Library-Inspired Business Cards

We here at Olivia Waite are terrible at office jobs, but love a well-made business card. In the past we have gone with elegant black text on a matte white background because it stands out in the sea of glossy cover images and author photos (and also because it is cheap). But since we're going to the Romantic Times convention in Chicago in a few weeks—all the cool kids are doing it—we decided it was time to step up and get ourselves something fancy. Behold!

These are masterpieces in miniature, tactile and luxurious. The design and letterpress printing (letterpress! I swoon!) were accomplished by the marvelous Boxcar Press, who were an absolute delight to work with.

And yeah, I'm a digital author, but I grew up loving print books and moveable type and the Book of Kells and old book smell and libraries with narrow aisles and all those bibliophilic things that are comfort food for the soul. I've illuminated manuscripts before just for fun. I still get fizzy with delight when someone sends me a letter in the mail, too. The prophets of doom (cough cough Konrath) would have us believe that print is dead, or very nearly so.

They can have print books when they pry them from my cold, dead hands.

On Good Books And Literary Privilege

{Editor's note: this post ran a little long. What can I say—I got on a roll.} Stop the presses! Someone's written a fool piece on mixing guttersnipe genre fiction with fancypants literature!

We here at Olivia Waite will now provide a public service: we read this nonsense so you don't have to. And then we pull out our favorite bits, for some well-deserved snarkery.

Basic thrust of the Atlantic article: some literary dudes have been taking things (detectives, zombies, superheroes) that we normally associate with lowbrow genre fiction (mystery, sci-fi, comics) and putting highbrow literary sentences around them. This is presented as a deviation from earlier trends in American literature. Or, as our author puts it:

The trappings of genre fiction—monsters, masked marvels, gizmos, and gumshoes—are no longer quarantined to the bookstore aisles reserved for popular fiction. Horror, mystery and science-fiction books have spread their genetic code to a foreign habitat: the literature section.

To understand why this is significant, it's important to stress how rare genre interpolations were in late 20th-century fiction. In the 1980s and 1990s, serious writers trafficked in realistic tales, simply told. Led by their patron saint, Raymond Carver, American minimalists like Grace Paley, Amy Hempel, Richard Ford, Anne Beattie, and Tobias Wolff used finely-tuned vernacular to explore the everyday problems of everyday people.

So yeah, there's a definite sense that writing intelligently about vampires does not automatically disqualify you from the Pulitzer list in the way that it used to.

But—then we get this as part of the argument: "Discounting a few notable (and unclassifiable) isoladoes like Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Don Delillo…"

I'm going to stop you right there, Joe Fassler, recent Iowa Writers' Workshop Graduate and unrepentant user of the word isolado, because what that sentence actually means is: Please ignore all these authors, who undermine the point I am trying to make.

Here's me getting all book-snobby: Do you really think it's wise to support a theory of modern literary history that has to discount the incomparable Margaret Atwood, the inescapable Don Delillo, and Toni Fucking Morrison in one fell swoop? I'm not convinced they're as "unclassifiable" as you seem to think.

Moving on: "Even those writers who did not subscribe to a Hemingway-influenced minimalist aesthetic—John Updike, Phillip Roth, Jane Smiley—still wrote about modern-day people in believable situations."

My favorite Updike book is The Centaur, where characters from Greek myth inhabit a small-town Pennsylvania high school. Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven has passages told from the POV of several of the novel's equine characters. Phillip Roth's The Plot Against America was an alternate history where Charles Lindbergh was elected president. But we should ignore those, too, and simply homogenize these authors' large and varied bodies of work because it suits where this article wants to go.

The view from the forest would be spectacular if it weren't for all those trees.

By which I mean that you have to ignore a lot of other books in order to make your points hold water.

And then, actually, you have a very nice little section on how genre-borrowing books began to infiltrate literary awards. You name-check Michael Chabon (one of my favorites) and Stephen Millhauser (ditto). And then some other points of argument for why genre trappings might appeal to both writers and readers

My greater objection is: this whole article feels—how to put this—top-down? Like someone looking down from a tower (an ivory tower? shut up, Olivia) and saying, "The masses appear to have changed their direction of travel," when really some of those masses spent years building that new road for that specific purpose, and have no time for your late realization that things are different now.

