Does checking out library books hurt authors and indie bookstores?

Sep 13, 2022, 11:34 AM
Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

I love reading books. I love shopping at small, local bookstores with worn wooden floors and bespectacled clerks. I believe in buying a book to support an author I like. But I also check a lot of books out at the library. Which has me and many others wondering: are we not supporting authors when we use the library?

“No, you are absolutely supporting authors when you check out books from the library,” Elena Gutierrez said, the collection services manager at Seattle Public Library. “Libraries buy millions of books every year. In 2021 the Seattle Public Library spent $6.4 million on books.”

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Jen Worick is a publisher at Seattle’s Sasquatch Books and a New York Times best-selling author of 25 books.

“I have never heard of an author who would be unhappy to have their books in a library,” Worick said. “When I was writing books, I was always excited to tell people, ‘hey, if you aren’t able to buy my book, go request it from the library.’ Long waiting lists for a book indicate to the library to order more books, but also readers who may not want to wait that long, they do go out and buy the book.”

I was curious if libraries pay more than retail for books since they are being read by so many people.

“No, there’s not a different library fee for physical books,” said Gutierrez. “Libraries and bookstores pay the same amount for books. We get a discount from our book vendors, but digital books are an entirely different story. Publishers allege that library sales impede their profitability. This is how they justify charging libraries two to three times the retail price for the digital copy of a book. I’d be curious to know if [the author] gets three times the royalties or is the publisher taking all the rest of that profit?”

In recent years, many of the big publishers have put various restrictions on libraries buying digital books. A library might only have access to an e-book for a year or two, or be allowed a certain number of downloads.

“And then I have to buy it again,” said Gutierrez. “That is very costly, it really hurts the entire reading community, I believe.”

I reached out to a few of the big publishing houses for comment, but have yet to hear back.

“The federal government is looking at a monopoly,” said Gutierrez. “There used to be Penguin and Random House. Now, it’s Penguin Random House and they’re looking at acquiring Simon & Schuster. All of the imprints of all of the books that you see in the bookstores and the library really come down to five big publishing houses. So it’s a power imbalance and those with the power don’t feel that they need partnerships.”

Some publishing houses allege that libraries infringe on their profits, since so many people now download e-books for free. But there is no concrete evidence proving that a person would buy a book if they didn’t check it out from a library.

“I just hope that there are more studies done,” said Gutierrez. “There have been studies done that libraries do help sell books. We do hundreds of author events at the Seattle Public Library every year and people come and buy books. So we really do work together to promote authors. We did look for some studies before this interview, and we don’t have anything current that shows that in numbers, we, meaning libraries, actually contribute in a positive way to the bottom line of authors and publishers in order to convince the publishing industry that charging three times the amount for a copy of a digital book is not the right way to go.”

Sasquatch was acquired by Penguin Random House in 2017, but Worick, who credits libraries for her lifelong love of reading and writing, says they are thrilled to work with libraries.

“I like to think of libraries as part of the book ecosystem,” said Worick. “We’re in the business of publishing books, yes, but we’re also in the business of creating lifelong readers.”

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Does checking out library books hurt authors and indie bookstores?