Libraries and Book Discovery: A Reader's Experience

If Scott Turow's goal is cultivating an image as an epic jackass and simultaneously eroding reader support for the authors by way of the Author's Guild, he's been doing a bang-up job lately.  

In the past there's been many wackadoodle anti-ebook rants, but this week, Turow steps it up and takes on libraries. Yes, libraries. 

Apparently, Turow and the Authors Guild believe that libraries offering ebooks is yet another in a vast conspiracy against authors. (He also--perplexingly--accuses "search engines" of conspiring against authors as well; read Tech Dirt's analysis of that lunacy.)

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. As a result, many publishers currently refuse to sell e-books to public libraries.

In his piece, Turow chooses to ignore a number of facts in favor of grand statements (hey, why let facts get in the way of a good argument?). But what struck me most was Turow's bizarre assumption that library users who can easily (and that's debateable for anyone who's used Overdrive) access ebooks won't buy books, that instead they'll simply click and download books "for free*"

Library ebook readers won't buy books?

That assertion has got to be the biggest, stinkiest load of crap I've read in a very long time--and I've spent a lot of time on the Internet.

And this isn't just my opinion. This is backed up by actual facts (which is a completely different thing than what Turow cites in his op-ed). Two separate surveys have indicated that library patrons do indeed buy books. The most recent data was released last fall and had some very interesting revelations (you can download the entire PDF right here). 

  • 35% of library uses have bought a book after borrowing it from the library. 
  • Library users on average buy more than 3 books a month (1 print, 2 digital). 
  • Library patrons' digital book buying increased by 44% in the six months prior to the survey.  
  • 57% of library patrons said that their public library is their primary source for book discovery.  

None of this data surprises me in the least, as it largely mirrors my own experience. 

Some of my favorite authors I discovered not only thanks to the library, but expressly because of the ebooks available at Multnomah County Library. 

A few years ago, my husband got me my first ereader as an anniversary gift. At the time, I was working a half-time job (which was one of those half-time jobs that occupies the mind full-time), teaching a couple of evenings a week and freelancing. My schedule was crazy and I wasn't reading at all and I could never make it to a library or bookstore. Not because I didn't want to, but we were living in a small rental at the time and I didn't want deal with bringing more books into the place, knowing that we were going to be moving again soon (books are great until you have to move and pack them three years in a row).  The ereader opened a whole world for me and got me back into reading again.

Discovered at the library: The Lighter Side of Life & Death by C.K. Kelly Martin

Discovered at the library: The Lighter Side of Life & Death by C.K. Kelly Martin

Along with buying books again, the ereader prompted me to check out my local library's website and discover that they had ebooks to lend. At the time, no one seemed to know about this service, so I could click and download and read whatever looked interesting without really doing any research (now every ebook has long waits--our library has one of the highest circulation levels in the nation). Sure, I read some real duds, but I discovered some absolute gems. 

For example, on my early library ebook adventures, I downloaded C.K. Kelly Martin's phenomenal novel, The Lighter Side of Life and Death. I'd never read anything by--nor even heard of--the author, but I was intrigued by the title. I read that novel in a single sitting, and since none of Martin's other novels were immediately available, I went on to purchase all of the rest. Now I preorder Martin's books without even knowing a thing about them. 

The math is simple: That one library ebook lend equalled more than five** purchases.  

Or, let's take the case of Her Royal Highness of Australian YA, Melina Marchetta. Believe it or not, Jellicoe Road originally came to me by way of a library ebook lend. I thought the summary sounded intriguing, and it was available, so I gave it a shot. I ended up not finishing the novel immediately, the lend expired and I bought the book because it intrigued me so much, despite that I had no idea what on earth was going on. 

Eventually, I read Jellicoe Road, loved it and went on to buy and read and--here's the important part--recommend the hell out of all of Melina Marchetta's novels. I bought a copy of Jellicoe Road as a paperback just so I could force it into the hands of unwitting victims.  

Again, that one ebook lend led to multiple purchases on my part, as well as many other people's purchases as well. 

