folks with disposable incomes don't realize that not everyone is in the same boat and thus cannot actually make the choice to buy books as fast as they read. Those kind of comments are the cost of doing business if you want to talk about libraries.

No real surprises yet.

That's when the wheels came off the bus. I also saw a new "genre" of comments––folks having a reaction I completely DIDN'T expect.

"Or we could just pay the authors." "Actually, I like to support the authors." "It's better for the authors if you buy it."

Yeah, we should totally pay the......um–––

Wait. What?

This isn't just a weird take, or a predictably pro-corporation capitalist take. It's not your usual "If poor Jeff Bezos can't be a trillionaire while people die in the street, how will anyone ever be motivated to keep the engines of our industry turning faster than the commies'?" It is actually SO far off the rails, I can only assume it is based on some kind of bad information at some step in the process. So I'm here to give all of you the straight dope. Yes, we could pay the author, BUT......

Look at me. Look at me! Are you looking? 
I love that you want to support authors, but I absolutely positively promise you that libraries are completely fucking AWESOME for authors. Pinkie swear! 

Either these people dropping these comments don't know how libraries work or they don't know what a company like Amazon does to make money off of the efforts of writers. Fortunately, punching holes in this kind of shit is just exactly my wheelhouse as long as folks let me put on my snarkiest cestus before my pugilism of ignorance bashing begins. 

Also my sweatshop-caliber-overworked metaphors.

Paying the author is great, but libraries DO buy books from publishers, which gets authors paid.

Libraries buy books. In fact, libraries do not buy books at the same bulk discounts that book sellers do. They don't QUITE pay retail for most books, but it's pretty close*, and they certainly don't buy at the 40%-70% discount that retail outlets and book clubs get. They buy at least one copy of a book, pretty much if a person wants them to have that book. And any book that is going to have multiple people wanting to check it out every month is going to have a copy in pretty much every library in the English-language world. More than one copy for popular books. And every time a library wears out a copy of their book (unless the book is waning in popularity and they can pare down to fewer copies), they replace it by BUYING another copy. 

*Usually it's more like the same discount a bookstore employee might get. Although for some books they pay full retail price––often they have a fund set up to handle requests from their patrons.

That's potentially hundreds of thousands of books these libraries buy. There are roughly 150,000 public libraries in the English-language world (not including the sparser, but existent English libraries [or sections] outside the Anglosphere). 

You know what a GOOD run is for a fiction book? 25k. 50k is really good. 75k is spectacular. If a writer has a good enough book, JUST THE LIBRARIES of the world will double a "spectacular" run as they all race to get ONE copy of this in-demand book. (And if you're that popular, they're going to try to buy more than one.) Plus all those readers who take a chance on something they can borrow instead of buy (but then MUST own their own copy) will buy the book as well. 

Of course, most people who aren't Stephen King, she who shall not be named, or God never in their lives write a book that EVERY SINGLE library on Earth wants to get its hands on, and non-traditional publishers have the same marketing and distribution issues with libraries that they would with retailers, but libraries buy new books every day based on requests from those they service. So once an author has people who want to read their book asking libraries to carry it, they make money. 

And libraries pay licencing fees for each use of electronic media. Things like the audio file? The author makes some money. Same goes for e-books. The authors get a tiny royalty for every electronic checkout. And as e-books do not wear out, their prices are often higher for libraries to offset a longer shelf life. But on top of this, they have to "repurchase" the rights to them periodically (usually every one or two years).

Further, though an author may need a book deal with an international legal section, in many non-US libraries, there is something called a Public Lending Right, and that means you DO make money (pennies, but still) every time your book is checked out. 

Libraries are not pirating books. 

The arguments surrounding the "or we could pay the author" folks bear a striking resemblance to the arguments AGAINST pirating.

I have to be honest here. I'm elated, thrilled....OVER THE MOON that a new generation of up-and-coming writers knows to be very wary when they hear the word "exposure" used non-ironically in their presence; however, they also should know that exposure IS actually a thing. It exists, and it is good for authors.

