How Libraries Acquire Books (Because Most People, Including Digital Piracy Advocates, Don't Seem To Understand This)


A few years ago I wrote an editorial for this site about why digital piracy is super not okay. The TL;DR version is: If you steal art, that means you think art has no value, which means you are a jerk. Since art is not something you need to survive, you are also greedy. So if you pirate you are a selfish jerk. 

​Sales are good and important. It's hard out there for an author. We can talk sales all the live-long day, but dollars-and-cents aren't the only benefit an author sees from his or her book being stocked at the local book depository.

It sparked a lot of discussion (but not debate, because debate implies both sides should get equal weight, when really there's only one right answer: Don't steal shit). One guy threatened to punch me in the face over the article (though didn't respond to my offer to name a time and place for us to meet). 

On my list of ten items about why digital piracy sucks, one of those items was meant to dispel a common argument employed by idiots, which is: Durr there's no difference between pirating a book and getting it from the library.

The simple response to that, of course, being: Well stop being lazy and just get it at the library, asshole.

Except, libraries do not get books for free. They pay for books. And those sales can be incredibly important to authors. This, apparently, is not obvious to a great many people, because I still see the library gambit tossed around by the pro-piracy set.

And in doing research for this little rant, I found that it's not so obvious that libraries pay for books. So I thought it might a good idea to spell that out. The more you know, as G.I. Joe used to say. 

I don't expect to change anyone's mind. No one changes their mind anymore. That's a sign of weakness. And anyway, people who contort themselves into pretzels to defend their shitty behavior, they don't care about facts. They care about the endgame: Their own entitlement. 

But it doesn't mean it's not worth trying.

How libraries get books

They don't appear as if by magic. They're curated. Cultivated. I posed the question to Pete Derk, a columnist for LitReactor who also happens to be a librarian, and here's what he had to say: 

Lots of libraries have collection development staff whose primary duty is making sure the right stuff is on the shelves. They work with a combination of standing orders, trade publications that are just magazines of short reviews, best seller lists and all that normal stuff, conference attendance at things like BEA. It's their business to be out there looking for stuff. Then there's also the local input. What's required by local schools? Which authors are being requested? Which interlibrary loan books are we getting, and should we be buying these titles instead? Who are our local authors?

Me personally, I pay attention to NPR because our users do too. And then I try and push the boundaries a bit. Sites like LitReactor are really helpful for that. Karen from Goodreads is a reliable source for me, and I also follow a lot of graphic novel reviewers as well to make an impact on that part of the collection. I also love to hit a good bookstore like Tattered Cover to see what their staff is recommending and what's out on display. Powell's also has a great web site with recommendations that do a good job of running the gamut.

So, books don't just show up. Some real thought and care goes into this. Now, on to the two major formats—print and digital. 


Libraries buy books through the same kinds of distributors bookstores use, like Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Those books count toward an author's sales—a strong library being a big coup for an author. Here's more, from a post by Kristin Laughtin, a writer who is in collection development at am academic library:

For popular titles, most libraries buy multiple copies to meet demand. Depending on the size of the library system, they might even buy 50 to 100 copies or more of bestselling titles, especially when you count all formats: hardcover, large print, audio CD, and now e-book.

It’s also a necessity for libraries to buy multiple copies, as books wear out quickly, often after 25 check-outs or so. One copy just won’t last for 1,000 uses.

So it's not like the library just gets a bunch for free, or they buy one copy and then they're done. A popular book can live a long life on and off the shelves. 


This is a little trickier, because as with all eBooks, you're not technically buying the book, you're buying the license (same thing with eBooks you buy off sites like Amazon—what, you thought you actually owned them?!).

A library may buy ten licenses for a book. Which is why sometimes when you go to borrow and eBook you end up on a waiting list, rather than it being immediately available. 

Plus, there are terms to the licenses. Check out this PDF made available by the American Library Association. Macmillan, one of the Big Five publishers, allows titles to be available for a two year or 52-lend period—whichever comes first. And they're more expensive than traditional retail—$60 for titles less than a year old, $40 for titles more than a year old. 

All of this varies by publisher (and there's a whole other conversation to be had about the price of eBooks—some libraries feel they're too high)—but the point remains: Libraries don't get eBooks as if by magic. They don't pay for it once and then a million people can borrow it forever and ever. 

Why it matters

Sales are good and important. It's hard out there for an author. We can talk sales all the live-long day,but dollars-and-cents aren't the only benefit an author sees from his or her book being stocked at the local book depository. 

