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Patrons Are Consumers, and Consumers Are Patrons; or, How Publishers Can Learn To Stop Worrying and Love Libraries Again

ProfilepicUpdated.jpgEditor’s Note: Among my hopes for TOC going forward is increased and productive discussion between all the various and sundry players in our readerly world. Chief among those players who we publishers sometimes woefully neglect — librarians. My favorite librarian advocate, Heather McCormack has graciously offered up a few eloquent (and entertaining) thoughts on the sometimes strained relationship between publishers and librarians. Enjoy, and please share your own thoughts in the comments. ~ Kat Meyer

Like all my favorite phenomena–Joey Ramone, punch-drunk love, Peter Pan donuts–this marvel has not been adequately documented, celebrated, or researched. I first encountered it as an adult circulation desk attendant at the Fargo Public Library in the summer of 1998. I was 23, freshly kicked out of the womb of liberal arts college, and a little depressed to be constantly reshelving Danielle Steele and The New Joy of Sex for minimum wage. I don’t remember his name and am reluctant to re-create our conversation, but I will say this favorite patron, a genial from head to toe senior citizen, loved the Western author Zane Grey so much he had read all of his books a dozen times over. From the circulation desk, I’d see him crouching to take in their yellow spines as if they were newly unearthed diamonds.

One day, the inevitable happened. Another patron checked out the title he’d singled out to reread next. He was heartbroken, the closest I’d seen him to unpleasant. My solution was simple: Buy the books you love so much already! He dismissed me in his delightfully swinging accent, the Midwest by way of Brooklyn. The next day, he dropped in on me in the stacks, receipt proffered for my inspection. He had purchased Grey’s complete oeuvre on Amazon.com (a website I had yet to visit).
I remember my response and a twinge of sadness.
“Is this good-bye, then?”

***

Of course, I saw that patron many times after his splurge, and before I left Fargo for New York to start at Library Journal, he gifted me with a handwritten list of Manhattan’s best bookstores, where I made pilgrimages in search of rare Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches, and Robert Palmer. At a now-shuttered shop on 13th Street, just a stone’s throw from famed The Strand, I scored Tosches’s Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story. Bangs’s Creem writings eluded me until I thought to meet the lions at the Main Branch of the New York Public Library.
 
Twelve years later, while following the tweets from the 2010 Tools of Change conference, it hit me–there’s a powerful library-bookstore connection, a bona fide phenomenon that two people generations and states apart perpetuated unknowingly and that likely plays out every day around the country. Annoyed at the exclusion of libraries from the ebook pricing conversation, I tweeted, “Library patrons are consumers, just as consumers are patrons.”
 
To be fair, my irritation had been mounting all winter. Libraries had little to no representation at the inaugural Digital Book World conference in late January; ditto in the fallout of the Macmillan/Amazon face-off. Worse yet, ebooks did not garner marquee billing in a single panel at the Public Library Association’s 13th National Conference in March, even though there’s strong evidence to suggest that more funds are going toward downloadable content and that its acquisition leads to significant surges in public library circulation.
 
Worse still, public librarians strike me as individually disengaged from the ongoing pricing debate. Anger over expensive content licenses, complacency in their young marriages with Overdrive and NetLibrary, and an almost fatalistic attitude about DRM–all of these are reasonable reactions to an issue that has probably exploded a dozen of my synapses. But as service strategies, they’re epic fails. To me, a library has a responsibility above all else to remain relevant to its community. In most cases, this will mean making like Roman gladiators and grappling with ebooks, no matter how ridiculous their cost, formats, or readers.
 
Of course, book publishers have complicated an already mucky scenario. As LJ columnist Barbara Fister pointed out, panic is driving their strategies more than logic, especially regarding a library pricing model. Most CEOs and digital strategists will go on the record only to say they’re “open to talking” with librarians–PR speak that plays to my ears as, “Holy, John Sargent, don’t those people circulate stuff? Not. Gonna. Happen.”
 
Allow me to be clear: I respect publishers’ right to make money. I want houses large, medium, and small to thrive, or I’m out of a job and a calling. But somewhere, some publishers made the mistake of deciding that libraries pose a threat to their shrinking coffers even as they remain loyal customers in a harrowing recession; that the free exchange of information they encourage is suddenly anathema to a business that has relied on word of mouth for decades. How these misconceptions originated is not as remarkable as who they’re hurting–publishers, libraries, bookstores, authors, and readers, the entire reading ecosystem.
 
***
 
That patron. I’m ashamed to have forgotten his name, but I can still picture his face lighting up about Fourth Avenue, New York’s one-time Book Row. I still remember the shops he recommended, even though all but two are closed. Today, I remain a loyal patron of those bookstores and the city’s three great library systems, just as I’d wager that North Dakota gentleman is still enjoying both the Fargo Public Library and Amazon.
 
This is just one story, but I bet you know five people who know five people who have used a library, then shopped in a bookstore, then gone back to a library before returning to a bricks-and-mortar or Amazon. And so on and so forth goes a gorgeous little loop that leads to innumerable sales and circs that no one’s bothered to measure. As a result, publishers and librarians are in a standoff of sorts. But it’s not too late for detente; in fact, it’s just the right moment for taking stock of a relationship that must be strengthened, not severed.
 