Here's the trick. 

I'm going to tell you the difference between a pirate/thief downloading your book with a shrug of "I'm giving them good exposure!" (or a professional for-profit organization trying to get work for free out of a writer) and a library saying the same thing.


Here comes.

The difference is if someone is offering to pay you with ONLY exposure. 

The pirate/thief downloading torrents (instead of waiting a week for a request to come in at their local library) who has convinced themselves they're screwing the big, bad publishing company and not the author (it's both), and that they're providing the author with exposure (they almost never are), isn't paying for even a SINGLE copy of that book that they have. The library IS doing that. And unlike the pirate/thief, the library is also actually putting their copy of that book on display and giving it out to pretty much anyone who wants it (rather than just erasing it from their hard drive when finished). 

Now you're talking to a guy who will never publish traditionally because the big bad publishing companies really ARE big and bad, and who puts all his stuff online for free and passes the hat because he knows a lost cause when he sees one. But don't let the pirates/thieves convince you that they're really doing you a great big favor. They just don't want to feel as bad about picking an author's pocket. They've got this idea that they're going to go talk up enough people about that book that it'll get the author more money than if they'd never read it, but what usually happens is that they tell a few of their friends how THEY can pirate it. Their "exposure" myth is just what they tell the mirror as they brush their teeth for the evening so they can sleep at night. 

However, that's not what libraries do. They buy actual copies. Then they lend them out. Then they replace them as needed, which includes buying more copies if the book is popular. Then they notify other libraries of what's getting checked out, and THOSE libraries start buying copies. And the whole while, anyone who is legitimately checking out those books might develop an interest in having a copy for their very own or exploring the author's backlist. Plus the librarian might be recommending your book to people who come in asking about "suchandsuch" a genre with "soandso" of a style. 

Now THAT'S exposure. 

Paying authors is AWESOME, but comparing libraries with some rando just lending books willy nilly is a BAD analogy.

So you compare libraries to your friend who lends you a book but just assume they do it an extra thousand or so times, and totally screw the author.

Okay, right now, this analogy sucks. Let's look at it like this. 

Your friend lends out a book. If your friend notices that a lot of people are borrowing this book, they are likely to buy multiple copies of the book so they can lend them out to MORE people. Ten or fifteen copies wouldn't be unheard of for a very popular book. Your friend also replaces any books that become too tattered, whether they've lent it out fifteen times or once. Your friend also belong to a network of other book-lending friends who will also buy multiple copies. 

NOW your analogy doesn't suck. 

This is why we NEED libraries. Your friend would have to be outrageously wealthy and generous to pull this off in a non-sucky-analogy way. The collective resources of a community are the only way to create something like a public library without everyone having their own personal multi-millionaire friend invested heavily in their ongoing literacy.

Ask working authors what they think of libraries. NONE of them dislike libraries.

I am pretty sure you would be hard pressed to find even a fraction of one percent of working authors who have something negative to say about the way libraries affect their bottom line. Authors LOVE libraries. Even the most hard-line, mercenary, business-nosed author knows that they probably sell more copies of their book because of libraries than they ever would without them.

In a world where everyone had massive disposable income, an author (who I guess doesn't have the same massive disposable income as everyone else for some reason because that's what's required in this scenario) might prefer if every single person to ever take a chance on one of their books did so by purchasing their own copy, but given the world we live in where there are people who can't buy books or only a couple at a time as a treat, public libraries exist precisely because books should not belong only to those people of sufficient enough means to have their own personal libraries. Public libraries exist to democratize literature and information as something that all humanity (not just the wealthy) deserve. And they are part and parcel with the reason the modern day writer can be "the modern day writer" instead of having a wealthy patron among the courtiers. 

The ones treating authors poorly are EXACTLY who you would expect to.

