Publisher Decries Damn Libraries Entertaining The Masses Stuck At Home For Free

from the oh-come-on dept

For years and years we’ve pointed out that, if they were invented today, copyright maximalist authors and publishers would absolutely scream about libraries and probably sue them out of existence. Some insisted that we were exaggerating, but now we’ve seen nearly all of the big publishers sue the Internet Archive over its digital library that acts just like a regular library.

But, perhaps the most frustrating part in all of this, is that whenever these copyright maximalist authors and publishers are confronted about this, they twist themselves into knots to say “well, I actually love libraries, but…” before beginning a bunch of arguments that show they do not, in fact, like libraries. Sometimes, however rarely, a maximalist just comes out and admits the facts: they fucking hate libraries.

The latest example of this is Kenneth Whyte, a small publisher of Sutherland House Books in Canada, who seemed to think now was the time to take to the pages of The Globe & Mail to whine about libraries competing with book stores that sell books. Of all the things to be bothered with right now. Even the setup of this column is just ridiculous, arguing that libraries — with their public taxpayer funded support — are unfair competitors to booksellers:

Public libraries, too, were affected by the lockdown, with various systems across North America furloughing staff. But libraries operate largely with public funding, which has been disrupted far less than commercial revenues their competitors rely upon. As a result, libraries are likely to gain still more market share at the expense of booksellers in the months and years ahead.

It may seem strange to think of booksellers and libraries as competitors. Most booksellers I know don?t. Ask them to name their competition and they?ll point to Amazon and Indigo, not the public library. There?s a logic to that: They?re booksellers, and libraries don?t sell books.

That, however, is a fatally narrow lens through which to view the book marketplace. Booksellers are in competition with libraries whether they want to admit it or not. Just ask the libraries.

As someone who frequents the library (and was thrilled when our local library finally introduced curbside pickup after months of pandemic closure) but also owns way too many books (and literally has been talking about renovating a large closet in a bedroom to turn it into more bookshelves), it’s silly to argue that the two compete. I end up buying books all the time that I first found at the library. And libraries serve a public service for people who cannot or would not ever buy those books, but for whom having access to those books might be incredibly useful.

This is why we have libraries. But to Whyte, it’s all very unfair. He seems particularly upset that some libraries have advertised the fact that you can borrow books for free as a cheeky way to get people to pay more attention to their local library:

Last November, the Toronto Public Library (TPL) ran this advertisement: ?Black Friday Special: 100% Off All Books! Print! Digital! Audio!?

?Don?t miss the deals,? it said, ?every day at the TPL.?

It was clever. It was hilarious. Except, perhaps, to people who make a living selling books.

The thing is, libraries have always lent books for free, and the fact that they “compete” with booksellers has never changed the fact that people buy a ton of books. Whyte then goes on to use a calculator set up by the American Library Association to show how much value libraries create each year, and basically uses that to argue that the value of libraries is effectively losses to booksellers. This kind of “we copyright holders must capture all the value” zero sum thinking is ridiculous at the best of times, but is particularly pernicious here. The nature of value creation is that it’s not a zero sum game. Borrowing books from libraries helps to educate people, enables them to do things that, in turn, may help the world in lots of other ways. Some of that may lead to more books sold. Some of that may lead to just society being a better place.

It goes on and on like this for a while, with consistently dubious math about just how much libraries are supposedly stealing from those poor, poor publishers. Of course, towards the end, he includes one of those lame “we love libraries” claims after many paragraphs complaining about libraries:

Writers are loath to draw a line between the fact that they?re poor and the fact that four out of five of their patrons get their books at no charge. Most of us grew up in libraries. We love libraries. Our first library card was as important to us as our first driver?s licence. We do our research in libraries and meet our audiences in libraries. We think libraries are important civic institutions. It is difficult to conceive of them as problematic, so we ignore inconvenient facts to shield libraries from embarrassment.

But then he immediately doubles down on the ridiculous claim that libraries are the problem. Oh sure, he admits, there may be other factors (all of which are dubious, by the way) but the real issue: free books at libraries!