I'm saying there's a weirdly classist undertone to the way you distinguish between literary writers and genre writers, except for this supposed New Mutant Breed as exemplified by two white dudes and Colson Whitehead. (And there sure seems to be a lot of dudeness in this piece. Aren't any of the New Mutants ladies? Couldn't we have heard from Erin Morgenstern, whose debut book The Night Circus totally fits with your thesis and is getting a lot of good buzz? Or are her literary credentials not lengthy enough?)

But even though I really like it when literary authors borrow from genre fiction (also known as, well, writing good genre fiction, which a lot of genre fiction writers have been doing for quite some time now), I get all itchy because you seem to presume that kind of borrowing is only significant when it goes one way. An author with a literary pedigree borrows from science fiction and everyone starts gushing; a science fiction author borrows from literary fiction and people mostly shrug. Of course they want to sound like literary fiction, because they want to give readers the impression that this is an Important Book. And Important = Literary, obviously.

You know what that sounds awfully like? Colonialism. It sounds like cultural appropriation. It sounds like literary fiction is the white male default that gets rewarded for taking things from people who are considered outsiders.

This is not to say that only white men write noteworthy pieces of literary fiction and everyone else writes genre. (Because, again: Toni Fucking Morrison.) But it does seem to parallel some of the dynamics in the publishing world that we've all been talking about lately. A white man can write a book about a black woman and people will call it brave and universal; the same book from a black woman would be dismissed as a niche interest and thinly-veiled autobiography. Similarly, a literary author can write a book about zombies and everyone finds it new and exciting; meanwhile, horror and sci-fi authors have been writing about zombies for years—often quite well. Guess which one will end up on the cover of Time or being interviewed by McSweeney's?

What I'm saying here is: privilege needs to be checked. Even literary privilege, as nebulous as such a thing might be.

Let me take one last lengthy quote from the discussion with Benjamin Percy:

"If look at the best of literary fiction," he told me, "you see three-dimensional characters, you see exquisite sentences, you see glowing metaphors. But if you look at the worst of literary fiction, you see that nothing happens. Somebody takes a sip of tea, looks out the window at a bank of roiling clouds and has an epiphany."

Genre fiction, by itself, can be just as fallible.

"In the worst of genre fiction, you see hollow characters, you see transparent prose, you see the same themes and archetypes occurring from book to book. If you look at the best of genre fiction, you see this incredible desire to discover what happens next."

"So what I'm trying to do is get back in touch with that time of my life when I was reading genre, and turning the pages so quickly they made a breeze on my face. I'm trying to take the best of what I've learned from literary fiction and apply it to the best of genre fiction, to make a kind of hybridized animal."

That "hybridized animal" is called a good book, and it will be a good book no matter where in the store it is shelved.

Look, I'm not saying we have to discard the distinction between literary and genre fiction, because that can be useful. Literary seems to be code for well-crafted prose, and genre can be boiled down to a well-built plot. Do I really need to tell you that good books should have both? But I think, and Mr. Percy seems to agree, that those labels can be about something other than importance: they can be about the reader's priorities. Readers interested in solid plots end up in romance, mystery, and sci-fi; readers who are looking for greater attention to voice and style might gravitate more toward the literary fiction shelves. And the reason bookstore people can argue about where to put authors like Kurt Vonnegut and Mary Shelley is that they fit in both sections.

And as long as we remember not to make one of those categories higher than the other, I think we'll be fine.

I'm ready for my Time cover now.

Libraries, Sponsorship, And The Subscription Model

We here at Olivia Waite can't seem to stop talking about libraries—especially since every other day there is some new game-changing idea or industry development that needs thinking about. Today's (or actually yesterday's) thing was a post by Andy on Agnostic, Maybe that argues in favor of corporate sponsorship as a way of finding funding for libraries with shrinking budgets.

If you're anything like me, your brain went here: Fierce Creatures (Theatrical Trailer) by NakedBrotha2007

And if you're anything like me,  especially if you've seen Fierce Creatures, you have a hearty distrust of corporate sponsorship. You've looked at its effects on major league baseball, for instance, and the terrible things that can happen when corporate interests are at odds with customer interests.