If authors aren't making enough in late stage capitalism, I hate to say it, but it's not the LIBRARIES that are to blame*. (And it's certainly not all the plebs who used the library rather than buying every book they read brand new.) If you want to see who is mistreating authors, look at Amazon (and don't forget the publishers). Price fixing, denying authors their "commission" unless the Audible subscription came from a certain URL, slashing royalty rates, denying more and more money to the author whether you go big five or independent because the entire industry landscape is dotted by various distribution monopolies. They're Kaiju trying to smash each other's market share and authors get trampled underneath. 

*Confession time: I didn't hate to say this at all, really.

But it sure as hell isn't by LIBRARIES hurting authors. If you want to see a library contribute some scrill to an author, it's as easy as walking up to the desk and asking them if they will order that author's book. I think they also make you fill out a tiny little card. 

Very few donated books end up on a library's shelves.

Some of the confusion seems to surround the book drives libraries have. And while I can't speak for the shoestring budget of every small town library in the world, most do not need two hundred copies of Fifty Shades of Grey (especially not the ones where some of the pages between 318 to 329 are extra tattered). Libraries are generally limited by space. That's why unless you have a PRISTINE copy of a book they were going to buy anyway, they usually turn around and have a book sale, using the money to buy more books.....from authors. 

Libraries are not stopping you from buying books. 

We never voted as a society to have bookstores OR libraries, and the effort to edge out libraries is coming from bookstores, not the other way around. It's true that libraries are a sweet little drop of socialism in our late-stage crapitalist coffee, but if you are brimming over with concern for the plight of the poor working writers, I can't tell you enough how much trying to get universal basic income or a federal "artist stipend" for working writers (or just giving us money) will help more than attacking libraries. Amazon and other booksellers are the ones who want you to think libraries aren't good for authors, and gee I wonder why*?

*I don't really wonder. It's because they're lying greedy fuckwaffles lying through their lying face-holes to secure a bigger market share.

As if paying authors OR enjoying libraries is what's really on the table when corporations like Amazon are doing everything in their considerable-PR-spin power to destroy any competition they might have, including calling for the end of libraries. (That link is to those pinko liberals over at Fortune magazine who even think that's a pretty shittastic idea.) And honestly....fuck them for trying because this entire post is JUST about authors making money; it doesn't even touch on everything else public libraries do like help with government forms, job applications, community gatherings, or just kicking ass for free speech.

Libraries are good. 

Libraries help authors.

Libraries BUY authors' books.

Libraries are not the enemy.


  1. I love, love, love this post. One of the best things you can do to support an author is to request your library get a copy ( local and school!)

  2. Yes! Exactly so! There are so many reasons to love libraries, and the more you look into what they do, the more reasons you’ll find. Thanks Chris, for (once again) bringin’ on the facts.

  3. This is so informative. I had no idea just how bad that 'pay the authors' argument really was!

  4. I'm a librarian, and ... yes. So much yes. Also, if you really want to support local authors, attend author events. Virtual for now, but soon enough we'll be back to in-person events. It's good experience and exposure for them, and it's an opportunity to buy their books directly while supporting your library too. If you can't do that, load up the request list for them along with your friends and family. It's a win-win-win-win scenario for you, the library, the author, and their publisher (or professional support of whatever description).

  5. Another wonderful post, Chris! Wow I didn't realize how much I could support an author if I request their books at my libraries! There are a lot of (especially self-published) authors I love, but who currently don't have any books in the libraries. This is a shame, because some folks can't afford to splurge on books, so if these are available in the library, then many more people will get to enjoy these delightful gems!

    I also like the idea from the last commenter of attending local author events. It's fun to get author-signed copies of books too, haha.

  6. thank you from this librarian. Only one *tiny* quibble - "And as e-books do not wear out, their prices are often higher for libraries to offset a longer shelf life" is not quite right. Most libraries have to repurchase an eBook after X months (12 or 24, usually) or 26 checkouts, whichever comes first. Very few eBooks are offered for sale forever and unlimited checkouts.

    1. Oh awesome! Thank you. I've made an adjustment to the article to reflect this.