Of course, libraries are not the only reason author incomes are low. There are more authors and more books than ever. Especially in the fiction world, a flood of low-priced, self-published digital offerings has hurt prices for some established, traditionally published authors. Looser copyright laws have hurt sales to educational markets. But these factors pale in comparison to the simple fact that four out of five books are read at no charge.

As for the claim that libraries lead people to buy books — he doesn’t care:

Librarians defend their activities by claiming that they introduce readers to new authors and that surveys show people who borrow books sometimes also buy books. That is all true, but it doesn?t alter the fact that four out of five books are read at no charge.

Even if this is true (and it’s not), that doesn’t mean those 4 other books would have been purchased absent the existence of libraries. So he’s willing to grant that… but only just a little bit — saying that even if 25% of books represented “lost sales” that would be too much.

Librarians claim that a borrowed book is not a lost sale. That would be easier to accept if they weren?t claiming a one-to-one relationship between borrowings and savings in their advertisements. But say only one in four borrowings replaces a sale. Gaining that sale would be sufficient to double the income of our starving authors.

On what does he base that 25% number? No idea. But it’s almost certainly not accurate.

Then he hits back at the idea that people improve their lot in life by having access to a library. Why? Because popular entertainment (gasp!) is available at the library. And apparently that’s bad.

The dirty secret of public libraries is that their stock-in-trade is neither education nor edification. It?s entertainment. The top three reasons people patronize libraries, according to a massive Booknet survey, are to ?relax,? for ?enjoyment? and ?for entertainment.? That is why the TPL system has 90 copies of Fifty Shades of Grey and six copies of Stendhal?s The Red and the Black.

These entertainment readers are not a benighted underclass for whom Tom Clancy is a stepping stone to literacy and employment. They are people who can afford books: disproportionately middle-class, upper middle-class and well-educated.

Pushing bestsellers in competition with book retailers, to the detriment of publishers and authors, has become an addiction for librarians who, again, rely on steady or growing patronage statistics to justify their funding requests.

It has to stop.

No. It doesn’t. Because that’s why libraries exist. There are all sorts of reasons why people go to the libraries — some people get recent books. Plenty of people get other works that they otherwise would never have access to. My own kids now like reading because every week we’d try out new books from the library to find what kinds of books they like — including (gasp!) some “entertainment” books. Should we have had to waste money on lots of books they’d never read until we found the ones they liked?

But, Kenneth Whyte, thanks for making the truth clear: copyright maximalists have always hated libraries. It’s just rare to get one to outright admit it like Mr. Whyte has here.

Whyte concludes with suggestions on how to “fix” the “problem” he concocted himself. He thinks that people should have to pay a subscription fee to borrow books from the library. He also thinks that libraries should pay a lot more for books. Or maybe libraries should just give authors money. He suggests if none of those are okay, then publishers should stop offering their books to libraries (apparently unaware that fair use rights mean they can just go buy the books elsewhere). Of course, this is why we’ve been concerned that publishers have already been trying to jack up the prices on ebook lending for libraries, while limiting how many ebook licenses they can purchase.

The whole article is quite incredible, but at least it’s a copyright maximalist admitting to what many are thinking: they hate libraries and would sue them out of existence if they weren’t grandfathered into our broken copyright system.

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Companies: sutherland house books

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Comments on “Publisher Decries Damn Libraries Entertaining The Masses Stuck At Home For Free”

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brewsterkahle (profile) says:

Re: Re: Libraries are customers too

25% and 33% of library budgets go to buying publisher’s products, from what I have seen.

Another useful stat is for trade publishers, about 20% of their revenue comes from libraries.

in terms of supporting the long tail, the less popular authors– think of libraries.

but publishers love to sue libraries:

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Jason says:

double the income of our starving authors.

I’m curious, what percentage of the book’s sale price does the author get when you (the publisher) sell it?

About the only thing he’s not demanding is that people who do buy books not be allowed to sell (or give away, or lend) them in turn. (Which, logically, is the same thing that a library does anyway.)

