Libraries: talking stock

The publishing industry in England worries about its ability to meet the needs of diverse audiences. Rightly so: the connection between literature and academy has always meant that there is a tendency to elitism, one which is self-perpetuating.

Diversity is not just about sexuality or gender or race or income, although those are the groupings most frequently discussed. An elderly pensioner living on their own, who enjoys reading but cannot find the books they want in their library, can be just as excluded nowadays as a teenager who is struggling with education.

Book publishing is potentially the most diverse medium of all: the cost of making a well-prepared book, on any subject, widely available is a fraction of what it would cost to disseminate through any other technology. Yet we as a country have thrown away one of our best routes to meeting a diverse audience, by allowing our public library service to become bookless and unfocused, and then by removing its assets and closing it down.

One can hardly blame the leaders of the publishing industry for letting this happen. They had no chance to influence whatever brought it about, but the truth is that they have lost one of their most effective marketing channels and it is hard to see how it can be revived.

Falling figures

As public library sales went down over three decades, the executives of our leading publishers lost interest. Since 2000, annual revenues from library acquisitions have fallen from £80m to £30m. Publishers only receive half of that money, and so in their mind the public library service has become insignificant. Libraries last year bought only £160,000 of reference works for all the libraries in England; they bought £220,000 of children’s non-fiction, which is a meagre £90 per library; and they bought pitiful amounts of anything serious. In the US, the book fund for public libraries has not declined in 20 years, and now stands at around $1.1bn—which includes some $150m spent on digital content.

But the importance of libraries to publishers was never just in the sales they brought. The ability to give any person, at any point in their life, free access to a wide range of that which has been written is one of the cleverest inventions of the last few millennia. The value of the library is not just measured by whether a reader can afford to buy books, because no one wants to buy all the books they might want to look at for reasons of study, interest, information, or for fun. A library is just a brilliant way of making people aware of what is possible. The judgement of a library service’s success is simply whether we as a nation are, and want to be, civil, interested and educated. Any publisher can see that their market will prosper when those things are true.

The music industry has radio. Listeners of all tastes can listen freely to new work, old work and all kinds of recordings. The equivalent for the publishing industry used to be the public libraries in most neighbourhoods, towns and cities.

In 2000, the English public paid £777m for their libraries; in 2016/17 they paid £793m. In the intervening years annual expenditure rose to £1.1bn, but the increases were unproductive and use of libraries went down continually.

The number of books borrowed from public libraries in England has fallen, in that same time, from 360 million to 160 million, while the population has grown by 10%. That is an extraordinary fall, in loans per person, of 75%.

Shelf life

Library staff feel that they don’t have enough money, but the briefest examination of overhead costs shows that unless management changed, it would be foolish to give the service more money until it resolves its own problems. The problem is not about money at all. But a new direction is certainly, totally, urgently needed.

The first and most important thing that needs to change is the lack of national belief in the importance of reading and authorship. The people who fund and direct the library service seem not to understand that. By those I mean local and national politicians, local and national civil servants and even the leaders of the library profession and senior librarians. None of those will talk about the need to improve the collections of books that have become so poor. They should.

However, if there is one group of people who ought to be able to command the articulate resources to give proper emphasis to reading in our country, it is the senior executive leaders of the publishing industry. So, I call on them to raise their game and speak out on behalf of the need to increase dramatically, and rapidly, the quality and quantity of the book stock in our public libraries and use their influence to attempt to reverse the terrible situation in which we find ourselves.

We don’t need author and book promotion (of the kind that publishers have previously offered). We need stock. It is in their own interest, and in the interest of the companies, the shareholders and the authors they represent. It is in the interest of all of us in the industry. It is in the interest, above all, of the readers and the future readers of the books that publishers produce.

Tim Coates is a former m.d. of Waterstones and a published author. He currently leads a project in the US to improve supplies of print and digital materials to academic and public libraries.