Agnostic, Maybe got this wonderful, awful idea after watching a recent documentary about product placement by a filmmaker whose name rhymes with Schmorgan Schmurlock. Earlier this week, Edward Champion at Reluctant Habits posted an interesting review of this very film and its whole gimmick:

I had hoped that the Unnamed Documentary would be a legitimate protest against corporate sponsorship using its very tools — see Chumbawamba taking money from GM to use “Pass It Along” in a commercial and then disseminating the GM money to Corpwatch to protest it, which is a very funny statement about the futility of activism. But the Filmmaker plans on taking all the money. To my knowledge, he doesn’t plan on giving the profits to anti-corporate forces or people who want to fight advertising in all of its horrific forms. There is nothing in the press notes or the end credits to suggest that he will do this. In other words, the Unnamed Documentary stands for nothing save the Filmmaker’s materialistic gains.

In short, the film is about how product placement happens, but it never questions the consequences of product placement on either individuals or the larger culture. I find this morally suspicious—especially since there are rumors that the filmmaker is planning to make another movie just like this one, therefore playing us all for suckers.

Corporate sponsorship is a dark and soulless place where libraries should fear to tread.

One of the reasons that Andy supports this unsettling proposition is that we will no longer have to listen to the gripes of people who believe that libraries are a part of the wasteful government spending all the kids are talking about these days:

The ideal of the public institution for the common benefit is no longer good enough to win the budget day anymore; the common anti-public library refrain is that “I don’t want my tax dollars paying for other people’s entertainment/literature/ computer use”. Compared to the relative status of police, fire, ambulance, and even sanitation, the library is perceived as a luxury community expenditure. In taking money from interested corporations, public librarians can tell those anti-library people that their money is no longer being used for that.

For one thing, I could find you plenty of people who don't want tax dollars to go to police, fire, ambulance, sanitation, or anything else—is this a good enough reason for the government to stop providing police, fire, etc.?

For another, if libraries are perceived as a luxury expenditure, then maybe a better idea would be to change the perception rather than allowing library critics to carry the argument.

Or—we could find a third option.

A view of shelves, stairs, and books in the London Library's Reading Room

The picture above is a reading room in the London Library, a self-governing, subscription-funded library in the heart of London that's been going strong since God was a boy. At first it looks like the history of libraries: ancient print books, meandering shelves, cozy armchairs. But there's a chance it could be the future of libraries as well.

There's been plenty of talk about subscriptions from an ebook and publisher perspective (the Baen Free Library, Harlequin's subscription lines) but not with an eye toward perpetuating endangered libraries. For instance, this piece from Jane at Dear Author almost gets there. First comes a brief mention of something Jane's library already does:

My library system has a fast access checkout. For $1 or more you can pay to bypass the wait lines and check out the popular books right away.

And then she expresses interest in subscribing to all Harlequin, rather than just one imprint:

I thought that Harlequin might be uniquely suited to offer up subscription access. It has probably 20,000 books digitized and they are constantly adding more. What would you pay to have access to the entire database, knowing that you are only getting access and that should Harlequin decide to shut down its subscription service you would no longer have access? Right now I pay around $25 for my Harlequin Presents subscription wherein I get 8 Harlequin Presents books a month. I would easily pay $25 per month for access to the entire Harlequin category database.

Why not a subscription model for libraries, then? Public funding may still be the democratic ideal, but a subscription model at least avoids the many pitfalls of a library more beholden to a corporation's interests than to its patrons' needs. If 'subscription library' sounds too Victorian for you (mmm, Victoriana), then call it a 'library co-op' or some other such Brooklynish neologism. We'll hold parties for current members to bring guests who might be interested in becoming future members; patrons could sponsor memberships for underprivileged children; there can be scholarship funds for student access.

And when I think about what you could do with a subscription library full of self-published authors of digital books … well, that's going to be a whole other post in itself.

Some Reactions to Amazon's New Library Lending Deal

1. I admit, when I first heard that Amazon and OverDrive were collaborating to make Kindle ebooks available through libraries, my very first reaction was to download the Kindle app for iPhone so I could finally check out library books on the go. Free reading on those hour-long bus rides to downtown? Hooray! 2. On the other hand, I've spent about ten years working in/around independent bookstores, and I've seen firsthand how Amazon has progressively chipped away at the rest of the print book industry. If only I had a dollar for every time I helped a customer locate some book they heard about on NPR, but they couldn't remember the title or the author, and they think it was something about history—and when I am able to actually find that title and author and often the actual book in a matter of seconds, they look at the price tag and hand the book back and say, "I'll get it for cheaper on Amazon …"

If I had a dollar, I tell you, for every time that had happened, I still couldn't afford the fancy French jet that Jeff Bezos reportedly uses to get around.