Maybe he does demand that. I admit, I didn’t read the original piece. But I didn’t feel like it deserved the page view I’d be giving it.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

If people thought the price of a book was a worthy trade-off for the effort of borrowing that same book from the library, assuming it is available, then people would buy more books. It’s a simple formula:

A) Drive to the bookstore, find the book, pay the asking price
Log in to some ebook retailer, find the book, pay the price and download the book


B) Drive to the library (and sign up for a card if you don’t have one), hope to find the book and check it out if you do

For many, particularly those who do not regularly use the library, A is the much better option. For many others, the book simply isn’t worth $15.95 to read once then never again so B is a much better option. Many just don’t have the disposable income to spend on books.

If you shut down libraries then authors’ incomes won’t suddenly, or ever, double. You will have achieved nothing but to deprive millions of the culture that libraries make accessible.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

If you shut down libraries then authors’ incomes won’t suddenly, or ever, double.

They would likely take a nose dive, because how do people find new authors, and/or find the earlier books of a long running series before reading the latest volume?.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

For many others, the book simply isn’t worth $15.95 to read once then never again so [the library] is a much better option.

And for me, I’m unwilling to financially support the publishers after 20 years of animosity toward the public. I’m disappointed that authors, even young authors who would have been affected by these actions, continue to associate with them.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

And for me, I’m unwilling to financially support the publishers after 20 years of animosity toward the public. I’m disappointed that authors, even young authors who would have been affected by these actions, continue to associate with them.

Just be able to differentiate the good publishers (i.e. the ones that will sell their digital books DRM-free) from the ones that don’t. There are many of them, Unbound, OR Books, Baen Sci-fi & Fantasy, and Tor. You could check out Cory Doctorow’s stuff while you’re at it too. There are even many more which I haven’t listed.

TL;DR: If they offer their stock free of DRM, support them. Otherwise, give them the cold shoulder.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

"…but aren’t they still forcing libraries to push DRM on their patrons?"

Whether they are or not, as long as ANY publisher demands the DRM to be included the client used by the libraries will contain it.

DRM is just that turd dropped into a barrel of wine. Even if the rest of the wine is fine all of it suddenly becomes undrinkable.

Ngita (profile) says:

Re: double the income of our starving authors.

given Book publishing companies seem to share Accounting practices with Movie publishers I am not even sure they know.

But it varies a lot and Self publishing on Amazon is several 100% more profitable by book,

Pre Amazon I probably purchased 1% of what I borrowed from the library, With more disposable income and increased difficulty in getting to the library I rarely go now. Perhaps once in the last year? But even back then I mostly used the library to find authors I liked and then purchased their books.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

I'd hate to see what he suggests for things he doesn't love

‘I love libraries, but I’d really like it if they all disappeared overnight and never came back.’

Yeah, he’s not fooling anyone, that is definitely someone who would love it if the library system ceased to exist thanks to an incredibly stupid belief that they are somehow ‘stealing’ from writers/publishers.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

That is all true, but it doesn’t alter the fact that four out of five books are read at no charge.

Well gee, Mr Whyte, what part of copyright law says I may not loan, give, or sell my books when I am done reading them? Hmm… Was it the First-sale doctrine? Nope, not that. How about 17 US § 107?

Ah, no, I’m wrong. You’re Canadian, aren’t you? I’ve got it! You’re thinking of the Public Lending Right, instituted in Canada in 1986 (and other years in other nations), allowing authors to license works to libraries. I bet your publishing house sold some books to these libraries, didn’t you? Then you’re covered! What you complaining about?

And hey, Sutherland House Books was established in 2017, so I’m confident you knew that libraries existed before then. Given all the competition from libraries, I’m surprised you went into business at all!

Peter (profile) says:

What kind of licences are available to libraries?

In the old days, they would buy a book at retail price, wrap it in plastic, and lend it out forever.

