On eating your seed corn

Today, the disturbing news that is going around is that some publishers have asked Overdrive (the library lending program) to limit the number of checkouts for a digital lending license.

Look, I get that money is tight. I get that you’re worried about an infinite number of checkouts from one digital copy. I get that you’re projecting the future and it’s filled with fear. What I don’t get, however, is the utter disdain for the vital role that libraries fill in our community, and in the book-buying ecosystem.

So let’s talk about the lifecycle of a voracious reader: me.

I enjoyed reading from a very young age. I started forming lifelong habits at the age of ten, and continued through my twenties. It quickly became apparent that the sources of books available to me were vastly, vastly inadequate. My parents didn’t have a lot of discretionary income (having opted for discretionary children instead). We had a lot of books in the house, but a house that has 1,000 books in it is nothing–you finish most of those 1,000 books by the time you are 9 or 10, and that’s including the hours you spend struggling through “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” because damn, there really isn’t anything else to read.

We got most of our additional reading through the library. We would go every week during the summer, and we’d each check out the maximum number of books. (Which I think was three or four). I would finish my own books on the first day of the week, and then swap with my sister. By the end of the week, we were all slavering, waiting for my little brother to finish his latest Hardy Boys book.

When I went away to college, I had to bend over backwards to keep my fiction reading up. I read everything I could find in the library. I borrowed from friends. On occasion, when I couldn’t bear to wait on the library waiting list for a new release, I would take the money for the book I wanted from my food budget–but since I was spending $15 a week on food, this was not always an option. Back then, I was willing to jump through the most enormous hoops to get books for free: begging, borrowing from people I barely knew, waiting for weeks on the library waiting list. I was more than willing to trade free time (which I had in spades) for books.

Since that time, my discretionary income has increased substantially, and my free time has decreased accordingly.

When I was young, and forming habits, and had no money, I could get free books. If I had not been able to get free books, I would have eventually found other ways to pass my time. Video games, role playing, television… you name it, there are a ton of other free or near-free habits I could, and would, have developed.

Today, library budgets are being slashed. Some publishers don’t make their books available for digital lending, and more publishers are actively hostile.

But let’s face the truth: libraries are an annoying way to get books. You have to wait. You have to read the book on someone else’s schedule–when you hit your spot–and you only have two weeks to read it before it’s ripped from your grasp, and later on, when you can’t remember the title or the author you can’t scour your shelves in vain.

A lend from a library is never as good as a purchase. People do it because they are readers, and they put up with it because it is really, really expensive to support a flat-out voracious reading habit on your own dime.

Publishers, if you make it impossible for young people–those in the “under 25″ category–to support a good reading habit on their own dime, these people are not going to start magically spending money on books when they start making a decent income. No; at that point, they’ll already have started spending their time haunting hulu instead, where they can actually get free entertainment. And when they start making money, they’ll be buying iTunes streams of those shows they watched for free.

Me, personally, I’d rather they were buying books.

When I was 20, I spent maybe $50 a year on books. Libraries subsidized my reading for 10 years of my life. But once I started having a reasonable income, the tables turned. I imagine that I’ll be spending over $5,000 a year on books–what I spent last year–every year for the rest of my life.

Libraries are the future of reading. When the economy is down, we need to make it easier for people to buy and read books for free, not harder. It is stupid to sacrifice tomorrow’s book buyers for today’s dollars, especially when it’s obvious that the source in question doesn’t have any more dollars to give you.

22 thoughts on “On eating your seed corn

  1. Yes. This. 100% This. I definitely still utilize the library. [Yay 20s!] I noticed after agency pricing, along with a reading slump, yes, I started spending much more of my time watching shows/movies on hulu, netflix, youtube and the like. It really feels like publishers are shooting themselves in the foot… :\

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  2. I had a similar childhood trajectory, and similar conclusion: books are objects of value to me when I do have money. I can easily go into a shop and buy two or five at a time, and I almost never do that with music or games. Even now, as an adult, I get a lot of books that I read at the library. Am I one crucial lost sale? I have 200 friends on Goodreads, a thousand people follow me on Twitter, women from three different book clubs in my town want to know what I’m reading, what do I think about the new this or the gizmo that. It’s very easy to sing the praises of easy-peasy Hulu and streaming Netflix.