I could go on and on with examples of writers I've discovered and eventually whose works I've bought thanks to the library's ebooks, but the story will be the same each time: a book piqued my interest, I bought the author's entire backlist.  

The anti-ebook folks would contend that I should just go to my library and check out the paper books. Frankly, because I'm format-agnostic,***  I cannot comprehend this debate in a way that doesn't involve me rolling my eyes. But let's pretend I can and talk about why the library ebooks worked better for me--especially in those early days.

I'm lucky enough to currently live on the same street as my (extremely tiny) public library. But, when I first had an ereader, the nearest library was located in downtown Portland, which is a fiasco to deal with when you combine parking and the inconvenience of going downtown and the unpleasant urine smell of that particular library branch (it's used as a public restroom quite frequently). Since libraries keep normal-ish business hours (I was working a lot on the weekends at the time), and I didn't work downtown, that would mean a special trip to pick up my books, if they even had the ones I wanted on the shelf. With my bizarro schedule, that wasn't particularly feasible.  

Bought because of the library: Black Heart by Holly Black

Bought because of the library: Black Heart by Holly Black

The other assumption that Turow makes is that if a book isn't available in the library, then it will be purchased by the patron instead. I haven't been able to find data about this (let me know if you know of some), but that assumption doesn't pass the sniff test of my experience. These days I'm primarily using the digital library for audiobooks (the ebook waits are ridiculous--I've been on a list for one book for over a year and am finally number 85 of over 400 for one book), but even with the audiobooks, when a publisher has chosen to only allow Windows-formatted devices to access an audiobook, I don't head over to Audible to buy that book instead. Rather, I look for something else to listen to. This is because I use the audiobook library much like I used the ebook library in the past: To discover new-to-me books and authors.

Hell, just a couple weeks ago I bought the last two Curseworkers audiobooks because I new the narrator was great and that I love the series and didn't want to sit on the library audiobook waiting list for months, since both had a long holds list. I have a hard time believing that this is in any way unusual. 

I'm lucky, however, at least my community has a library system with branches that are conveniently located for many residents.

Honestly, if library ebook downloads went away, it wouldn't impact my ability to access the library in a meaningful way--but that's not true for everyone, not by a mile.

Where I grew up in rural Oregon, it's a lot tougher. Sure, the small town nearby has a branch of the county library, but it is microscopic and again only open during business hours. For folks in that community, accessing the physical library can be a challenge. But you know what? They do have decent internet and 3G smartphones out there in that part of the sticks, so ereading is a very feasible option and it could conceivably open up a world of books to discovery with the click of a mouse or touch of a screen. Who knows what kind of wild book buying may happen?

The other thing that bothers about Turow's anti-library stance is that there's something insidiously elitist about his perspective.

He wants people to have to work to borrow books from the library--it should be hard. When you look at how busy people's lives are, especially in this country where much of that busy-ness has to do with parents working multiple jobs or long, long hours for less and less money, to demand that it be difficult to access a book from the local library is disturbing.

What's even more distressing is that assertion in the context of the demographics of library users. A fairly recent Pew study revealed that minority families are more likely than white families to say that the library is important to them or their families. What exactly, then, is Turow and The Author's Guild saying then by advocating for removing yet another way for patrons to access their libraries--especially in light of the cuts to hours and resources most public library systems already face? It sounds to me that he'd rather books only be accessible to a privileged few who are fortunate enough to have the time, means and geographic accessibility to buy each book they read at a very specific sort of bookstore.

I realize I'm preaching to the choir about the connection between library and book discovery and, ultimately, book sales. Y'all know exactly what I mean. Libraries are a part of the book ecosystem, and I want their role in that ecosystem to thrive in the changing digital landscape just as much as I want authors, publishers and retailers to thrive.  Pushing for libraries' obsolescence won't do anything to ensure that authors are paid, rather, all it would do it prevent more books from being discovered.


*Newsflash: Libraries aren't free
**(I also bought  Come See About Me twice, once as an ebook, once in paperback.) 
***Technical term.

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