Annoyed Librarian
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New Zealand Publisher Fears Libraries

I always find it amusing that anyone "fears" libraries. It makes me feel so powerful!

Cruising one of my favorite sites for AL fodder, I came across this argument that libraries shouldn’t be allowed to have e-books. The author is a digital publisher , and he doesn’t think his New Zealand public libraries should be allowed to lend commercially available e-books, because then no one would buy them. Uh huh. His bio says he "has been involved in the publishing, technology and internet [sic] fields for more than 20 years" and "has been involved with the internet [sic] almost as long as Al Gore." That quip about Al Gore would have been slightly amusing, oh, say, ten years ago. He’s about as up to date on his political jokes as he is about libraries.

There’s a bit more rumination about these new-fangled times we’re living in. "After all, in this digital age, is there really any public good justification for making vast numbers of books available free, in an instant, especially when it has the perverse consequence of undermining the viability of the book industry (and other media such as magazines and perhaps newspapers if libraries go down this path)?" Hmm . Actually, there are a lot of "public good" justifications for making vast numbers of books available – the same educational and civic reasons we provide public schools and libraries in the first place. I don’t see how these standard reasons are any less valid "in this digital age," as if in the "digital age" the problems of creating an educated citizenry are solved. As for the perverse consequence, there’s no proof it has this consequence. There might be a lot of things destroying "other media" such as magazines, but availability in libraries isn’t one of those things. It’s like this guy hasn’t set foot in a library for twenty years.

Near the end, he talks about his feelings. "My own feeling is that the lending library, except for specialist research and archival libraries, probably has no place in the emerging digital world." Because, you see, if we let libraries lend e-books, they’d have to be really restricted, and if they’re so restricted, why let them lend e-books at all? "What public benefit would arise from maintaining an expensive digital library system when access to NewZealand’s, and the world’s, books and knowledge is so ubiquitous?" And access is ubiquitous how? Apparently a book being commercially available means that its access is ubiquitous. That’s quite a leap in logic, possibly as big a leap as the ALA makes when it claims that books which are commercially available and in the collections of hundreds of libraries are being "censored." Also, since libraries are already dealing with e-books and have been for quite a while, it shows again that the author doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. It’s amazing that a guy who runs a publishing house knows so little about one of the biggest markets for published works.

If this publisher guy had been paying attention for the past century, he might have noticed something. There have been public libraries around. Those libraries have bought books and lent them for free. Publishers didn’t go out of business. Thus, historically, there’s no precedent for the argument that a library’s lending something means no one will buy that something. He also might have noticed that libraries have already been dealing with books and magazines and journals in electronic form for quite a while, and it’s often the publishers who can strike the best deals with libraries that grow the richest. Elsevier is more clever than you, and they’re definitely more clever than this guy.

There’s something else he might have noticed. For a lot of titles, libraries are the biggest market. The reason for this should be obvious to a publisher. Most books suck. That’s why they never get published in the first place. And of the ones that get published, most books still suck. That’s why so few of them sell many copies. A quick look through a bookstore bargain bin will give you a good idea how well most publishers can judge the quality and sales potential of books. Librarians aren’t always as particular as normal people about what they buy, because they’re not spending their own money or buying for their own tastes. Thus, they’ll buy a lot of junk that an ordinary person wouldn’t.

It’s also not the case that if libraries weren’t providing some of these junky or even not-so-junky books that people would be buying them instead. People wouldn’t be buying most of the books; they just wouldn’t be reading them. The library isn’t necessarily the place to go to get books you’d otherwise buy. For me at least, the library is the place to go to get books that I’d never buy for myself. I’m not going to pay anyone to keep up my steady diet of romance novels and westerns. If they aren’t available in my public library, I’m just not going to read them. I don’t need publishers to provide me with crappy fiction. I can find plenty of that for free on the Internet. And I’m not alone. Look what happened when "best-selling" author David Baldacci tried to sell Kindle books for more than $9.99. "“I love Baldacci’s writing,” wrote one reader, who decided not to buy. “Sorry Mr. B — price comes down or you lose a lot or readers. I’ll skip your books and move on!”

This guy fears libraries, and he should, but for the wrong reasons. He needs librarians more than we need him. He should be down on his knees begging librarians to buy his crappy books instead of spending the money on more videogames, and instead he’s whining about how libraries are allegedly hurting his business.

He thinks libraries would be more popular if they had a lot of free e-books. "Terrific for literacy, educational improvement and many of the cultural benefits that accrue from books. But how can this be reconciled with the need for a commercial industry of publishers, booksellers and others who will have much more to fear from libraries when technology brings the local library to every home and mobile phone." 