Cover image for The Great International Paper Airplane Book, with a paper jet, paper helicopter, and some other fancy folded paper in the background.

3. On the other other hand, it's nice to feel justified in the opinion that library patron access to books is a largely untapped customer base. Like I've been talking about here on the blog, libraries are vital to what I'm increasingly thinking of as the book ecosystem—they allow discovery without regard to an individual's budget, which ultimately leads to more book sales and a loyal readership.

It's obvious that making all Kindle books available through libraries is going to make a lot more titles available to a lot more people—especially since the technology threshold is much lower, thanks to the Kindle app being free across so many platforms.

And that sneaky little detail, that any notes/highlighting you put in a Kindle library copy will transfer to your own copy should you purchase the book at a later time, is designed to add impetus to the move from library patron to Amazon customer.

4. Back to the other hand—is there a more Orwellian technology name than Whispersync? Josh Hadro spells out a concern worth tracking on Library Journal:

At the very least, I’d like to opt out of this “give Amazon my interests” data program, and I’m hoping once more details emerge that we’ll see such an option.

What that line from Amazon implies is that some amount of data—the annotations linked to the title and an account identifier at the very least—are stored in perpetuity. Anything tied to library patrons stored in perpetuity by a retail operation makes me uncomfortable.

With this and the Elastic Compute Cloud they've lately developed, Amazon is making forays into Google territory, and trying to establish itself as a major Place Of Internet—with the same general heedlessness for privacy concerns. And I trust Amazon even less than I trust Google (or Facebook, for that matter) with my personal information. Library patron records have been such a citadel of the privacy battle for so long that it's hard to see Amazon as anything other than a threat to this ideal.

5. However: this means you could potentially read "Generous Fire" for free! It's due to appear in the Kindle store any day now. Further bulletins as events warrant.

The Myth of the Lost Sale

{This is Part 3 in a series on libraries and digital books; Part 1 can be found here; Part 2 can be found here. This post was originally scheduled to go up on Friday, but due to an unexpected visit from the Migraine Fairy it had to be postponed.}

I have been talking a lot about entitlement from a publisher/reader perspective, and in this final installment it is time to turn to entitlement as it appears in authors.

This is probably a bad idea. There is all kinds of trouble I can get into by even trying to talk about this—not least, the possibility of offending other readers and authors. But some of these ideas have been buzzing around in my bonnet for some time, and they're getting quite loud. So if I get something wrong, please chime in and tell me what I've screwed up.

By critiquing the notion of lost sales, I do not mean to imply that piracy is not a real issue. But the dialogue surrounding piracy often seems to get in the way of making things better, for authors and readers and publishers.

Pirates are Thieves

Author Tobias Buckell has a must-read article on book piracy that deals with a familiar hypothetical:

Author says the following: “If each of those pirates had purchased a book, each of those downloads would equal XXXX dollars, and I’d be making double my current income. Thus, those pirates have taken half my income and are keeping me in the poor house.”

But that requires a very huge basic assumption. That each of those downloads was a potential sale.

In the terms I've been using in this series, the author who feels that all piracy is money stolen from instead of money never received feels entitled to those revenues. But those revenues are imaginary: many of the people who downloaded that book for free would never have touched it if there had been a price tag. Bucknell again:

So from the author’s perspective, a certain portion of these ‘stolen’ books aren’t actually stolen. *They were not going to be sales to begin with.* They’re stolen from a cup that was never going to fill.

Those sales are not "lost"; they have not been misplaced; they did not drop down into the couch cushions with those quarters and that lint-covered cherry Mike and Ike. They would never have happened.

I get very uneasy when people get furious—really furious—about piracy, especially when they assume that as an author I naturally do too. Yes, you should absolutely report violations of your copyright to your publisher. Yes, you should send a professionally-worded email asking the site to take down the file(s) in question. Those are your rights as an author and copyright holder. But to claim that a measurable financial loss has taken place seems a little too facile to me.

Maybe I'll change my tune when my own books start showing up on those pirate sites. (So far, not yet!)

An engraved image of famous female pirate Anne Bonny, in men's clothing, firing a pistol and looking dashing while a galleon sails away in the background.
"Arr—give me all yer Harry Potters!"

Piracy Boosts Sales

This video by Neil Gaiman has already gone everywhere and back again, so you don't need me to tell you that Gaiman feels piracy can be leveraged into book sales. This kind of piracy functions as a discovery mechanism. Isn't this why we do giveaways and contests and sample reads and the like?