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  3. Yes! Exactly! I imagine I’m right where you are, finally making enough money to support my book addiction. I could also afford therapy for the addiction but frankly I love my addiction and so far it’s not hurting anyone. I wouldn’t be addicted now if I didn’t spend my childhood in the library — also hating that four-book-at-a-time limit *s* Libraries make reading accessible for everyone. Publishers have got to wake up and realise they have to invest in their market base today if they want to be in business tomorrow.

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  4. The library limit was actually 10 or 15, I think, which meant that we were probably reading 50+ books a week. Granted, most of these were children’s/YA books which were considerably shorter than most romance novels, but still. I laugh when people say they are avid readers who read a book a week. I know I’m busy when I can’t read at least one book a day!

    I usually use the library as a way of scoping out books. If they are as good as they sounded online, I try to buy them later; I’m usually not willing to buy them sight unseen. So frequenting the library actually boosts the amount I’m willing to spend on books. Money is tight right now so I live for library book sales!

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  5. They’re building an expiration date into library loans of their books? Who is “this publisher,” I wonder. Probably the same nimrods who thought up the abomination that is Agency Pricing.

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  6. I had to send that line about the $5000 in books last year to my husband. I want him to quake in fear. A few months ago, when I was getting my Nook finally, he made the comment that I could probably bankrupt us with my reading habits if he told me “go buy whatever books whenever/however many you want.” I protested initially, then thought about it and realized he’s right. I love the digital lending and hope they DON’T put restrictions on it more than they already do (20 at a time – I’ve only iht that a couple of times, but that’s b/c you can return books if they’re the Adobe format before the check-out limit).

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  7. (Oh, and I spent probably into the 4 digits last year for books which is highly irresponsible of me in a sense because I have children). I still borrow a great deal because otherwise I would have spent *gasp* as much as Courtney. And yeah, for years I have maxed out my paper library checkouts.

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  8. Well said Courtney.

    Like you, the library fed my book addiction when I was a kid and when I was in school. Even today (I’m in my 40s and have discretionary income to spend on books), I still use the library because it’s close to my office and I can stop in over the lunch hour to clear my head and just browse. By doing this, I have found many new authors who are now on my “autobuy” list and many books that I would not otherwise have read (and have subsequently purchased so that I can have my own copy to reread). As ebooks and ereaders become more popular, I think that a library’s ebook collection could open up whole new segments of readers (and ultimately customers for publishers and authors), particularly among those who don’t have easy access to a library and among those who are turned off by the idea of borrowing a physical book (or having their children borrow one)that has been touched by many strangers before them (sadly, I know a number of parents who whon’t let their children use the public library because “they don’t know where that book has been”).

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  9. Every single word in this post is perfect.

    I resigned last year from my job as a high school library clerk. They planned to cut back my 27 1/2 hours a week to 14, after significantly reducing the book budget each of the five years I was employed in the district. There just is no secure funding for public schools or public libraries. As a country we should be encouraging reading–but maybe an uninformed electorate is what it’s all about.

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  10. Well said! I was one of those library visiting children myself. I spent as many hours as possible in my local library. That time spent as a child has certainly formed my entertainment habits. This year alone I have already spent more money than I feel comfortable with and it’s not even March yet. If I had not had library access as a child, who knows how my free time would be spent? Clothes shopping, maybe?

    Sometimes I feel that publishers take try to take advantage of readers because we tend not to be the boycotting vocal minority. I normally don’t boycott publishers because I love books too much – but I love access to books more. Say goodbye to my spending money HarperCollins.

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  11. I remember the good ol’ days of checking out the maximum limit from the library. I read so much my parents made me read one non-fiction for every four fiction books or something like that.

    I discovered Mary Stewart at the library. I was always looking for new books to read, and I’d scope out the end credits on movies that I liked to see if they were based on books. I saw Disney’s The Moonspinners and that was all it took.

    You know, I don’t think I’ve every bought a Mary Stewart book new. When I discovered them, they weren’t available new. They were just reprinted recently, but by then I’d long since hunted down used copies of all of them. There’s a lesson for ebook publishers in there somewhere; though I’m not exactly sure what it is.

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  12. One lesson is that once the rights revert an increasing number of of authors are self-publishing on e-book, and often cooperating on sales–for example Regency Reads, Backlist E-Books, Bookview Cafe, etc. Niche publishers like Samhain and Baen are also becoming far more popular. These titles are going to compete with major publishers in ways they haven’t really, before, when they were in the library stacks or used bookstores.