With digital books, there was an outcry by writers and publishers about real books wearing out really fast, so digital licenses should expire very quickly. And cost tons more than retail books, due to all the advantages they offer to libraries and readers, and the lost sales.

Does anybody know what licensing models are available to libraries these days for digital books? And what conditions are attached (can someone lend a book in another city? country? continent?)

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
TripMN says:

Re: Re:

What he’s really mad about is the fact that more than 1 person can read a book in the book’s lifetime. If he had his way, he’d make books single-use and then you have to burn them or lock them away in your book vault. That way everyone has to buy a new copy — and the authors will all become millionaires!

As someone who likes Ken "Popehat" White — I second the motion to nickname this man Ken "Asshat" Whyte, so no one gets confused in polite conversation. Maybe we should even Trademark it for him.

Avatar28 (profile) says:

Still not convinced that copyright holders won't try to sue them

I’m going to be honest here. It’s obvious that libraries would never be allowed to exist if they were invented today, at least not without paying a ton more money to the publishers (a la ebooks), we know that. I’m not completely convinced that one or more publishers won’t eventually decide it’s worth the risk and start trying to sue libraries for lending books without paying for a license fee for it. It might not fly in the United States thanks to the first-sale doctrine but in other countries without that it might game on.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Still not convinced that copyright holders won't try to sue

I’d like to say that as angry as some authors/publishers are at libraries even they wouldn’t be stupid enough to outright sue a library, recognizing that as PR suicide, but as the first link in the article notes that already happened, at least regarding digital books, so at this point it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if they went after the physical side as well.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

…so we ignore inconvenient facts to shield libraries from embarrassment.

Er… what? What?

Looser copyright laws have hurt sales to educational markets.

Please show me the way to these "looser copyright laws" of which you speak.

Librarians defend their activities…

Good heavens, man. The framing…

afn29129 David (profile) says:

Libraries are great... for authors too

There have been many an author that I first became aware or by first reading his/her book in a public library and then subsequently purchased one of their books (sometimes many of their books). So if you are an author then you really should consider donating a few of your books to a library. It is a great way to advertise your product!

Anonymous Coward says:

A potential solution:

The only good way to fix copyright is no more copyright at all under any circumstances. They have the balls to bemoan libraries now. We should tally the cost to the nation to deal with ever greedier copyright industry each year as we spend billions in cort costs and endless trade negotiations with hundreds of countries while they functionally don’t even contribute to the public domain anymore which was the whole point for copyright.
Lets ask them how much they paid dor the copyright to the nation? Zero, its free and pretty much automatic. That needs to change, we need to start charging for copyright protection. Yearly as a flat 20 percent of all their income for the entire 170 years of the current term. That way fuckers like that guy will learn their place. After all the only good copyright maximalist is a dead copyright maximalist.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: A potential solution:

That needs to change, we need to start charging for copyright protection.

In the US, at least, while your work is copyrighted automatically once it’s fixed in a tangible form, if you want to litigate over it, you have to register with the US Copyright office to do so. Also, it’ll cost you $200 or so to register your work. Think of it like this: You remember the Nina Paley comic how automatic copyright is like giving everyone a gun when you make and publish a work? Well, registering with the US government is when they give you the ammunition. Otherwise, you’re holding a prop.

ECA (profile) says:

Time and learning.

Most of us dont really like reading after all the School gave us..
Some of the teachers had good stuff, but many stay’d with classics that were to incomprehensible.
Even when I was young, I had a comic fetish. Even had a few subscriptions, that I had to FIGHT the keep up.

Then the Comics code DIED(YEAAA) and we had comics that explored REAL LIFE.. and Adult comics, and this and that, and GRPHIC Comics, from REAL BOOK Authors.. Myth adventures. by robert aspirin. got into those, and then went on to more, and then Looked around for his books.
Then I read the Cerebus the Aardvark, Talk about strange..
Then came Shadowrun, 40+ books in the series and I missed the last 10, Because of LIFE problems. 3-5 Authors, Many different types of stories, all in 1 series.
Pern was interesting when I read it, but unfinished, Shadowrun was Continuous.
Silmarillion.?? know the name..That took along time to read. 3-5 pages and SLEEP LIKE A LOG.
Growing up mother didnt mind the comics, but teachers, hated them, Many other dis also. But what we lost in comics was minor. It was the language in them, the way things were expressed, and the big thing to learn, that Most people are graphically oriented.. The Action in the comics can Show what is ment, rather then Words on a page.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

"Most of us grew up in libraries."

