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Librarians as Booksellers

There’s an interesting interview in LJ with a vice president from Random House who after visiting libraries and talking to librarians finally realized that librarians are basically just shills for commercial publishers.

This marks a significant transformation in library-publisher relations because if the goal is to get ebooks into libraries, it’s better for librarians to be thought of as potential sales clerks than enemies.

Here’s what he said surprised him in his library visits: “The days of rows and rows of spine-out books with white cataloging labels were gone. Instead, there were face-out displays, top-shelf features, thematic and new release tables, staff-picks, and end-caps: all featuring books to their customers.”

And the conclusion based on this observation? “Random House has always been committed to the library marketplace, but from these visits and observations, we see a unique opportunity to put authors and their books in the hands of readers. We interchange the word “librarian” with “bookseller”; and, “library” for “bookstore.””

I think the observation is spot on and the conclusion makes sense. A question for librarians is whether they want to be thought of as booksellers.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with being a bookseller. Indeed, many of my happiest hours in life have occurred because of booksellers and an important sign of civilization is having good bookstores about, even in the Amazon age. But is there an important distinction between libraries and bookstores?

As the ample evidence indicates, many libraries have been mimicking the layouts of bookstores, even as bookstores once upon a time starting mimicking the casual reading areas of libraries. “Face out displays” and endcaps are bookstore jargon that has permeated public libraries.

Then there are the librarians who love to introduce commercial jargon into libraries whenever they can. Libraries don’t have patrons, or even the more generic users, they have customers, because there’s no difference between the communal resources of public libraries and the book section of Walmart.

It’s not just displaying and recommending books, either. Some of the activities libraries routinely host are directly responsible for book sales. Libraries host or sponsor book groups, for example. How many of the books read by a collective book group borrowed from libraries and how many purchased individually?

So let’s accept that librarians are and always have been shills for publishers. We like people to read books, and reading books will usually lead to buying books. Libraries are great for discovering authors that we might not be willing to spend money on without some exposure.

Could libraries go further?

Some librarians have been resisting the commercialization of libraries by linking sales buttons to OPACs, or have criticized library lending of Kindle books taking library users to a commercial environment.

But is librarians are booksellers, why resist any of this? Why not have links to Amazon or Barnes and Noble right in the catalog of both print and ebooks?

“This book is currently unavailable. Purchase a copy here for $9.99!” Maybe publishers would even give little discounts to people who buy copies through library links like Amazon does with their affiliate stores. Libraries could become affiliate stores and make a little extra money.

It seems like a win-win scenario, as the business people say.

On a final note, one of the odd things in the interview is the argument that charging libraries more for an ebook is justified, especially the claim  about libraries having “unrestricted and perpetual availability of our complete frontlist and backlist” and then contradicting the statement with “under a model of one-copy, one user.” One copy, one user isn’t “unrestricted.” Just clearing that up.

Otherwise, food for thought.



  1. Library Spinster says:

    He’s discovering that libraries are using bookstore marketing techniques now? That’s been going on for at least two decades.

    And AL is right “One use, one user” is not “unrestricted.”

  2. I think putting an affiliate button on a library website is brilliant.
    Maybe then publishers will listen when librarians tell them that we increase book sales. And then maybe they’ll quit screwing us over on e-books. Well, I can dream.
    I do love the quote:”The days of rows and rows of spine-out books with white cataloging labels were gone.”
    Yes, in the 1950’s.

    • I Like Books says:

      Amazon used to give money when people visit by clicking a link from somewhere else. Not much, but enough for authors of internet comics to encourage their readers to visit Amazon by clicking the link on the comic page.

      Libraries are pretty hard up lately. 2+2=…?

  3. anonymous says: and worldcat local integrated opac pages already have a buy it section with links to B&N, Amazon, etc. Where have you been?

  4. Not only Worldcat, but TONS of public libraries are already Amazon affiliates and have links on their websites. I haven’t worked in a public library in 5 years and we had one at my last job.

  5. It depends a lot on the political environment that your library is in. Our community takes a lot of pride in small and independent businesses. In, fact we don’t have a big box bookstore and only have smaller independent book stores.

    There would be a definite uproar if we started linking to B&N or Amazon. The ironic thing is a lot of the people who would complain probably buy from Amazon more than the local bookstores. But, it’s the principle darn it!

  6. Alex Kyrios says:

    I briefly considered that publishers or Amazon might game such a system by checking out books just to filter patrons to the purchasing option, but then I took off my tinfoil hat. Sounds good!


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