According to the American Library Association

Libraries help authors through:

  • Exposure. Libraries help people find authors. Readers discover new authors, topics, and genres in our libraries. Libraries help authors get noticed: we host author events; we feature books at book clubs; and we spotlight titles on our websites.
  • Sales. Research shows that library loans encourage people to buy books. Additionally, many libraries provide an option for people to click and “buy-it-now” from our websites.
  • Respect. Libraries honor authors’ work. We protect copyright, and we pay for what we use. We want authors to keep writing, and make a living at it.
  • Love of reading. Libraries help grow readers – and writers.

And on the question of digital piracy, I asked Pete to weigh in:

Publishers pay attention to what libraries are buying, and libraries are a great discovery tool for our users, who also tend to BUY books as well.

And frankly, the library isn't free. You're already paying for it with taxes. It's an oversimplification, but the library is basically like a Netflix subscription that you're buying whether you like it or not, so you might as well make good use of it. It's an oversimplification because the library provides access to many who wouldn't have it otherwise, but I digress.

If anything, the library really removes most any excuse to pirate books. You can access them already. As long as the reading is what's important instead of the ownership.

Piracy is hoarding, libraries are sharing. That's my opinion. And I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone using the library argument for any reason other than justifying the piracy they were already doing.

I am not under the delusion that I did anything to sway this argument one way or the other. Before today is through I bet at least a few people will whine in the comments, and then go pirate a book, just so they can feel like they did something productive with their sad, empty lives. 

But it's important to note that this argument that libraries somehow level the playing field for pirates is complete and utter nonsense. 

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Matthew Ross's picture
Matthew Ross October 21, 2015 - 7:21pm

As a Library Director, I can say this accurately describes the work we do to select and acquire books--which we absolutely pay for! One thing you didn't mention, but which is seems relevant, is that in some countries (the UK and Australia for example), there are funds set up to compensate authors for the "public lending right" of libraries to circulate their work. Roughly speaking, pay is based on the number of times their books are checked out. We don't do that here in the US because of what's known as the Right of First Sale, but it isn't uncommon elsewhere.

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this October 21, 2015 - 7:25pm

Thanks for weighting in, Matthew!

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words October 22, 2015 - 2:47pm

Except, libraries do not get books for free. They pay for books

true enough, but so does the first pirate - the one who digitizes their media and uploads it for others to use. The difference is that the book you borrow belongs to the library, the copied book you copy, which gets into copyright law, which is a whole other convoluted mess.


and Pete mentioned this in closing:

Piracy is hoarding, libraries are sharing

Piracy isn't hoarding - hoarding is keeping things that should be widely available for oneself (which is what copyrighting does to works that should be in the public domain). Pirating is sharing without taking copies from other people. the library has the one or two or three or one hundred copies that everyone borrows and returns.

Digital files can be deleted, which is also not hoarding.

I don't fall on either side of this argument, but pretending that copyright infringement is piracy (it's not) or theft (it's not) is improperly addressing the issue.

helpfulsnowman's picture
Community Manager
helpfulsnowman from Colorado is reading But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman October 23, 2015 - 9:03am

I guess I'll politely disagree, again.

As for the first pirate paying for the first copy, that's true. BUT, when something is pirated, multiple users are, in essence, duplicating that first copy. The problem is duplication and simultaneous use. This isn't a single copy being shared, but rather an instantaneous Xeroxing of that first copy.

If someone were to purchase eBooks and set up an online lending program, one where individual users could borrow a book, read it, and return it, that would be a different and more complicated story, and that would be the equivalent of what a library does. 

When the library buys a print copy of something, that copy circulates until it's worn out, and only one person at a time can access it. We do not, ever, make more copies of a purchased title. In addition, the scale is vastly different. If I put something on the shelf today, there's a geographically-limited audience that will use that one copy, and only one person at a time can take it, which means that the rate at which it spreads is decreased. The life of a hardcover book ranges between 25-50 checkouts, 50 would be a high number of checkouts for a book, but a fairly low number of downloads for a pirated file. 

And the same rules apply to eBooks. Most libraries pay for EACH digital copy. And most library eBook services cause the file to expire after a given checkout period, which means there's no duplication, no simultaneous use going on. There are also talks with publishers about limiting digital checkouts to a fair number that would be the equivalent of print, after which a new copy would have to be purchased.

