Not Getting all Dewey-Eyed
Libraries are influential consumers in the book industry. In 2004, U.S. libraries purchased over $1.6 billion in books, over one-tenth of publishers’ net book sales. A disproportionate amount of these sales were for hardback books, which offer substantially higher profits for publishers. And I’m willing to bet that these sales are weighted more heavily in literary fiction than the average bookstore purchase.
But apart from their status as important book purchasers, libraries play an important role in the book world. In addition to educating the public and fostering a nation of readers (both book borrowers and book buyers), libraries promote writers and act as their greatest advocates. After working in a library for years, I know that if a book is any good, librarians make it known to just about everyone who steps through the door. Why any published writer so concerned with his cut would rebuke free publicity is beyond me.
Doerr seems to think that every person who checks a book out of a library would have bought that book otherwise. This is not true. Because of libraries many readers are exposed to an author, become familiar with her work, and in turn follow and support her throughout her career. People who regularly patron libraries are lifetime readers, the same people who are most likely to be buying books. It doesn’t make sense to lament a writer’s royalty rate and then turn around and criticize the very social institution that cultivates a literate, book-buying public.
Doerr claims his opposition to libraries isn’t about money, it’s about being able to do more art-making. He says he doesn’t really give a crap about the money, and yet it is money he is consistently whining about. I hardly see how his measly royalty is the fault of the public libraries. If he is irritated at earning 31 cents for every $15 paperback then he ought to take it up with the publishing industry.
According to the American Library Association there are over 117,000 libraries in the United States. If, as Doerr claims, literary fiction is deemed a success at 10,000 sold copies, then perhaps he ought to consider courting the benevolence of the library system rather than begrudging it. Not only would he sell more books and continue to do his art-making, but more people would have access to his books, resulting in that fuzzy feeling he speaks of.
Doerr’s article was especially disheartening given the current lack of funding for public libraries that results in closings and discontinued services. I understand that writers struggle for moneybut so do libraries. Doerr ought to take a look at the American Library Association’s nationwide database of libraries in distress. It seems to me that writers make squat, libraries make squat, and the publishing industry makes next to squat.
I do not make much money at my job. I’m not complaining, though, because I like my work, but I’m not left with money to buy new books. It is only with the support of libraries and the writers whose books are housed in them that I continue to pursue my passion for literature, and for that I am forever grateful. For all his half-hearted fingering, Doerr would have been more persuasive had he left libraries out of it and just asked people to mail him a check.