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A man wearing a face mask browses books at Vancouver Public Library's central branch after it and four other branches reopened with limited services, in Vancouver, on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Safety precautions have been implemented due to COVID-19 including occupancy limits, hand sanitizer stations, physical distancing signs and a three-day quarantine for all returned library materials. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl DyckDARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Kenneth Whyte is the publisher of Sutherland House Books and the author of the weekly SHuSH newsletter. He is a former editor-in-chief of Maclean’s and the former founding editor of the National Post. His books include Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times.

Finally, after several months, we are again free to walk through a set of doors and browse for books, shelf by shelf, looking for just the right volume to make our summer reading memorable. And, if you’re Canadian, odds are you’ll do your browsing in a library rather than a bookstore, especially now.

No one expects all of our not-very-many independent bookstores to resume operations after four months of minuscule or non-existent revenues. And large booksellers are no better off. Even before the lockdown, Heather Reisman’s Indigo Books & Music chain was a shambles, with a substantial loss on the year. It has quietly closed 20 of its smaller Coles stores in recent weeks. The company’s share price is floating around $1, down from $20 a little more than two years ago. More closings are inevitable.

Public libraries, too, were affected by the lockdown, with various systems across North America furloughing staff. But libraries operate largely with public funding, which has been disrupted far less than commercial revenues their competitors rely upon. As a result, libraries are likely to gain still more market share at the expense of booksellers in the months and years ahead.

It may seem strange to think of booksellers and libraries as competitors. Most booksellers I know don’t. Ask them to name their competition and they’ll point to Amazon and Indigo, not the public library. There’s a logic to that: They’re booksellers, and libraries don’t sell books.

That, however, is a fatally narrow lens through which to view the book marketplace. Booksellers are in competition with libraries whether they want to admit it or not. Just ask the libraries.

Last November, the Toronto Public Library (TPL) ran this advertisement: “Black Friday Special: 100% Off All Books! Print! Digital! Audio!”

“Don’t miss the deals,” it said, “every day at the TPL.”

It was clever. It was hilarious. Except, perhaps, to people who make a living selling books.

The TPL is not alone with this approach. Libraries throughout North America have been impressing upon patrons just how much money they can save by borrowing instead of buying books.

The Wichita, Kan., public library puts it right on your checkout receipt. A sample that circulated on Twitter last year contained the cheery message: “You just saved $164.80 by using your library. You have saved $1,384.23 this past year and $7,078.76 since you began using the library!”

The Massachusetts Library Association went a step further and developed a handy “Library Value Calculator” that lets you plug in the number of books you have borrowed from a library to see how much you have saved by not purchasing those books. It has since been adopted as a permanent tool on the American Library Association (ALA) website.

It’s more than a gimmick. Libraries impress upon patrons the value of their services to keep people borrowing and to build the institutional case for continued if not increased public funding – which, judging from the websites of the library associations on both sides of the border, is a major preoccupation.

In 2013, the TPL hired the Martin Prosperity Institute to undertake a study of how much economic value the library system produces for the city. Its conclusion was the TPL delivered $5.63 of economic impact for every $1 it spent. The implication was that funding bodies could expect a “return on investment” of almost 500 per cent by pouring more money into public libraries. Let Warren Buffett compete with that. How did the study arrive at that number? Simple. The library circulated 32 million items (mostly books) in 2012 at an average retail cost of $16 per item (an average book cost). Right there you have $512-million in economic value, more than two-thirds of the direct tangible benefit attributed to the library system.

This questionable math is standard practice for library systems eager to demonstrate their return on investment. The Minnesota, Vermont, Florida, Indiana and Wisconsin public libraries, to name a few, have produced similar studies.

I used the ALA’s calculator to see how much Americans, as a whole, saved last year by using their public libraries rather than buying books. They took 2.16 billion items out of public libraries. According to a Library Journal survey, 75 per cent of borrowings are books (including e-books and audio books), or 1.62 billion of the total. Estimating that 65 per cent of the books borrowed were adult books (the rest less expensive children’s and young adult literature), which is the usual library breakdown, American adults, according to the ALA calculator, saved just under US$30.4-billion last year by using their public libraries.

How much is US$30.4-billion? The total revenue of all U.S. publishers in the most recent year for which figures are available was US$25.8-billion. So libraries, by distributing books free of charge, saved Americans a much greater sum than the combined earnings of all the publishers who make the books.

Actually, it’s worse. The U.S. publishing industry includes all kinds of textbook, academic and directory publishers, none of whose books are intended for general audiences. Trade publishers, such as Penguin Random House or Simon & Schuster, serve the general public. The entire U.S. trade publishing sector posted revenue of US$7.9-billion in 2019. While not every library book circulated is a trade book, it’s safe to say 90 per cent are, accounting for US$27.4-billion of the US$30.4-billion Americans saved last year. That means libraries are saving Americans 3½ times what U.S. trade publishers are earning.