Yes, it’s literally the reason I buy books now.

"Most booksellers I know don’t."

So… maybe you’re wrong and the people who have been "competing" with libraries for their entire careers have a better handle on how the business works in reality?

"But say only one in four borrowings replaces a sale. Gaining that sale would be sufficient to double the income of our starving authors."

The same faulty arguments as usual.

Let’s go more into reality – let’s say that one in four borrowings replaces a sale. But, the fact that they don’t have to pay encourages a reader to try a new author they would not normally buy. Then, they like it so much they start buying other titles from that author.

Dickhead fantasy income: 25c on the dollar for banning libraries.

Actual income taken from the ban: $0

Actual income taken from leaving the library alone: $many

Also, guys like this make the mistake of assuming the only 2 options are "borrow a book for free" or "buy the same book at full price". There’s also – borrowing from friends, seeing what the local charity shop has in stock, sticking with books you already own, deciding that the Netflix subscription they’re already paid for provides sufficient entertainment or that the new Minecraft DLC or Playstation sale provides better value for money. Remove the free options, he might be shocked to find out that some people will simply just not read new books at all.

Anonymous Coward says:

He complains about libraries making books available for free, while there are many authors who make their works available for free directly on the Internet. He is missing the key difference, free library books lead to sales of books via publishers, while direct to Internet can, and often does lead to direct fan support of authors.

Destroy the libraries, and more people will get free books directly from the author, leading to more support for self publishing authors, and less sales of books controlled by publishers. That is good for some authors, but bad for publishers and the authors that use them. However the authors can go to self publishing for new books, but what do the publishers do as authors abandon them?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
JustMe (profile) says:

Oh my

I consider myself a reader. I have a house full of books (too many of which are unread, but I’m saving them for my retirement) and my wrist is resting on a book from Ulysses Press as I type this. I ACTIVELY support my local library with fundraising, donations, and outreach. I see every day what an important function they serve, especially for seniors, teens, and young parents. I am also the local volunteer for a handful of Little Free Libraries and I delight in helping people read. I reject his premise that libraries are ‘increasing market share’ to the detriment of his own. A rising tide (more readers) raises all boats.

This "publishing house" redirects to Square. This makes sense given the likely volume of sales "Aiming for high-quality and broad appeal, it will publish 8 to 12 books a year, and each volume will be commissioned and edited by Mr. Whyte" but SERIOUSLY DUDE, do you really think libraries are eating your lunch @ 12 volumes a year? Also, does the Square fee come out of your cut or the authors?

You know what I don’t see on your site, Mr. Whyte, even one mention of how you and your company help the community. What do you do with unsold inventory? I bet there are some homeless and abuse shelters who could use reading material or cash donations. I bet there are some veteran’s homes who could use reading material or cash donations. I bet there are schools who could use reading material or cash donations. Instead of complaining about an institution that does good in this world how about taking a long hard look at yourself?

This critique is especially interesting given your (?, the article is unsigned) confession that you have stolen books from libraries.
"But I can’t honestly say I’ve paid all the fines for all the books I’ve failed to return."

Come back and talk to the adults when you start giving back to the world instead of taking up oxygen. And go pay your damn overdue fines, jerk. The rest of us shouldn’t have to subsidize your criminal habits.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Oh my

^This. Well done, that man.

Whyte, it has to be said, is parroting the same tired old argument publisher lobbyists have repeated since the 17th century. It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now.

And yet he’ll be heard, because the world as a whole has already swallowed the idea that copyright is necessary for the progression of science and the arts and has proven willing to ignore all the evidence to the contrary.

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