Why Public Libraries Matter: And How They Can Do More
I have often thought that nothing would do more extensive good at small expense than the establishment of a small circulating library in every county, to consist of a few well-chosen books, to be lent to the people of the country under regulations as would secure their safe return in due time.
Thomas Jefferson – letter to John Wyche, 1809.
From one standpoint, public libraries seem like a small thorn in the side of embattled publishers. They account for a small percentage of book sales, but bleed off more sales by lending bestsellers promiscuously. Publishers, anxious to discover the next Fifty Shades or Hunger Games have little time for their nattering and would prefer that the current fight over eBook pricing quietly disappeared.
But there is another side to public libraries in America: they are dynamic, versatile community centers. They welcomed more than 1.59 billion visitors in 2009 and lent books 2.4 billion times – more than 8 times for each citizen. More than half of young adults and seniors living in poverty in the United States used public libraries to access the Internet. They used this access, among other purposes to “find work, apply to college, secure government benefits, and learn about critical medical treatments” For all this, public libraries cost just $42 per citizen each year to maintain.
The growth of electronic reading holds significant opportunities and threats for both public libraries and publishers. This is no small affair: new research from the Pew Research Center shows that a third of Americans now own eBook readers or tablet devices, and Amazon sells more eBooks than print books.
Big six publishers limit public libraries’ access to eBooks at their own peril. They fail to see that public libraries are an integral part of the fragile ecosystem of reading in America. Without libraries to encourage new readers, foster book groups and promote communities of reading, publishers will find fewer readers for their biggest titles, and readers will have more difficulty discovering works not on the bestseller list.
Public libraries for their part have been slow to react to the dramatic changes in publishing and reading that threaten their ability to fulfill their core mission of promoting reading. By focusing too heavily on giving patrons access to bestsellers and popular movies, libraries risk missing the significant opportunity afforded by the explosion in the number of new books published each year.
This article is the second in a two-part series on libraries and their role in the marketing and readership of books. The first part focused on the current dispute between libraries and publishers. This article details the opportunities and obstacles for libraries in a changed world of publishing and reading.
Why Publishers Underestimate Libraries
Large publishers claim to embrace libraries, and they certainly have well-informed executives who do: just listen to Skip Dye, the VP of Academic and Library Sales and Marketing for Random House:
We see that the libraries have an important role for us. Libraries have a great influence. They go through the whole family and create a great sense of community through books. We’ve always thought that our role is to help the influencers influence.
The actions of the big six publishers tell a different story, however. Indeed, Random House itself increased the price of many bestsellers in eBook format – some to $84 or more. As a group, large publisher are wary of libraries, or at best ambivalent.
Publishers have some justification for their viewpoint. In 2009, public libraries accounted for just 1.3% of total book sales, down from 4.3% in 1989. Moreover, Pew research suggests that a third of library eBook patrons might have bought the books they are borrowing had they been unable to find it at the library. This almost certainly exaggerates the actual cannibalization of book sales by libraries (consumer marketers know that self reported purchase intent notoriously overstates actual purchase behavior), but cannibalization does occur.
With this understanding, it’s clear why large publishers might be ambivalent towards libraries. This narrow of view of public libraries misses an important dynamic, however. Like the humble starfish that preserves entire marine ecosystems by eating mussels, the American public library is the keystone species in the ecosystem of reading. Without public libraries to promote the culture of reading and build communities of interconnected readers, publishers would face a diminished market for their titles. Indeed, the fact that reading remains a vibrant part of American cultural life is somewhat startling in the face of the competition for consumers’ attention: movies, video games, television, online shopping, browsing and social networking.
Moreover, large publishers face a world that is changing in ways that will make public libraries ever more important to them. The power of big publishers is threatened by Amazon, which depresses margins and promotes self-published authors who routinely underprice the market. At the same time, the number of bookstores is declining – there were 10,800 in 2012 versus 12,363 in 1997. This makes it harder for publishers to develop new authors and new genres. Libraries can help with this – if only they would.