The numbers are worse in Canada. Ontario and B.C. public libraries, serving half of Canada’s population, circulated 166 million items in 2018 (books, DVDs, musical instruments and, swear to God, power tools). If we double that to account for all of Canada, and if three-quarters of the circulated items were books, we’re looking at 224.1 million books borrowed by Canadians in a given year. There were 54 million books sold in Canada in 2018. That means that for every book sold, roughly 4½ are borrowed at no cost to the reader, which means Canadians are saving themselves about $400-million a year by visiting their libraries.

Of course, the library does pay for the one copy of a book that it lends out repeatedly – on average, each book gets borrowed about eight times a year. The life of the average library book is far longer than one year, but if we use that simple benchmark and say one in eight of the 224.1 million books borrowed every year is actually paid for, that brings the total number of books borrowed at no charge to just under 200 million, so we’re still left with roughly four books borrowed for every one bought in Canada. Libraries as a source of book sales are way overrated: One estimate says they account for 1.3 per cent of the trade market.

People often wonder what happened to independent bookstores in Canada and blame chains such as Barnes & Noble or Chapters/Indigo or behemoth Amazon for their decline. The chains and Amazon have definitely had an impact, but it is nothing close to the effect of libraries. Across the continent there has been an enormous build-out of public libraries. The U.S. had 9,510 libraries and branches in 1964; it now has 17,219. Canada’s building binge has been similar: Metropolitan Toronto built 70 per cent of its square footage in the latter half of the 20th century.

As cities were building out, librarians got over their aversion to stocking popular fare. They adopted bookstore techniques to move merchandise, maximizing the borrowing potential of their floor space by creating displays of the hottest books in high-traffic areas and installing coffee shops to make the library more of a consumer destination. U.S. book borrowing per capita has doubled since the 1960s. Toronto’s experience suggests the same has happened in Canada: Its borrowing per capita has jumped from 6 to 11.2 since 1974.

American librarians, proud of their marketing prowess, now boast that there are more library branches than Starbucks shops in their country. Canadian librarians can claim the same. One has to wonder if Starbucks would be Starbucks if municipalities opened publicly funded stores on the same block offering the exact same drinks to the same specifications at several times the scale and at no charge.

Maybe you are unsympathetic to the plight of independent booksellers or prefer to blame Indigo’s Ms. Reisman and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos for their decline. Let’s approach it another way. Imagine yourself an author. Or, rather, imagine yourself poor.

Last January, the U.S. Authors Guild declared a “crisis of epic proportions.” The median income for its members, including full-time, part-time, traditionally published and self-published authors, was US$6,080 in 2017, down from US$10,500 in 2009. If you isolate what the authors made on book sales (as opposed to speech-making and pole dancing), their median income was US$3,100. Gentrified authors, those working with traditional publishing houses, made US$12,400.

The crisis is just as epic in Canada, where the average writer made $9,380 last year, according to the Writers’ Union of Canada. That’s down 78 per cent from 1998.

Writers are loath to draw a line between the fact that they’re poor and the fact that four out of five of their patrons get their books at no charge. Most of us grew up in libraries. We love libraries. Our first library card was as important to us as our first driver’s licence. We do our research in libraries and meet our audiences in libraries. We think libraries are important civic institutions. It is difficult to conceive of them as problematic, so we ignore inconvenient facts to shield libraries from embarrassment.

For instance, there are 46,800 librarians at public libraries in the United States. That’s almost exactly the same number of writers and authors in the U.S. – 45,200. According to Library Journal, the average librarian makes US$52,000 a year, or more than eight times the median income of an American author.

There are about 2,800 public librarians in Canada (and another 1,400 library technicians). Estimates of what librarians earn in Canada range from $50,500 to $68,000. Let’s accept the low estimate. The bottom line is that you can make five times more lending an author’s book than you can writing the book. Plus annual increases. Plus benefits. Plus pension.

Of course, libraries are not the only reason author incomes are low. There are more authors and more books than ever. Especially in the fiction world, a flood of low-priced, self-published digital offerings has hurt prices for some established, traditionally published authors. Looser copyright laws have hurt sales to educational markets. But these factors pale in comparison to the simple fact that four out of five books are read at no charge.

Librarians defend their activities by claiming that they introduce readers to new authors and that surveys show people who borrow books sometimes also buy books. That is all true, but it doesn’t alter the fact that four out of five books are read at no charge.

Librarians claim that a borrowed book is not a lost sale. That would be easier to accept if they weren’t claiming a one-to-one relationship between borrowings and savings in their advertisements. But say only one in four borrowings replaces a sale. Gaining that sale would be sufficient to double the income of our starving authors.

