This article was submitted to the Globe and Mail Opinions Editor as an alternative point of view to an almost 3,000 word piece which appeared in the July 25 edition. This submission was declined for publication consideration in the newspaper other than as an online comment to the original Op Ed.
July 27, 2020
In his July 25 opinion piece, Overdue: Throwing the Book at Libraries, Kenneth Whyte blames the closing of independent bookstores and publishers’ financial troubles on public libraries. Whyte cites statistics, studies, and other sources to make his case. While there is no disputing the fact that publishers and bookstores are in trouble, this rhetoric is demonstrative of a broader disdain for public services and an argument for privatization. It is otherwise hard to understand why public libraries are to blame when bookstores and libraries have co-existed harmoniously and supported each other for decades.
So what’s changed? While there are a lot of changes that point to shifts in the marketplace, such as the research identifying a decline in leisure reading, coupled with less and less space for literary reviews in major news outlets, these are minor compared to the two major developments that have dramatically altered the book and reading landscape ̶ and they have nothing to do with public libraries. First is the explosive growth in popularity of eBooks and eAudio books, and second is the increasing dominance of Amazon in the book retail and publishing marketplace.
Brick-and-mortar bookstores, big and small, have been devastated by both of these developments. Bookstores don’t sell eBooks so they don’t benefit from this revenue stream, and Amazon’s online sales of physical books offers not only convenience and a huge selection of titles, but also big discounts. By 2018, Amazon accounted for 42% of book sales in the United States.
Publishers, initially slow to embrace eBooks, got on board and saw sales rise until about 2016, when they began to decline. However, sales by self-published authors and independent publishers began to increase, largely due to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. It is estimated that, including independents, the eBook share of sales is close to 40%, with traditional publishers accounting for less than half.
Amazon is now publishers’ biggest competitor – by a mile. It is not only the world’s largest book retailer, but also a publisher of its own eBooks and physical books under a variety of imprints. These titles dominate Amazon’s bestselling eBook lists as, unsurprisingly, Amazon is promoting its own exclusive content. Major authors are starting to move to Amazon for its deep pockets and massive market reach – most recently Dean Koontz, Patricia Cornwell, and Mindy Kaling.
Publishers are caught. On the one hand, they depend on Amazon to sell their products, but on the other, Amazon controls the market, undercutting prices and controlling promotion for its own brands’ benefit. As literary agent Rick Pascocello said, “They aren’t gaming the system, they own the system.”
Among many other perplexing statements in his column, Whyte suggests that publishers are “beginning to fight back” against libraries, when in fact the Big Six (now Five) multinational publishers – Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Harper Collins, and Macmillan – have been doing this in the eBook sphere all along. It wasn’t until 2014 that these multinationals began granting libraries access to their eBook content. When they finally did, libraries paid a premium for access – four to five times what consumers paid per copy. To add further restrictions, publishers also required libraries to buy multiple eBook copies – completely counter to the value of a digital book.
For many years libraries in both the U.S. and Canada have tried to get the Big Five publishers to the table to discuss more reasonable pricing and licensing models, with little success. Libraries want and need a vibrant publishing industry. We understand that the need for fair prices that are both sustainable for libraries, and that allow publishers to make a profit and authors to thrive. Libraries are good for bookstores, publishing, and authors. Public libraries purchase and promote a diversity of material from a wide range of sources, including books by local authors published by independent Canadian presses.
Research has shown that library borrowers are also book buyers. Booknet Canada researched the intersection of library use and book buying and found Canadians who both buy and borrow books purchase more books on average per month than buyers who do not use the library at all. By exposing people to ideas and content they wouldn’t think to purchase, libraries help people read more. We are not taking away market share from bookstores, we are making the market bigger for everyone.
Whyte also goes on to make the rather astonishing claim that, “the dirty secret of public libraries is that their stock-in-trade is neither education nor edification. It’s entertainment.” Furthermore, he suggests it’s entertainment for the middle and upper classes, who can surely afford to buy their own books.
This implies, firstly that “the benighted underclass,” as Whyte calls them, do not deserve or should not have access to recreational material. (This harkens back to the 18th century civic leaders who established the precursors of public libraries for their workers in the hope that edifying lectures and educational books would reduce crime, and keep people out of bars and brothels. But no novels!) Secondly, it suggests that the middle class have ample disposable income and should not be using the library at all, despite the fact that they, and all taxpayers, are paying for it
Public libraries are a democratic institution that are critical in a civil society. More and more, they are playing a crucial role in empowering citizens to thrive in today’s changing world by providing the essential tools, connectivity and information (in all its forms) we need to succeed. And most importantly, they are providing equitable access to the widest range of human knowledge, experience and ideas. That includes Albert Einstein and John Grisham.
The Canadian Urban Libraries Council / Conseil des Bibliothèques Urbaines du Canada (CULC/CBUC) works to strengthen public library service in Canada’s urban areas. CULC/CBUC members are the 47 largest public library systems in Canada, along with Library and Archives Canada and the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.
Chair, Canadian Urban Libraries Council / Conseil des Bibliothèques Urbaines du Canada
Chief Executive Officer, Kitchener Public Library