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  13. You are so right in every respect. I also grew up with libraries filling that vital need. (We were not only poor, but we moved constantly and I never got to keep anything.) I still tend to get my books free or cheap, but you know what? When I find an author I love, I BUY TONS OF THEIR BOOKS. For gifts. NEW. Usually at my local independent bookstore. :-)

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  14. I have to agree with this post both as a librarian and as a reader. When I can’t afford to buy books, I go to the library (also because I now work at one and am there everyday). I love to own good books, but money is tight and I haven’t figured out how to manage my budget yet. So, I’m still trying to save up to get the Hunger Games for my own small library.
    Of course, my book habit is competing with my video game habit (which is unfortunately both winning and more expensive…). The library allows me to read more books than I would if I had to rely on my own money. If I had to rely solely on my own funds, I would read much less, much less widely and probably stick to fan fiction which is free. The choice between my cable/internet and a new hardcover is unfortunately rather obviously in favor of the former.
    As for audio books (which I have come to absolutely love), the only way I can afford them is through the library. For one thing, I prefer the CD version to the MP3 version because it’s easier for the car. Also, I wouldn’t listen to most of the books more than once no matter how good they are because it would be too difficult to skim through and find the parts I wanted to revisit. It just wouldn’t be a good purchase for me.
    I buy books because I want to have them around to flip through whenever I want. I do buy books I’ve never read, but if they aren’t quite up to my keeper standards, I donate them to the library! I’m still wrangling with the repercussions of purchasing an e-book because the only thing I could do with it is share it with my mom. I couldn’t donate it to the library or resell it.
    And for the record, our bestsellers (other than some teen titles) do not fall apart after only 26 circulations!

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  15. I second many of your experiences. I started reading early. My mom took us to the library on a regular basis. When I started getting an allowance & babysitting, I had some disposable cash that went to buy some books, which was great because I pretty much ran through everything the libraries had that interested me by my early teens.

    Another important thing to emphasize to publishers who might look at this and say, “Okay, maybe we’ll do unlimited licenses on children, MG, and YA books for the kids who don’t have disposable cash …”

    I graduated from Nancy Drew & Trixie Belden directly to Agatha Christie at about age 9 or 10. I scoured my mom’s collection of mysteries, and the library’s collection of mystery and science fiction/fantasy mercilessly before I hit my teens. I wasn’t looking for “YA”. I was just looking for interesting books, and I read what grownups were reading.

    I got frustrated with libraries for many of the reasons you and other commenters cite – limited availability of new stuff; having to wait for what you want to read; having a limited time frame in which to read it. I love the library for research (especially the interlibrary loan feature), because research based books are often prohibitively expensive even when you have substantial discretionary income.

    I rarely use the library anymore for fiction reading because I can afford to buy books now. but libraries definitely fed that “addiction” when I was young and/or during times of limited discretionary income. We definitely need to keep feeding the library.

    I like the idea of electronic lending. I read the article you mentioned, and found myself thinking, when I finish my stories and books and self-publish them, I wonder if I can distribute them to libraries as well? I would definitely consider unlimited circulation of those books, as a way to reach a broader audience, AND as a way to pay back the libraries for feeding my soul in my youth.

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  16. That is just terrible.

    From blogs and conversations with my friends, my library was one of the first to offer digital lending. And they are amazingly responsive. I emailed them that they didn’t have any books by a local author, and they went and bought her entire back list the next day.

    From the time I was 6 or 7 and could walk to the library myself I’ve used the library. I lived on a small military base and by the time we moved when I was 10, I had read all the children’s books, most of the teen section, and was into the adult section for books like Watership Down.

    I still use the library system for both print (hardcovers!) and e and audio books.

    What will the publisher’s think of next? After 26 lends of a hard cover, the library has to remove the print copy from their shelves? How many times would the print copy of a Harry Potter book been lent out before it fell apart? Someone needs to give their heads a good shake!

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  17. Just to add to this, remember the next generation as well. My parents took me to the library every week, and, like you, I’d read about one novel a day. Like you, I used libraries until I became an adult and could afford to purchase books. Now I have teenaged children who have inherited my book-a-day habit. I purchase a lot of their favorite books, and fully expect that when they grow up, they’ll become book publisher customers too.

    Without that library’s collection when I was a child–like you, one of seven–the book publishers would not have me, my siblings, and our children as their customers.

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  18. Just bopped in to say, the memory of this post inspired me to buy Unlocked. And I just loved it.

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