But like the author who claims piracy as lost sales, there's something facile in the way Gaiman equates book lending between friends and library checkouts with pirated downloads. One small part of this is the difference between print books and ebooks: though I believe ebooks should be lendable, sellable, and transferable like print books, so far the industry does not treat those two products as equivalent objects.

The larger part of this is the context in which the actions occur: lending, library lending, or pirating. When you borrow a book from a friend, we can presume you have been talking about the kind of books you both like, and that the lending will help further this conversation. When you borrow a book from a library, that is also part of a larger engagement with the reading ecosystem. Additionally, even though you yourself have not made the purchase, both those copies have been paid for: the former by your friend, and the latter by the library budget.

But the context of pirate sites is not one of literary engagement: instead, of the many sites I have seen, the context is one of protest, rebellion, and a trollish quality that I find untrustworthy in the extreme. You may recall the comic book authors who claimed being pirated on 4chan was a huge boost to sales—they posted this image, which I have borrowed for commentary and have not altered:


Part of a graph showing a tiny bump labeled "reviewed at BoingBoing" and a much larger spike labeled "bootlegged at 4chan."
How big is your bump again?

Notice anything missing? For instance, the entire left side of the graph? We have no idea what the scale is here, and it makes a big difference whether each of those units represents 1, or 10, or 100 books sold. That giant spike could represent as few as 10 or 50 books, or as many as 1000. Without knowing those numbers, we have no way of knowing how great an impact 4chan's piracy had on book sales.

Additionally, we have no way of knowing how many of those downloads were actually read, and how many of those were enjoyed, and how many of those went on to recommend the book to others. And this strategy is going to be very dependent on genre and outlet—if you tried to replicate this experiment on 4chan with, say, an erotic historical romance about the invention of the vibrator during Victorian times, you might get wildly different results.

(Not that trollishness is limited to the pro-piracy groups: witness this site, which I find equally unsettling, particularly for the sense of long-simmering outrage, the flirtation with invasion of privacy, and the creepy demands that Google ban searches on words like torrent.)

You Lost My Sale

In the course of this post series, I've found all kinds of new-to-me corners of the internet—including Lost Book Sales (sponsored, you will notice at the very bottom of the page, by Dear Author). These are stories submitted by readers, about experiences that prevented them from buying the book of their choice.

Here is one of the recent submissions:

Text explaining why a certain customer refused to buy a digital copy of China Mieville's The City and the City.

This is a pretty typical response, in that the poster:

  1. was looking for a specific digital book
  2. objected to the digital price being as high/higher than the print price
  3. when thwarted, chose to buy another book instead

It is clear when looking through this site that by far the most common reasons customers turned away from a specific book are that the price was viewed as too high, or that the digital version was not available in their geographic region. The most common response was to buy another book, followed closely by borrowing the book from the library, or reading something else, or surfing the web generally, with only a few scattered instances of self-reported piracy taking place.

It becomes equally clear that these readers care deeply about what they read, and are very well-versed in the industry's current trends and happenings (as evidenced by the number of responses that mentioned HarperCollins' 26-checkout limit, or who protested agency pricing or other recent changes).

These only count as 'lost sales' if you are the author whose book they did not buy. Many of these are high-volume names: Mieville, Stieg Larsson, Bill Bryson. And again, many of the reasons the reader switched titles are beyond an author's control: there are valid and legally complicated reasons why a smaller publisher might not be able to sell digital books in New Zealand, Greece, or the Czech Republic. As an author, reaching out to these readers is somewhat beyond your control, because we are not quite as global a culture as we like to imagine we are.

Too Long; Didn't Read

The one thing above all that I took away after spending most of an afternoon cruising around Lost Book Sales is this: there are a lot of readers out there, and they are looking for books. They may not necessarily buy yours, especially if there are geographic restrictions or DRM to take into account. But you can only control so much of that.

In the same way, any single author can only spend so much time responding to piracy, especially since there are plenty of folks out there who pirate for the sake of protest, and who were never going to become your customers anyway. Arguing with people whose minds you cannot change is a one-way ticket to chronic exhaustion.

There is a sea of readers out there, and they will not turn into pirates the second you stop writing angry emails to torrent sites. Leave piracy to the pirates, and go out to tea with your readers and fellow authors, who are much more delightful to be around.

