Publishing idea-man Mike Shatzkin recently wrote a provocative blog post, “Why are you for killing bookstores?”
He lays out the uncomfortable facts:
“Although there are probably few people reading this blog who expect bookstores to be around in 15 or 20 years (and those who do will undoubtedly leave a comment!), there are many who would like to keep them around as long as possible. There is a magic to being in a building surrounded by 40,000, 60,000, 100,000 different books. Bookstores are inherently community centers. They make possible the wide dissemination and promotion of great writing. They enable people to see heavily-illustrated books before they purchase them.
But have you thought about this? If you are for bookstores lasting as long as possible, you want to slow down the uptake of ebooks.”
He goes on to explain the broad dynamics of the situation—the way Amazon, the big physical retailers and publishing look at the future, and which side they’re on—faster ebooks or not. It’s a stimulating read. And a depressing one.
Particularly depressing for me is the fact that Shatzkin never mentions libraries. (As one commenter on his post wrote, “Those buildings with 1000s of books that you speak so fondly of are called libraries.”) It’s not his fault, really. It’s a short blog post. But I think it shows the extent of the problem for libraries. When a top industry analyst looks at the book world, libraries don’t figure very prominently. There is a war going on, and libraries are going to be collateral damage.
They don’t deserve it. US libraries circulated some 2.1 billion books last year, compared to 3.1 billion books sold. But they don’t have much of a profile in the commercial world.(1) Being responsible for something like 39% of reading, bookstores only are about 4% of book sales.(2)
The difference is, of course, that libraries don’t pay every time they circulate a book. Under the First Sale doctrine—the idea that you, well, own the things you own—libraries can pay once, and lend a book out multiple times.
Ebooks change this. As ebooks advance, libraries are going to lose their “First Sale” advantage. Publishers will never allow a library to “own” an ebook absolutely, just as consumers don’t really own their ebooks. Libraries are going to be renting them, in fact or in effect, and they’re going to paying a lot more to do it. They’re going to be paying for the use they get out of them, not spending what consumers spend and getting more use. (I’ve written on the economics here before, so check that out first if you disagree with me.)
As the logic takes hold, libraries will be transformed into “simple” book-subsidy machines, not the special, advantaged ones they are now. That means they’re either be forced to subscribe to fewer books, invest a lot more in their holdings or, for public libraries, convince voters to give them a lot more money. Those are bad options.
Other factors exacerbate the problem. Libraries are losing the “aggregation advantage.” When every book is available anywhere, why go to the library to get it? And piracy hurts. Digitization has cut the music industry in half in the last decade, and there’s no reason to believe books will become the first digital medium to avoid it. When you can not only get a book anywhere, but get it for free, why go to the library?
There are some reasons. Unlike bookstores, of course, libraries do other solid, valuable things. They employ librarians, who help you find and understand things. They provide free internet access. They hold story times and author readings. They lend out other things, although, excepting tools and people, digitization is going to wipe those markets out too.(3) And they’re funded indirectly. Bookstores monetize their community value—whether it’s an author reading or just the value of meeting cool people—by selling valuable objects. They create more value than they can realize. Public libraries, by contrast, monetize through government taxation, which is to say by periodically asking voters if they value them. As of now, despite some budgetary cuts, voters mostly do.
But, overall, I think libraries are headed in the same direction as bookstores and in obedience to the same logic—falling in tandem with the rise of ebooks. If they survive, it’ll be for everything else they offer and so, for me at least, apart from the librarians, whose value won’t fall, ebook libraries won’t be full-fledged libraries anymore.
“I don’t think anybody would want to be accused of being in favor of killing bookstores faster. And very few of us would be comfortable having it said we were trying to slow down the progress of digital technology, strategizing to slow down ebook uptake. But you are for one or the other, unless you don’t have any opinion at all.”
Isn’t the same thing true for libraries and ebooks?
Update 1: If you want to reply, you can leave a comment, but I also started a topic in Talk about the topic.
Well, that’s about the most depressing thing I’ve written. I hope I’m wrong. And I even have some hopeful, positive things to say too. But I’ll save them for another day.
1. These numbers are all very wiggly. Eric Hellman, formerly of OCLC, has been working on them for a while. Start with this, this and this.
2. As founder of LibraryThing, which doesn’t cede the term “library” to institution collections of books alone, I need to mention that “lending” isn’t just an institutional library phenomenon. Regular people lend and share books too, probably in numbers to rival libraries. That phenomenon will be largely ended by ebook DRM—and revived by piracy.
3. It’s actually digitization plus virtualization. CDs are digital, but they’re also physical objects, so libraries can own them for real. When CDs are gone—and they’re going—libraries will have to contract with digital music services. The dynamics are similar to the ebook dynamics.