On the last post, Will Manley left a comment speculating that bestselling authors eventually “will go directly to readers and bypass the middleman (publishers and libraries acting as e book portals).”
The e-book format is perfect for the bestselling author. E-books are ephemeral and what could be more ephemeral than a bestseller? What will the result be? The big publishers will die off fairly quickly because they live off bestsellers, and public libraries can get back to the business of giving the patrons what they don’t want.
This could well happen, and it would indeed be disastrous for publishers, who have both reduced the amount of editing on bestselling authors while betting their future entirely on bestsellers. Commercial publishers have all but abandoned midlist authors, and in their quest for the fastest, highest possible profits have done what they could to undermine an interest in anything but lowest common denominator fiction.
This hasn’t been a complete disaster for readers of literary fiction. Many such writers are subsidized by colleges and universities, and numerous small presses have sprung up to play the cultural role we used to expect from the major publishers.
It seems to me we’ve reached the stage where the best books are now published by small or scholarly presses, so the disappearance of most large commercial fiction publishers wouldn’t destroy literary culture or the transmission of ideas. I’d read a Dalkey Archive book over a HarperCollins book any day. It would put a lot of people in NYC out of work, but given the besieged state of American libraries, librarians have their own problems to worry about.
I was particularly struck by the comment that if bestsellers are unavailable to libraries, then public libraries can go back to giving patrons what they don’t want. (In another comment he implies this is education.) But is this true?
I’m not saying that public library patrons don’t want bestsellers. That’s what a lot of them do seem to want. But they want something else even more than bestsellers: free stuff.
Since I’ve worked in libraries for a long time and can pretty much get anything I want via interlibrary loan even if my library doesn’t have it, I’ve rarely frequented my local public libraries for books. But back in the days before Netflix (is it really just twelve years old?) I would visit my library to find videos. Why? Because they were free.
Free trumped quality. Cheesy documentaries, chopsocky movies, tedious foreign films some librarian decided would be good for me, I watched them all, because the alternative was forking over money to Blockbuster for an equally pitiful selection of current releases, the majority of which will always be bad.
A lot of video might go straight to streaming content, leaving libraries out of the loop, but not all of it will. There will still be low budget action movies and bad indie dramas and others that will come out on DVD for a while longer. And they’ll be free!
Free is important. How else can one explain the popularity of computer usage at public libraries? I know the model varies, but at some libraries I’ve visited patrons need a library card to sign up for a 30-minute slot on a dated computer, and sometimes they even have to wait in line for this dubious privilege.
It’s certainly a different experience from most academic libraries I’ve been in, where computers are numerous and open to anyone who can get into the building, but that’s neither here nor there. The important thing is, the computer use is free, at least if we don’t count the opportunity cost of having to trudge to the library and wait in line just to check your email or stream some Internet porn.
The reasoning about DVDs and computers applies to everything else libraries supply. People want bestsellers, but if there aren’t bestsellers they’ll read any old thing rather than have to pay money for books. Maybe the CD collection isn’t that great, but plenty of people would rather listen to unknown indies and the hot bands of a decade ago than pay money to iTunes.
Instead of focusing on the popular, libraries should aim for the esoteric, which would give them a much greater cool factor. Instead of trying to be like Barnes and Noble, libraries could try to be like the second-hand bookshop down the street.
In a great second-hand bookshop you won’t find the latest bestsellers, and that’s what makes them great. You might find a row of Stephen King paperbacks from the 1970s, but you’re much more likely to find an eccentric selection of books, and in larger shops probably videos and music as well, and in a variety of formats.
Instead of scurrying around wasting their money on the latest shiny technology, libraries should go retro. Is the book dead? Hell, no. And neither is the LP. Counter all the nonsense about libraries being museums of dead formats with the truth that libraries are the repositories of living formats.
Libraries always seem desperate to attract teens. You know what doesn’t attract teens? A bunch of middlebrow bestselling ebooks aimed at the white bread suburbanites. Give ‘em some cool retro. What’s better? HarperCollins ebooks, or a steampunk library?
Print books are cool. LPs are cool. And they’re cheap. Ebooks are boring, and getting more onerous all the time.
It doesn’t matter if it’s old volumes of Beat poetry or CDs of local garage bands. It doesn’t matter if it’s paperback copies of old John Grisham novels instead of ebooks of new John Grisham novels. People who come to libraries want free stuff, and they’ll take the free stuff on offer. If they wanted to pay money, they’d just go to Amazon.
The way forward is to focus on the message: Free Stuff @ Your Library. You can make it funky or fresh as long as it’s free.