Librarians argue that libraries are what philanthropist and early public library funder Andrew Carnegie called “palaces for the people,” a bulwark against illiteracy, a foundation of democracy, a last resort for those without access to books or the means to buy them.

That was certainly true in the early days of the public library, before compulsory K-12 education, when books were rare and relatively expensive. Not so much today, when everyone goes to school and more than 90 per cent of schools have libraries. All of the classics can be found online at no charge, and millions upon millions of used books can be had for cheap on Bookfinder or Amazon.

The dirty secret of public libraries is that their stock-in-trade is neither education nor edification. It’s entertainment. The top three reasons people patronize libraries, according to a massive Booknet survey, are to “relax,” for “enjoyment” and “for entertainment.” That is why the TPL system has 90 copies of Fifty Shades of Grey and six copies of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.

These entertainment readers are not a benighted underclass for whom Tom Clancy is a stepping stone to literacy and employment. They are people who can afford books: disproportionately middle-class, upper middle-class and well-educated.

Pushing bestsellers in competition with book retailers, to the detriment of publishers and authors, has become an addiction for librarians who, again, rely on steady or growing patronage statistics to justify their funding requests.

It has to stop.

It’s not like librarians don’t have better things to do than flog the latest John Grisham. The saddest aspect of this whole situation is that there is a far nobler role available to public libraries, one that would deliver important public goods without destroying the financial ecosystem of book publishing. That role, which libraries, to their credit, are increasingly fulfilling, is to serve as community centres and social-service outlets.

Libraries give people access to the internet, help with job searches, teach basic courses on computer literacy, aid in immigrant settlement, promote lifelong learning and provide community and a safe and edifying public space. It’s wonderful that libraries do these things, while also making books available to children, to people who genuinely can’t afford them and to people who need them for research or work. We need libraries to keep doing these things. They just need to do it without cannibalizing the publishing industry.

Which returns us to the crux of the matter: For their funding, libraries rely on the traffic generated by pimping free entertainment to people who can afford it. All the genuine good they do is to some extent made possible by being a net harm to literature.

This misalignment of interests between libraries and publishing is coming to a head. In recent years, libraries have put more emphasis on digital formats (e-books and audio books) that are downloadable on your computer or smartphone. They save patrons the trip to the library and encourage more traffic, albeit of the digital variety. Now, after COVID-19, digital formats are not only easier but safer – a double advantage.

Publishers are displeased with the spike in digital lending. There was at least a theoretical chance that a paperback book would get replaced after somewhere between a dozen and 20 borrowings. Not so with digital materials.

Publishers are beginning to fight back, doubling or tripling the prices for library copies of e-books. Some are leasing e-books to libraries rather than selling them into the permanent collection; that way the lease can be renewed, say, every two years, generating more revenue for the publisher. Macmillan tried to limit the number of copies of an e-book it would sell to libraries until the book had enjoyed a run of several months in bookstores. The librarians used public protests and boycotts to bully Macmillan into backing down.

Whatever the approach, publishers are belatedly trying to prevent libraries from teaching readers that books have no commercial value, that their content is free. It took a lot to bring them to this point, in part because publishers, too, have trouble conceiving of their beloved libraries as a threat to their business. Also because it’s notoriously difficult for businesses to register slow-moving competitive threats, which is what libraries have become.

There are only two possible solutions to the misalignment of interests between libraries and the publishing market. The first involves money.

More money would solve the problem. If libraries, or the governments that fund them, or the people who use them, paid more for the right to borrow books, that money could be returned to publishers, bookstores and authors.

The libraries themselves, with their growing social responsibilities, insist that they can’t afford to pay more. Perhaps adults, then, should pay for the right to borrow books for entertainment – something in the range of a Netflix fee, $12.99 a month (those below a certain income level could be exempted from the charge).

Or maybe Ottawa’s “public lending right” program, which at present throws a few beans at guileless authors in compensation for the use of their works in libraries, could be vastly expanded (and adopted in the U.S.).

If those solutions are unpalatable, all that’s left is access. Publishers will begin to ration their popular books, the ones that pay the bills, for the library market. The Toronto or Dallas library system will be permitted, say, six copies of the next Stephen King instead of 60. Readers will be forced to choose between waiting months to borrow a popular volume or acquiring it at retail.

Changes of this nature will be controversial. Borrowers will be unhappy because they’ll have to stand in line or pay. Librarians will be apoplectic. They genuinely believe they are doing heaven’s work, and in some respects they are, but not by undermining the literary culture that is the basis of their existence. Giving away another’s product at no charge has to be the cheapest form of benefaction.

Important as libraries are to civic culture, the books that fill them, and the people who make those books, are more so. A commercial publishing industry is unsustainable if four out of every five readers are reading at no charge. Booksellers and publishers need to make money, and tens of thousands of remarkably talented authors need to be able to dream of someday living as well as librarians.

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