Libraries and Authors and Book Sales

Scott Turow, bestselling novelist and the current president of the Author’s Guild, wrote an article for the New York Times on the cultural and economic forces besieging authors.

As writer Chuck Wendig pointed out on Twitter, Turow seems to suggest that libraries–once allies of authors–are becoming their enemies as more and more allow the lending of ebooks. Turow: “Now many public libraries want to lend e-books, not simply to patrons who come in to download, but to anybody with a reading device, a library card and an Internet connection. In this new reality, the only incentive to buy, rather than borrow, an e-book is the fact that the lent copy vanishes after a couple of weeks.”

I can’t address all of Turow’s article, but I wanted to briefly talk about his antagonism to libraries, because it’s something I’ve been thinking about.

First: as others have pointed out, not everyone has an ereader. Not everyone reads ebooks. In fact, most people don’t.

Second: the ebook loan programs I’ve encountered at libraries often have waiting lists for ebook borrowing, just like print books. Libraries don’t loan unlimited copies of ebooks.

Third: A library checkout–ebook or print–isn’t a lost sale. I read many, many books from the library that I wouldn’t pay for–because the author is unfamiliar to me, because the genre isn’t my favorite, because I only want to read a small portion of the book. In a few cases, after reading a borrowed book, I want my own copy–because it touched me, because I want to reference it, because I want to read it again or lend it to someone else. In even more cases, reading a library book has led me to become an avid consumer of that author: in a reading frenzy, I’ll seek out everything that author has written, happily buying copies of books that the library doesn’t have or has long waiting lists for.

As a reader, I’m a little insulted by the idea that Scott Turow wants me to pay full cover price for every book of his that I read, before I read it. It’s a “cash on the barrelhead” approach that implies that he needs to get my money now, because he doubts that I’ll want to read his work more than once or lend it to a family member or even just keep it on my bookshelf like a trophy. There’s a hint of lack of faith, that perhaps he believes he needs to get his money up front, that we won’t see the value of his work and pay to have a copy of our own.

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