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Why Libraries Are Good for Authors and Publishers

Today I learned that the San Antonio Public Library has installed kiosks in local airports, which travelers can use to browse the catalog and check out eBooks. This news made me happy and excited for the future of libraries.

Unfortunately, I learned this through the snarky Tweet of a literary agent I used to like. Her attitude made me incredibly angry.

And author earnings are? "San Antonio Library installs digital catalog access in the airport" @melvillehouse

Needless to say, this person is no longer on my list of agents to query with future projects. An agent who believes that libraries don't benefit authors—or who implies that libraries rob writers of their dues—is illogical, short-sighted, and could ultimately hurt her clients' careers.

1. These kiosks don't offer anything people couldn't get online.

Every library in the country offers some sort of eBook lending, and many airports offer free wireless internet. Anyone in the San Antonio area airports could visit their hometown library's catalog on their phones, tablets, or laptops to take advantage of the exact same service offered by the kiosks.

The only new thing these kiosks do is make the service more visible and accessible. People who don't use libraries regularly might see them and say, "Hey, the library has eBooks? Awesome!" It's a fancy marketing device, nothing more.

2. Authors don't lose sales to libraries, because library patrons wouldn't buy their books anyway.

Publishers who refuse to sell eBooks to libraries, and agents like the one who's now on my black list, must believe that if people can't get books through their libraries, they'll cave and buy them instead. This is not the case.

People go to libraries to find free entertainment. They use libraries because they're cash-strapped students or senior citizens, or they're avid readers who gobble up multiple books a week, or they're simply frugal. Many are patient beyond belief and are willing to wait months on a holds list to read one popular tome, rather than paying five bucks for it on Amazon.

When people like this find that a novel they'd like to read isn't available through their library, they don't snap their fingers and say, "Gosh darn it! Guess I'll have to buy it." They simply read something else.

Or they go to Netflix or Hulu, read web comics, play free games, or listen to music through Pandora. People looking for low-cost entertainment today don't want for options.

Authors are in no danger of losing customers to libraries. Libraries have to fight tooth and nail to get people in the door. But if books are difficult for people to acquire, the authors are in serious danger of losing potential readers to YouTube.

3. Libraries create readers, and readers buy books.

I'm an avid reader thanks to three things: libraries, the Internet, and a mother who's addicted to used bookstores. My childhood home could have been a public library in and of itself. Every room in the house had a massive book or movie shelf. I slept very little in my formative years, thanks to complete sets of Nancy Drew, Harry Potter, Sweet Valley Twins, Jane Austen and George Eliot, Ursula Le Guin and Lois Lowry, and so on and so forth.

Libraries promote reading by lowering barriers to it. Library eBooks are "free" (or at least, you've already paid for them through taxes), they're easily available through a couple of clicks, and you don't even have to worry about incurring fines or hauling your cookies downtown to return them. If people don't have to invest time, energy, and money into acquiring books, they're more likely to get into reading. They'll read more widely and take chances on authors they've never heard of before.

This post from 2011 contains hundreds of comments from readers who became lifelong book addicts thanks to libraries. They try the works of new authors because there's no risk, and then they fall in love with them and buy all their books for their personal collections. They review, blog about, and recommend these authors to their friends. They pass the book bug on to their children. Libraries are a boon, not a bane, to authors' careers.

4. Libraries spend a lot of money on books.

If any author, agent, or publisher reading this still believes libraries are bad for business, I remind them that US public libraries spend approximately $1.2 billion annually on books, eBooks, audiobooks, magazines, and more (source). That doesn't even count the expenditures of giant academic libraries at every college and university, the school media centers at many K-12 schools, or smaller special and government libraries.

If you increase circulation with innovations like these airport kiosks, libraries can survive and continue to spend billions on books for people who can't (or won't) buy them for themselves. But if you disparage and suppress libraries because you resent an imagined loss of a few extra sales, over time the libraries will fade away, and you can kiss that big chunk of change goodbye.


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