Tight money and the rise of ebooks deflate the numbers
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With the economy still in the gutter, it’s hardly surprising that LJ’s 2012 Book Buying Survey of public libraries nationwide turned up a book budget decrease of more than two percent on average. Nor is it surprising that, as budgets are cut, some respondents have adapted their purchasing policies, particularly in the high-circ area of fiction. And with ebooks taking off, one might expect the materials budget breakdown to shift somewhat in their direction.
But it is a shock to discover that book circulation, having soared over the last decade, has suddenly gone flat.
Since 2002, book circulation has been this survey’s success story. Over the years, close to half or more of LJ’s respondents have reported increases of two, three, or four percent, with 2009 crowning the upsurge: fully 75 percent of respondents reported a circulation boom, with an overall increase of more than seven percent. Last year’s survey, covering 2010, saw a drop-off, with 40 percent of respondents entertaining increases for an overall 2.2 percent rise—still reasonably robust.
This year, however, only about one-third of respondents saw their circulation bounce upward—and for a meager 0.1 percent net gain at that. Smaller libraries did better, averaging a one or two percent increase, but libraries serving every population range over 100,000 averaged decreases, and libraries serving populations 500,000 or more saw circulation tumble on average a disappointing 2.1 percent.
Some slowdown in reported circulation was to be expected and not just because all good things must come to an end. This year, for the first time, the book buying survey was combined with LJ’s budget survey to reach a larger pool of respondents (388), which had the inevitable effect of smoothing out big bumps in either direction. But as the survey suggests, there’s more to 2011’s circulation drop than that. Much of it has to do with tight money and the rise of the ebook.
According to this year’s survey, book budgets fell by 2.3 percent overall, with only 29 percent of respondents reporting an increase. Only libraries serving populations under 10,000 saw a gain (of 0.8 percent), while those serving populations of 500,000 or more suffered the biggest drop, averaging nearly four percent. Libraries in the Midwest fared best, with one-third reporting brisker budgets for a bare-bones 0.2 percent increase; libraries in the South bottomed out with a net 4.4 percent loss.
Interestingly, despite the decrease, this year’s book budgets are higher than last year’s, reflecting the combined survey’s infusion of new blood. Nevertheless, the survey shows that libraries are again belt-tightening, with the effects of cuts in 2011 compounded by cuts reported in the book buying surveys since 2008.
Print books still account for most materials spending, averaging 61 percent of the budget compared with media (20 percent), ebooks (four percent), other electronic products (nine percent), and other materials (six percent). Materials budget breakdowns differ by type of library, with 63 percent of rural library budgets favoring books, compared with 57 percent of urban and suburban libraries, and even more markedly by population served. While books chew up 67 percent of the budget at libraries serving populations under 10,000, the figure is only 53 percent for libraries serving populations over 500,000, which spend double on ebooks (four percent vs. two percent) and 12 percent more on other electronic products.
More significantly, spending on books has trended downward since 2005 and fell on average three percent last year—about the same amount that ebook spending increased. (For the last few years, spending on media and on other electronic products has held firm.) Though the smallest libraries did report spending less on ebooks, ebook budgets leapt up at every other size library for a 101 percent increase overall. Perhaps it’s no bombshell, but ebook spending seems to be taking away from books.
The impact of e
Book budgets have been down before without suppressing circulation. In 2009, when circulation increases peaked, budget cuts averaged almost five percent. But of course several years’ worth of cuts can have the cumulative effect of reducing the amount of fresh material available and slowing the borrowing process. “Budget constraints have required that we buy fewer copies; hence, there are longer wait times and increased interlibrary loan requests,” observes Manuel Paredes, Cherry Hill Public Library, NJ, speaking specifically of his fiction collection.
In addition, reduced funding confounds planning, so that librarians can’t even use their hard-earned skills to get what’s best for their patrons. “We used donated materials and donated funds for more than 80 percent of our total collection additions in FY2012,” explains Donna W. Howell of Mountain Regional Library System, Young Harris, GA, which has not had state materials funding for two years. “It is more a matter of taking what we can get when we can get it rather than getting what we need when we need it!” Howell’s library still boasted a 6.5 percent circulation hike. But for many librarians, not getting what’s needed can have adverse effects.
Though everything from a shift in demographics to the oft-cited turn to other forms of entertainment can prompt flagging book circulation, the ebook phenomenon is obviously a factor. Ebooks may be preempting not just book budgets but book borrowing as well. While ebook circulation accounts for only two percent of circulation on average (vs. 67 percent for books and 29 percent for media), the net gain for ebook circulation over all libraries in the survey was 102 percent; libraries serving populations of 500,000 or more averaged an eye-opening 159 percent. By comparison, DVD circulation rose 4.5 percent and audio 0.7 percent on average, while the circulation of music CDs slipped 1.5 percent overall.
The big bump in ebook circulation is to be expected, as nascent ebook collections have plenty of room for growth. Four out of five of this year’s respondents have ebook collections, one-third of which have been launched in the last year. The larger the library, the more likely it is to have an ebook collection, but kudos for the highest ebook circulation per capita actually go to the mid-range libraries, serving populations of 100,000–249,999. A little digging reveals that while ebook circ at this subgroup rose 115 percent on average, vs. 131 percent for libraries serving the population range 100,000–499,000 (see Table 2, “Circulation of Ebook Titles”), their per capita ebook circ is 0.31—nearly double the 0.17 per capita circ overall.
