This morning, while my eyes were still trying to adjust to the “open” position, I was perusing Twitter. One tweet in particular brought me into the land of the living a bit more quickly than normal.
I was, as you can imagine, irritated by this, but I was also puzzled. First off, does Sara J. Henry believe only libraries are buying her books? I see photos of author signings in her Twitter history, so obviously not. The tone of her tweet is quite sarcastic, and I phrased my response thus: “Dear author, out of all books, I chose yours, library or no. & if I told you I enjoyed it, might I not tell others?”
I wanted this author to understand that the library is typically not going to make or break an author, but an attitude of disdain toward a reader may. Now, I say all this, but I in no means want to deride Sara J. Henry. I’ve followed her on Twitter for quite some time. However, after last month’s hullabaloo with Terry Deary discussing libraries costing him money, I thought it might be time to speak up, particularly after Henry tweeted a link to this blog post about readers helping writers.
Of course, this is quite a large topic, and Terry Deary’s article bothers me particularly because he writes children’s books – books that are expensive to make but are also expensive to buy and finished quite quickly. Not only that, but low-income families are very often the ones to use the library. I was part of one of those when I was young.
Sara Henry, on the other hand, writes adult fiction. Last year I read 150 mostly adult, fiction books. No, I did not buy them all, but for about 16 years, I have sustained my reading habit and been responsible for my reading material. At even an average of $10 a book (so I’m knocking out hardcovers, which I own plenty of), and assuming I don’t buy more than I read (ha!) that’s over $1,000 a year. For many, including myself, that number is shocking. When my bank first allowed me to divvy up my expenses, and I saw my book purchases a few years back, I was appalled. I began to use the library more frequently.
As a blogger, even though I receive copies of books from publishers, I still buy entirely too many books (30 last month alone…I know, it’s an illness).
So I was curious. For a mid-level author (meaning, not Stephen King), about how many times will the book be checked out? I called my local branch to figure this out. Unless it’s a hugely popular author, they only order one copy per branch, and there are five branches total in my city. We looked up Lawrence Block. Four of the branches each had one copy of his 2011 novel A Drop of the Hard Stuff. The total number of checkouts for this book was 26. The most popular branch checked out the book 19 times. The other branches had a significantly lower number. We looked up several other mid-list authors and discovered the same thing. We determined that, on average, each mid-list book is checked out approximately seven times. So perhaps that is money out of the author’s pocket, but wait – many readers check out books they’d never buy (and end up buying others by the author), and libraries also buy a large percentage of books.
This post by Kristin Laughtin, “Are Libraries Good for Authors?” looks into this in greater detail:
Publishers count on a significant portion of their revenue from libraries. In 2009, public libraries and educational institutions (which include school and college libraries) bought $14.6 billion of the $40 billion in books sold. Over a tenth of net book sales are to libraries. The absence of libraries would be noticed! (Link.)
A tenth of book sales. That’s quite a lot, considering again that many library patrons will check out a book he or she would never otherwise buy. Laughtin also points out that a library isn’t 100% free. Taxes go toward the maintenance of libraries, and those outside of city limits pay fees to enjoy the library. The cost may be minimal, but it is indeed there.
Plus, in this community of readers, though it may be anecdotal, many of you have indicated if you enjoy a book at the library, you will likely buy it for your shelves. When I was an adjunct instructor on a meager salary, the library became my only source for reading material. Did I like that? Well, I loved that it was available, even if I didn’t love not owning the books I wanted.
But beyond that, referring back to author Jody Hedlund’s post about readers helping to promote writers – I want to talk about responsibility. It’s a word that comes up quite often these days in reference to books, authors, and bookstores. Jeff O’Neal at Book Riot is one of the most recent to discuss the guilt inherent in many articles supporting indie bookstores, but I’ve noticed it more and more often in terms of the author/reader relationship. From the opening of Hedlund’s post, it rankled:
Dear readers, did you know authors need YOUR help in promoting their books? Yes, they really do!
Many readers already do a superb job promoting the books and authors they love.
Now let me stop right here and say: I do not consider bloggers average readers. By virtue of the blogger/publisher, blogger/author relationship (one I avoid), responsibility is or should be considered. However, an average reader? It’s those words “superb job” that stick in my throat, as it is indeed a job to complete the “twenty easy but effective” things a reader can do to help an author.
So just what is the responsibility of an average reader? I can think of only one: to read.Â (oh, and not to pirate.)
There are some connected thoughts here such as reader engagement, but ultimately, they boil down to this: Readers should read. They should read if they can’t afford it (by visiting the library), or if they can afford it (by buying). I am not personally responsible if an author doesn’t get the kind of coverage he/she desires or deserves. Similarly, I take no part in the negotiations that happen between authors/agents, authors/publishers, authors/editors. All of those relationships directly affect an author’s pocketbook. My desire to check out one book from the library most likely does not, particularly when we keep in mind the average number of checkouts on a mid-list book.
If I read said book, I do not have an obligation to write about it, tweet about it, tell my book club about it, or talk about it, in general.
I do do those things. But it isn’t my responsibility.
Are there authors I really like and choose to support? Most definitely. I will buy anything Rainbow Rowell or Ian Rankin writes. And I will attempt to buy that book on its publication date (if I can afford to, after bills and food) – because I want to help an author. Because I chose to put my money where my mouth is. Because ultimately, I want to read that book, and I want these authors to write more books. Might they still choose not to write more? Most certainly, but if that’s the case, it won’t be because Jennifer Ravey in Texas did or did not buy the most recent book they’ve written. Because the writing of that book, the process of getting that book published, and the marketing of that book are not my responsibility. Period.
Ultimately, Jody Hedlund is correct. If a reader really wants to help an author whom he or she likes or admires out of the goodness of his or her heart, by all means, promote the heck out of that book. But understand, authors and readers, it is not your job or your responsibility, and don’t you dare feel guilty for that.