Published: September 18, 2020
Are public libraries really to blame for the troubles of Canadian publishers?
In a recent article in The Globe and Mail, Whyte argued that libraries are to blame because they’re loaning books to readers for free, and thereby depriving publishers and authors of the money they deserve.
Small publishers like Ken Whyte’s Sutherland House are obviously suffering right now, but Whyte shouldn’t make libraries the scapegoat for the industry’s longstanding financial troubles.
First, Whyte is pointing in the wrong direction. Libraries aren’t responsible for hurting the business of publishers; the trouble clearly started with Amazon’s powerful move into the marketplace as a massive seller of books. You can buy a printed book on Amazon and see it at your doorstep in a day or two. It’s very hard for bookstores to compete with that kind of service, in terms of both availability of books and speed of delivery. They might be able to compete if they offer a special service for readers, or if they have, for instance, a brilliant curator of books like Ben McNally on hand to offer individualized reading suggestions. But if they’re only trying to compete head to head with Amazon, without a special offering, I fear they’ll be in trouble. COVID-19 only accelerated a trend that was already underway.
When bookstores are closing, it’s clearly a problem for publishers. It means there are fewer places to sell books. One of those places is libraries, and Whyte argued in his lengthy opinion piece that libraries grab revenues from publishers because they offer books for free. Whyte overlooks the fact that people who borrow books for free may not buy them from a bookstore for $16.00. So if you restrict the number of books in libraries, or make people pay to borrow them, as Whyte suggests, you’re just losing readers.
And here’s the fundamental point: Libraries provide an essential service to modern society. They’re one of the few places around where anyone, rich or poor, can borrow a book and rely on the extraordinary professionalism of knowledgeable librarians. We should all celebrate the incredible contribution libraries and librarians make to our society, rather than criticizing them.
Publishers should be happy to have libraries loan their books. Most small traditional publishers in Canada receive a sizable part of their revenues from three levels of government, through tax breaks, grants and other forms of financial support. Taxpayers, in other words, are paying for the existence of many of Canada’s small publishers. So why shouldn’t Canadians be able to borrow a book for free from libraries when they helped to pay for the creation of those books?
Finally, it is still possible for publishers and writers to prosper if they adapt to the challenging marketplace and change their business model as Barlow Books and a handful of others in Canada and the U.S. have done. We at Barlow Books are very happy when our books are sold to libraries, where readers of all ages and backgrounds can read them. We want library readers to enjoy our books, share them, and talk about them. The last thing publishers should do at a difficult time like this is make it harder for people to find a book and read it.
Sarah Scott is publisher of Barlow Books, a Toronto-based hybrid publisher