Columns > Published on October 21st, 2015

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. 

Print

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. 

eBooks

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. 

About the author

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor. His latest novel, The Paradox Hotel, will be released on Feb. 22 by Ballantine. He also wrote The Warehouse, which sold in more than 20 languages and was optioned for film by Ron Howard. Other titles include the Ash McKenna crime series, the short story collection Take-Out, and Scott Free with James Patterson. Find more at www.robwhart.com

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