Of Titles and Time

{This is Part 2 in a series on libraries and digital books; Part 1 can be found here; Part 3 will appear tomorrow.} It is a plain fact that people who read more buy more books. And like any other reader, I have a list of favorite authors I discovered at random in the local library stacks—authors such as Terry Pratchett, who I found in battered paperback form in the library back when Borders was the only place Stateside you could find new Discworld novels, which I know because I checked that Borders shelf every week and bought any one I didn't already have, even if I'd already checked it out and read it at the library. And what's more, over time I've bought half that series in hardback and all of it in paper, and I have three copies of Good Omens, and when I worked in bookstores I hand-sold countless copies of Pratchett's works to untold numbers of customers.

And the same goes for Diana Wynne Jones, and for Patricia C. Wrede, and who knows how many other names.

Yet HarperCollins and some other publishers believe that library lending does not lead to a "commercially viable solution." So all the royalties for all those books I bought myself and encouraged others to buy went—where, exactly?

And this is why we have to talk about entitlement again, because decisions like HarperCollins' much-maligned digital checkout implies a certain amount of entitlement on the publisher's behalf: We own these books and we will not let you look at them unless you meet our standards for proper readership. And if I do not meet those standards I will not get to read those books, and this will sting, because many of my favorite romance authors write for Avon (a HarperCollins imprint)—but it will not sting too long because like many others, I have a pile of other books at my elbow just itching to be read, and loved, and recommended. A publisher is no more entitled to my money than a reader is entitled to that publisher's copyrighted content.

Surely I'm not the only one who feels this is a little too close to the pattern of Mutually Assured Destruction? Publishers attempt to increase sales in ways that make things more difficult for readers to read the book, which makes readers of that particular publisher's books more scarce, which makes the publishers even more anxious to increase sales, and so on.

Two people, a white man and a white woman, each holding an open book smashed up against each other's face, so that they cannot see anything else including each other.

Before someone leaps up on a table and yells, "Information wants to be free!", let's make one thing clear: information does not want anything. People want things. And one of the things people want most of all is to participate in the culture or subculture that provides them with meaning, whether that's romance or religion or fantasy fiction. Books and music and movies have a value that is beyond the financial and does not correspond precisely with the dollar value such things may be assigned.

Is it a type of entitlement, that I want people to be able to participate in whatever culture they choose, regardless of their income level?

Here is one person who says yes: Cindy Orr, Overdrive Library Consultant and member of the ALA Presidential Task Force on Equitable Access to Electronic Content:

I would like to add that we need to educate ourselves and act within the arena that exists right now while we plan for, and try to influence the future. That doesn’t mean that we can’t work to revise copyright law, or try to negotiate new models, or change anything else, but it’s fruitless to argue that all works should be available to the public for free regardless of their copyright status.

As we saw yesterday with Leslie Hulce, Cindy Orr's example is an extreme one: that librarians want all books to be available free of charge to the public.

Let me say this again, though it's starting to feel like Broken Record Time: Librarians are not objecting to the purchase price of an ebook. They are not trying to deny the publisher's interest in making a profit. They are merely objecting to the imposition of an artificial expiration date. Especially since the number 26 bears an awfully strong resemblance to a year-long period of two-week check-outs, rather than any reasonable parallel to the number of times a print book will be checked out over the course of its lifespan.

The longevity of a text is not a secondary concern for libraries, because what makes a library a library is that it is an archive. Readers buy books to enjoy, bookstores buy books to resell, and libraries buy books to collect and preserve. Different libraries require different strategies—there's a whole post waiting to be written on the difference between a university library's special collections and your local public library's children's section—but every library to some extent is outside the ebb and flow of time as the rest of the book world sees it (new releases, bestseller lists, this year's award winners).

And I feel very strongly that there must be a connection between the point when I was scouring the library and used bookstores for all the Pratchett I could get my grubby little hands on, and the point when someone decided to bring all those earlier Discworld books back into print. The book world is not a feudal state with the publisher as king and the readers as hapless peons—it is an ecosystem, where every part of it both feeds on an nourishes every other part.

The real problem is not that libraries make books available to the public: the problem is that we do not have reliable data on how library readership affects book sales. And until we do, HarperCollins and other publishers will continue to treat libraries as retailers, and the book world as a whole will suffer.