In this year’s survey, ebook circulation’s gain appears to have been book circulation’s loss, but is it? After all, ebook reading is still reading, akin to picking up a paperback instead of a hardcover. An argument could be made for combining book and ebook circulation to represent best a community’s book habits, and doubtless some libraries do. Others separate them simply to track ebook progress or because ebook circulation is reported not through their ILS but by the vendors; still others oppose adding to book circulation something they don’t own. Once the two circulations are combined, however, book circulation definitely looks brighter. The bigger issue is what the public’s ebook enthusiasm means for libraries generally, as patrons load up their ereaders with purchased ebooks they can’t get at the library. Book circulation, augmented by ebook titles, looks solid now, but as librarians struggle with licensing difficulties and publisher resistance, what will the future bring?
Cookbooks still sizzling
Books may be going out more slowly, but they’re still going out, and this year’s survey provides a strong picture of what’s moving where. In nonfiction circulation, cookbooks still hold the top spot, having knocked second-place medicine/health off its perch last year. This year, 73 percent of respondents cited cookbooks among their top five nonfiction circulators, compared with 61 percent for medicine/health titles, which do better in urban and rural settings than in the suburbs.
How-to/home arts, a big contender in the early 2000s that subsequently slipped, has inched back up to third place in the rankings despite a weak showing among apartment-dwelling urbanites. Biography/memoir takes fourth place, with double the number of respondents highlighting it than in 2008, perhaps because some especially strong biographies have appeared in the last few years and perhaps because the memoir genre just keeps growing.
It’s something of a puzzle (but maybe good news about the economy) that business/career books have shifted downward, cited by only 25 percent of respondents as top contenders compared with 37 percent last year. But the real surprise is the current events/political science category, a rising star over the last five years. This year, only 20 percent of respondents cited it among their circulation bests, less than half of last year’s figure. What happened?
Karl Helicher, director of the Upper Merion Township Library, King of Prussia, PA, and a longtime LJ reviewer in history and politics, has some ideas. It’s not just that books on politics, which are essentially issue-driven, have lost their focus, particularly as our involvement in Iraq has wound down. Lately, they just haven’t been that good. “Tweets and blogs have replaced books as the forum for political discourse,” says Helicher, “to the extreme detriment of intelligent political thought.” Not that all political blogs are bad, but the blog culture does favor snap judgment and go-for-the-jugular speechifying over the painstaking analysis that the best books on politics once represented.
Helicher also says that the low esteem the public has for politicians has had an impact—which doesn’t bode well for the campaign books coming our way. “Excuse me for stating the obvious,” says Helicher, “but with politicians receiving their lowest public ratings ever, books written by and about them are not likely to be in demand for long.” As we struggle through tough times, facing bad finances and worse politics, many of us are opting for lighter reading, even if it does feature conflicted vampires and bloodcurdling zombies.
Tall in the saddle
Since 2004, book budgets have favored fiction over nonfiction titles, this year by a ratio of 56 percent to 44 percent on average. Smaller libraries emphasize fiction even more strongly, with libraries serving populations under 10,000 giving it 71 percent of the budget. The same holds true for circulation, where fiction trumps nonfiction 64 percent to 36 percent overall; fiction also claims over three-quarters of ebook circulation.
In fiction circulation, mystery, general fiction, and romance lead the pack, cited, respectively, by 97 percent, 90 percent, and 73 percent of LJ’s respondents as being among the top five circulators on average. Mystery reigns supreme everywhere, but general fiction doesn’t do as well at rural libraries, where genre fiction in all its variety holds sway. Among the smaller circulators are graphic novels and African American/urban fiction, strong primarily at big city libraries. Christian fiction also ranks low but is definitely growing. [For a look at trends and forthcoming Christian fiction titles, see “A Born-Again Genre”]
For years, respondents have reported that Westerns are walking into the sunset, but they’re still with us, strutting their stuff at rural and small-town libraries, especially. Literary fiction, meanwhile, appeals most in urban settings, where it’s more than twice as likely to be a top circulator than at suburban libraries and more than four times as likely than at rural libraries. Those findings make sense, but why is YA fiction so big at rural libraries, where one-third of respondents put it among the top five fiction circulators? And why do historical, women’s, and especially horror fiction do better in the suburbs than the cities? Perhaps after a midnight subway ride, city dwellers find horror fiction decidedly ho-hum.
Sticking with brand names
As librarians readjust fiction buying policies—allocating often chopped-up budgets to meet patron demand—Christian fiction, YA titles, and African American and urban lit are coming to the fore. They’re not big circulators just yet, but they likely will be by the next survey. Also booming: less traditional subgenres and genre mixes, like paranormal romance, erotica, and horror.
Otherwise, respondents are now sticking with proven authors, particularly best sellers; passing on anyone whose previous title did not circulate well except when the publicity or reviews are astounding; and buying first novels and midlist fiction very, very selectively. Says Mary L. Hastler, Harford County Public Library, Belcamp, MD, “We tend to focus on brand-name authors. We’re less interested in purchasing ‘possible’ circulation titles.”
After a decade of booming book circulation, librarians are facing a big shift. That’s still a vote for reading, with the combined circulations looking upward. But as librarians contend with diminished funding and tread the crossroads of a new format publishers are stubborn about sharing, things could change. Let’s see what next year’s survey brings.