Libraries and book sales

I confess to having mixed feelings about libraries. As a kid, growing up on a military base in France, they were my link to the outside world. Every weekend my mother and I would go to the library at the PMQ,  and I would sign out an enormous pile of books, usually ten or fifteen and then devour them  the following week.

Enid Blyton’s wonderful children’s series is the one I remember the best but I read anything I could get my hands on, including books about elves and giants and gnomes, and the terrifying Grimms Brothers fairytales.

For a lonely little girl, books were my escape into other worlds. I didn’t think they were fictional; I thought they were real, and I remember being around six and leaving little notes in the woods behind the barracks, begging tiny, gossamer-winged fairies to move into my home.

Now that I’m a writer, I have a slightly different view of libraries and a much more realistic view of fairytales. After all,  every book of mine that a reader logs out of the library is a book they didn’t buy and as someone still (foolishly) hoping to make a living from writing, that translates into lost revenue. I do get a small amount for the books I’ve registered through the Public Lending Right program, but far less than the royalties I would receive for a sold book, and nothing at all for e-books. And I have to remember to register with the window for doing so each year, or I get nothing at all.

On the other hand, libraries host events; they promote books, and they promote authors. (I’ve just been invited, for example, to a wine and cheese event at the Arnprior Public Library, with John Lawson, which I’m very much looking forward to: those events are always enormous fun.)

I’d like to think that library readers are also book buyers, and that they use the library to check out emerging authors.  A Publishers Weekly study suggests that 50 percent of library users will purchase a book by a new author they’ve checked out at the library. I have to confess: I’m a little skeptical of those numbers. Most of the people that I know who use the library, including many of my fans, don’t buy books; they go to the library so they won’t have to.

Demographically, there is a major shift underway. I suspect that boomers, as they age, don’t buy as many books, period. For one thing, they’re downsizing or thinking about it, and books take up room: they’re trying to get rid of the books they already have, not buy more. And more another, books are expensive. For people on fixed pensions, that’s a factor too. For mystery writers, the boomers are our demographic. The biggest purchasers of mysteries are women aged 54-65; those are the same people, for the most part, who are telling me they don’t buy as many books as they used to.

I can remember when people use to browse books at the local indie bookstores. They relied on staff picks when it came time to purchase new authors. But those bookstores are dwindling in numbers as the e-book revolution takes hold. We’ve seen the closures in Ottawa; no city is immune. In that context, it’s the library now that, more than ever, that provides that kind of reader support and information.

That’s how I came into contact with the Arnprior Public Library, in fact: they mentioned on Twitter that The Poisoned Pawn was their staff pick, and after we’d tweeted back and forth, they invited me to visit their library.

(Their event, by the way, will be on Friday, November 1 — I’ll be with the wonderful author, John Lawson, who writes thrillers and espionage spy novels set in the Cold War. I’m really looking forward to meeting him in person, given my recent foray into that genre with my book, Umbrella Man. More details later.)

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5 Responses to Libraries and book sales

  1. I don’t quite agree on some of these points. I suspect it is true that people who borrow your books from the library probably don’t buy books or as many books as those who browse indie book store shelves. But if there were no libraries they would pick up your (and my books) at used book stores and garage sales. It’s a habit of mind that makes them think reading should be free.

    However, libraries do provide a real service to writers. By hosting events they raise your profile and, moreover, people who borrow your books tell their friends about them — and they may make the purchase. As well, the PLR (which American writers would die to have) can provide up to $3500 a year to a writers income once they have enough qualifying books. And it continues for up to 15 years after registration. Not a lot but not nothing either.

    There is good news, BTW. Book sales are stabalizing and last year more book stores opened in the USA than any year in the past 20. The book business is tough for all players but it’s not dead yet.

    The one other point I have to disagree with you on: Books are not expensive. A trade paperback costs $20 and provides anywhere from 3 days to 3 weeks enjoyment. In our house each book gets read twice. A 2-hour movie for 2 costs more than that. A 1-hour lunch with a friend costs twice that. Books are the cheapest entertainment there is. Which is why book sales did so well in 2008 — the year of the economic collapse.


  2. Peggy Blair says:

    I think for a lot of people, buying one $ 20 book occasionally may be fine (mine were closer to $ 30), but they are not buying stacks of them anymore; they can’t afford it. That’s why publishers have almost completely given up on hardcover books; sales are down. I’ve had many friends tell me they go to the library to save money; a $ 20 book may be inexpensive entertainment but a free one is even cheaper. This is the reality, I think, of an aging population: not everyone has great pensions, and many are having to adjust to lower incomes. Some cut off cable; others give up buying books. But thanks for the comments, Hayden!


  3. diana says:

    I love to browse at the library and then go buy the books I find interesting. I meant to tell you that when I was in Burnaby – at the library – your book was front and center on one of those ‘check out these new books’ stands.


  4. Well I believe the libraries will always be a place for those of us who love books and like you said Peggy, some just don’t have the funds. But I know with the popularity with ebooks and especially when so many have ereaders, the books are so much more affordable to attain this way and I for one love to load up my kindle with authors I follow or new authors and have them at my fingertips, so I guess it all comes down to preference. Enjoy in November!


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