{More about time, checkout time, and HarperCollins in Part 3 of this series tomorrow.}

On Libraries, Theft, and Entitlement

{Note: this post ran a little long, but I liked where it was going, so I have split it into two parts. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 will be up tomorrow.} Recently, and coincidentally with National Library Week, Our Idol Linda Holmes at NPR's Monkey See blog wrote an excellent piece on how, in all the fuss about ebook versus paper book pricing and sales, public libraries had slipped her mind. So she went in, got a library card, and took home a bunch of books and DVDs, which made her feel like she'd "committed a heist."

It's a telling phrase. Of course, she hadn't stolen anything—she had merely borrowed a few things, and would return them within three weeks or face financial consequences, small though those might be. She was also financially liable for any damage done to the materials in her care—as I was in high school when a teething puppy ate one entire corner of my local library's paperback copy of the Finnish national epic. If she lost any of those books or DVDs, she would have to pay to replace them.

An image of the spines of several hardback books with spine tags identifying them as library books.

Linda Holmes also linked to this recent article by Lynn Neary on the new challenges libraries face in the digital age, which includes another implied connection between library borrowing and lost corporate revenue.

"I think the tension is, at the extreme, we could be making a book available to one national library on a simultaneous access model in perpetuity," says [HarperCollins senior vice president Leslie] Hulse. "And what that would mean is everyone in the country could check out that book for free at any time, and that's not a commercially viable solution."

Which: no. No, "everyone in the country" could not check out that book. For one thing, we don't really have "one national library" in the way this "extreme" example assumes. We have a patchwork of library networks at various levels, which are more or less interwoven with one another—public libraries, school libraries, university libraries, industry libraries, Interlibrary Loan, the WorldCat catalogue, my beloved JSTOR, the Library of Congress, and so on. It means that you can find a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird pretty much immediately, but that obscure book on the philosophical implications of editing in film will take you months to track down, if you can find it at all.

For another thing, since our hypothetical free-to-everyone book is an ebook, there's an initial financial investment in hardware that not everyone will be privileged enough to make—a fancy way of saying that to read ebooks you have to have a computer, or a smartphone, or an ereader, or a tablet device. Maybe everyone in Leslie Hulce's social circle has one or more of those things. But everyone in America certainly does not. To say that making an ebook infinitely lendable is like giving a free copy to every person in the country is a false equivalence.

Specifically, it equates librarians and library patrons to book pirates.

Which brings me to the question of entitlement.

Nothing can get me diving into a comments war faster than someone saying that library patrons and pirates share the same sense of entitlement to free reading material. (Example: this Smart Bitches comment thread.) Books borrowed from a library are not read for free: they are purchased by the library with actual human money, whether the book is print or digital (licenses for digital books are hugely expensive, by the way, so libraries are actually paying more for many digital copies than the consumer does on their own). The actual human money in the library budget comes from actual humans: donors, taxpayers, philanthropists, Benjamin fucking Franklin, and so on. On a fundamental level, libraries work just like any other book retailer: money goes in, books come out.

But the money-goes-in part of the library system happens far away from the books-come-out part—and it is not proportionate as it is in, say, a brick-and-mortar bookstore or even on Amazon, where more money going in directly leads to more books coming out for a specific individual. Therefore it is easy to forget that those processes are connected. So we feel, like Linda Holmes, that we are getting something for free.

It means we as a culture are confused about what libraries do, and therefore it is easy to become confused about what libraries are for.

And that is a conversation we need to change, or we risk losing libraries altogether.

A ruined set of columns yielding to greenery and decay stretches toward a foreboding dark blue sky.

The history of libraries has never been a direct line; you can't go from monastic collections of illuminated works to the Bodleian to Victorian subscription libraries to the New York Public Library and expect the narrative to be clear and straightforward. This makes it nearly impossible to predict the way libraries need to adapt in even the very near future—do you think anyone in 1986 foresaw that libraries would soon be installing banks of computers for public use, or filling requests sent in electronically from locations outside the library's own campus? And yet they did, and they were, and libraries became even stronger for it, I think.

For the record, if the question is, What are libraries for?, I do not have a clear answer. Or rather, I have several answers that do not seem to add up to the One Big Answer we're all looking for. But if the question is, Are libraries necessary? then the answer is a thunderous, resounding, and multivocal YES.

And if we can agree on that, then everything else is just a question of sorting out the details.

{Part 2, which talks a little more about the idea of entitlement in the book world, will be up tomorrow.}