When you talk about public domain, "works that should be in the public domain", I can agree and think there are works that can/should be public. Classics, religious texts. Basically, I agree that you shouldn't necessarily have to pay someone to read a Bible. Does anyone really DESERVE to be paid for Shakespeare if they aren't adding helpful or valuable footnotes or re-arranging the text in such a way as to make their production more interesting or readable? I don't necessarily think so.

But I think that it's reasonable to pay for a copy of The Martian right now. I don't think anyone "deserves" to read that for free. 

U.S. copyright law gives the author rights for her life + 70 years. I think that's very reasonable. That would provide for my entire lifetime, plus my children, really, if I were to have them and if I were to create a lasting piece of art. 

Copyright isn't hoarding at all. It's really the only thing that allows artists to have a seat at the table when it comes to making money on the work they've created. Copyright is what gives an author the leverage to say "I worked hard on this, I put a lot of time into this, and if you, publisher, want to make some money from it, we have to come to an agreement, and I'm not getting cut out." Copyright is what prevents Esquire from just reprinting the entirety of The Martian.

Just as a plea for the side of art, if there's a book you like, buy it, in hardcover, the week it comes out. If there's a filmmaker you love, see their movies on opening weekend. Musicians, buy the ones you love the week they come out. When I buy a favorite artist's album, I don't think about it as paying for songs they made, I think about it as giving them the upper hand when they go in to negotiate terms for their NEXT album. I want a label to see that their last album sold, that people were willing to pay for it.


L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami October 23, 2015 - 8:05pm

Why does it have to be an either or? I think the argument is a tad simplistic. For one, there is always Ruby/Python Collaborate novels that could be released under a Creative Common Open Source license. In such a situation, then the novella in question would belong to the community that wrote the creative property.

On the other hand, you have the situation where people in the open source licensing world expecting print books to have the same copywrite concepts attached to them, and that's where the danger comes in. I would argue that without books that are proprietary, there would be no 'creative property' to steal from.

In such case there would need to be a clear distinction between books that are written by a sole writer for sake of artistic endeavorment, or if it's part of an artistic community effort.

So the issue is actually pretty complicated.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing October 26, 2015 - 10:26am

No, Rob is right: it's piracy.

Speaking - er, writing - as an author who sees his books offered on the interwebs for free in pdf format all the time, I feel cheated.

I don't feel cheated, however, when a used bookstore sells one of my books and I don't see a penny from the sale.

As Freud once said - er, wrote: "The tolerance of contradictions is the key to a healthy personality."

Great job, Rob!


'Nathan Smith's picture
'Nathan Smith October 27, 2015 - 11:50am

Another difference (at least in some countries, Canada included) is that the Public Lending Right programs mean that authors *do* get paid when people borrow their books from the library. I believe similar payment occurs in Australia and Great Britain, too. So, in some countries, not only are all the reasons above perfectly valid, there's also the added bonus of knowing you're contributing to the author's livelihood when you borrow the book.

Paul Scott's picture
Paul Scott from St. George, Utah is reading Son of a Witch February 22, 2017 - 7:05pm

I'm not pro-piracy at all as I completely agree with your "If you steal art, that means you think art has no value" line. That being said, this was one argument I always failed to counter. While I know books wear out, I simply believed libraries were required to buy one copy and that would last years, possibly an eternity if readers took good care of it.

Thank you for doing the research and sharing this information. It not only inspires me to take better care of the books I borrow from the library so they can last longer, it gives me a better argument against my "selfish jerk" friends who pirate books as well as other media...

floatingaround's picture
floatingaround November 4, 2017 - 3:48pm

I just wanted to let you know that some of the words you used in this column may be seen as ableist and offensive (idi*t, d*rr). Here is a link that explains more of why and some other words.

banshee's picture
banshee February 11, 2018 - 4:41pm

If you want to make arguments against something like piracy, it helps to not antagonise people. Even better is to look at why people do it, and develop a broader understanding of the issue, rather than just 'don't steal shit' because I can guarantee you, that approach will just make people dig in.

"Before today is through I bet at least a few people will whine in the comments, and then go pirate a book, just so they can feel like they did something productive with their sad, empty lives."

throwing a bitter tantrum about it instead of acting like an adult tackling a serious problem is not going to solve anything. judging from what you have written here and elsewhere, you have a problem with both ego and temper, so I'd worry about your own situation rather than the plight of the suffering librarians. 

joejessthwaite542's picture
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