We could ask the opposite. How exactly is a commercial industry of publishers and booksellers going to thrive in an illiterate, uneducated culture? Is it possible these things go together? To get people to buy books, don’t you need people accustomed to reading books? Where do most people go to get accustomed to reading books? Is it the publishing house? No, it’s the library. A lot of librarians these days couldn’t care less about reading books, but if you want to develop a culture of books and reading the foundation for that culture is the local library, not the local Barnes & Noble or Waterstone’s or Chapters or Whitcoulls or Angus & Robertson or even Amazon.

Book publishers don’t go out of business because of libraries. Book publishers go out of business because they can’t publish books enough people are willing to pay for, and people who don’t read don’t buy books.



  1. Dances With Books says:

    I could not have said it better AL. I happen to be one of those readers that for books I would not buy myself, I do borrow them from the library. This is specially so for things like nonfiction, especially current affairs stuff which is barely still current by the time it gets to press. Good to read it once, then move on. Now for a lot of other things, I do buy them. I buy many books used, but there are some writers I like and buy new to support. So, it is a bit of everything. That publisher you refer to is just giving a bad name to his industry. No wonder they are not doing as well lately. If he is an example of how they are being managed, they deserve to go under (at least his company).

  2. Making money is evil.

    They taught me in library school that all information should be free to every one.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know how it works in New Zealand, but at my public library only one person can “borrow” an e-book at a time, and the lending period is two or three weeks.

    Also, the one-person-at-a-time limit applies to the entire subscribership of the e-book service, not just patrons from my library. So basically that means only one person in the entire *state* can have that e-book at a time.

    I really don’t think we’re a major threat to the publishing industry.

  4. AlwaysWanted2B says:

    “Stupid is as Stupid Does” Forrest Gump

  5. another f-ing librarian says:


    1. libraries are *not* free. they are a pre-paid service. that’s the part about the libraries buying books from people like new zealand guy.

    2. new zealand guy is not just stupid. he’s ‘hit his head really hard getting out of the car that morning and now he’s retarded’-stupid.

    2.a. new zealand guy hasn’t evidently *ever* been to the library — he just doesn’t like the *idea* of the library. it is clear that he doesn’t understand the concept that the library only has the ability to lend as many electronic copies of an e-book as it has purchased. if they’ve bought one copy, patron has that copy for n weeks, and no other patrons can read it.

    3. one thing i use the local library for, is to examine books to see if i *want* to buy them. then if i do want to buy them, i go to the bookstore and buy them; or i go to amazon & download them to my kindle2.

    4. there’s something a little bit icky about libraries. they make you give the books back. sometimes you have to give them back before you’ve finished reading them. that sucks. and that’s a book i might buy, too. if i’m liking reading it.

    5. if new zealand guy thinks we’re all going to suddenly buy $200 scientific books sight-unseen, he also became insane when he hit his head getting out of his car.

  6. I’m wondering if this is some weird New Zealand thing. American publishers seem much more afraid of Google than of libraries.

  7. Mr. Kat says:

    The truth of the matter is that the Digital era has had a more damaging impact on all those nice Information laws and copyright restricitons and what publishers can and can’t make libraries do then all the work form teh 300 years prior. Just look at last weeks discussion about the evil Elsevier. You put your name to that voluntary TOS and you might as well through out your “Fair Use” document along with everything else you hold near and dear that allows a library to make information “As free as possible.”

  8. anonymous says:

    This is the kind of thing first semester library school grads argue about and write papers defending or proscribing. It’s on the ethics and collections development syllabi for a lot of courses. But I thought AL thinks library schools don’t do relevant stuff.

    Like this.

  9. Librarian of the Future says:

    The AL should be careful of these New Zealanders. A friend of mine had his dog eaten in New Zealand once. Or maybe it was New Guinea. I forget.

  10. AngelaB says:

    I’d rather have libraries buy my e-book than no one.

  11. Anonabus says:

    I’m sure we’d all like to buy your e-book, as long as it isn’t from New Zealand.

  12. I Like Books says:

    Maybe the rest of the readership has moved on, AL, but have you seen this article?

    Among the benefits of the coming utopia that technology will make for us, electronic books will be “more colorfully and engagingly written”, and kids will read more books because they can read them on cell phones instead of on paper.

    Just thought you’d want to know.

  13. Mr. Kat says:

    That completely goes against the current trend: people are reading shorter and short blocks of text.

    Putting books on cell phones is not going to get kids to read more!

  14. Really WTF? says:

    AL, I think you completely missed the point.

    E-books are a completely different beast than print books.

    With one copy of a print book, you can check it out to one patron at a time until someone else wants it, and when the cost of maintaining that book becomes too expensive, or it stops circulating enough to keep you sell it or toss it.

    With one copy of an e-book, you can check it out to every patron with a library card, at the same time, and forever (here forever applies to the patrons keeping the book, and the libraries storage of the e-book). And if the e-book format is the only version of the book available. There is absolutely no need of those patrons going out and purchasing the book when they can get it forever, for free.

    (Then of course the DRM argument comes in, and the librarians say “not so fast”, free access and all, etc.)

    They are quite different.

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