Bio: Heather McCormack (@hmccormack on Twitter) is a lover, a fighter, and Book Review Editor of Library Journal. She and her colleagues are in the thick of organizing a virtual ebook summit for public, academic, and school librarians, scheduled for Sept. 29, 2010.

  • http://shayera.blogspot.com Shayera

    Such a fantastic article! Heather, you are exactly right in your characterizations of both librarians and the publishing industry. So lucky to have you as an advocate.

  • Wendy

    I worked in libraries years ago, and, more importantly, have been a user of libraries for most of my life. Libraries are not the enemy of publishers, they are their allies. You can borrow endlessly, repeatedly, and shamelessly but you can also use libraries to try before you buy. Most people I know who use libraries are also avid book collectors.

  • http://www.katepullinger.com Kate Pullinger

    I think libraries as both virtual and physical locations could well become one of the key platforms for readers as books become digital files. I’m still enamoured of the idea of the web as a enormous digital depository and PLR (here in the UK libraries pay authors a tiny fee, a few pennies, every time our books are taken out by readers) could well point to a payment system for publishing in the future. It’s worth remembering that Google Books is based on Google collaborating with several of the world’s greatest libraries.

    For a useful way of thinking about libraries and the future, take a look at the hashtag #transliteracy on twitter – many libraries very active in this field.

  • http://stacyboyd.wordpress.com Stacy Boyd

    Great article! I love the idea of a “reading ecosystem.” I, too, participate in many parts of the cycle. I am a fervent user of two of NYC’s library systems, as well as a book buyer and editor. Without my first library, I wouldn’t be the book lover I am today. To this day, I can’t walk into a library without finding something to take home. There’s no risk and lots of reward, and I have bought many things that began as a chance encounter at the library.

  • Karen

    Loved the article! eNYPL is the Netflix of books. I have bought MORE ebooks after becoming hooked on authors I would never have tried in physical books.

  • Lari Bishop

    The library patron-consumer connection is even more important in children’s literature. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve checked out of our public library only to go out and buy them–for my own kids who want to read them two or three hundred more times or for gifts for all of their friends. And library circulation is also critical for new and independent authors. If you are a small press and can offer a really good deal to libraries, you’ve got a much better shot of getting shelved (and therefore read) than you might have at one of the behemoth retailers.

  • http://toc.oreily.com Kat Meyer

    Shayera and other librarians (and patrons – that’s pretty much everyone, I think) – Tim Spalding at Library Thing had a really cool post a few weeks ago about the “Brigadoon Library.” It’s very interesting as a concept. Would love to hear some reactions to it from librarians — and patrons for that matter. Check out the post here: http://www.librarything.com/blogs/thingology/2010/04/the-brigadoon-library/ and please — let me know what you think of it. It’s really intriguing (at least to me).
    best,
    Kat

  • Heather McCormack

    Thank you, Shayera, Wendy, Kate, Stacy, Karen, Lari, and Kat for your feedback and testaments.

    As I said, I haven’t been able to turn up hard evidence toward the connection. But whenever I talk about it to people, the evidence seems almost tangible. I brought it up on Twitter recently, and it started a robust little thread. @helgagrace, @oodja, and @mikecane told me they browse in bookstores first, then go to the library to check titles out or put something on reserve. This investigation often leads people to their local indies. (No one cited using an e-tailer, curiously.)

    Then there’s what I view as the classic strategy taken by @jackbullion, who “only buys books after checking them out of library” (“I’d rather my shelves reflect what I’ve actually read than be aspirational”). I think I’m going to start a Twitter hashtag so I can extend the discussion started with this blog.

    Lari, I love your point about the importance of libraries to small presses. Many publishers still don’t grasp that librarians are also book marketers. It’s their job to push their collections. So say you’re a little press, and you’ve got a promising fiction anthology by young Korean Americans coming out. B&N likely doesn’t give a shit because they’re giving prime retail space to the heavy-hitters. But, you can bet the Queens Library in Flushing would embrace it because of the community it serves. I guarantee you they’d buy the book and find creative ways of putting it in front of the perfect audience.

    Kate, I would have to say most U.S. libraries are not keen on the pay-per-circ method employed in the U.K. I know I’m not. There’s got to be a smarter way that allows for a fair monetary return for publishers and a sustainable purchasing method for libraries. Thanks for the tip on the hashtag.

    We’ll likely continue this talk tomorrow, Friday, 5/7, during the weekly #followreader talk on Twitter. If you’re interested, you’ll likely want to consult this handy reading list that Tim Spalding (@LibraryThingTim) began compiling: http://www.librarything.com/wiki/index.php/A_reading_list_on_ebooks_in_libraries

    More later,
    h

  • Liz

    Heather,

    I really enjoyed this article. I am doing exactly the same thing. I use bookstores to bypass long waiting lists at the library, and I use the library to discover and try new authors that I may later purchase at bookstores.

    I love that my local public library (Poudre River Public Library District) is using Overdrive– I love the ease and convenience of ebooks. At this time my library has a very, very small collection. The library also seems to have front-loaded it with classics that anyone could get for free elsewhere. I hope the library will stick with Overdrive and build a better collection (which to me means more NEW fiction).