Saturday, 25 January 2014

When Libraries Can't Afford Books - Tamsyn Murray

I heard a worrying thing a few weeks. An author friend asked online whether other authors had been received requests for free copies of their books. This wasn't a charity requesting signed copies to auction off. No, the request that my friend had received was from a library. And they'd had more than one request.

We live in difficult times. Newspaper articles constantly declare that nobody reads any more. Authorities are trying to save money wherever they can and often seize on the fact that reading appears to be on the decline to cut library services and reduce staffing levels. Increasingly, libraries are staffed by volunteers and I can only assume that it's these lovely-but-barely-trained volunteers who hit upon the idea of asking authors for copies of their books to stock libraries, because no actual librarian I know would behave this way. You can almost imagine the thought process: We can't afford books...who has access to free books? Publishers have lots of books but they're running a business, we can't ask them...authors have books and they write the things so must have piles of the things knocking around. Hey, I bet they'd be GLAD to get rid of a few...

This assumes several things - firstly, that authors get unlimited copies of their books (we don't; my last contract gives me six copies that are strictly not for resale and I buy further copies to give away in competitions or to charity), secondly, that once a book is written, we don't need to worry about people buying it, and thirdly, that we're not in business just as much as the publisher is. The money I earn from writing pays my bills and feeds my children\pets\husband. If I don't sell enough books, my publisher is unlikely to offer me another book deal, making it difficult to write more books because I'll have to work elsewhere to pay my bills and feed everyone I have to feed. And if all authors are put in the difficult position of being asked to stock libraries out of our own pockets, then I'm sure I don't need to draw you a picture about how this is going to work out.

A library, Jim, but not as we know it...the Library of Birmingham is how it should be

I'd like to live in a world where libraries are treasured and supported as the beacons of knowledge and potential they are (see Library of Birmingham). They're life-rafts for people who couldn't otherwise access such a wide range of titles. They encourage experimentation and risk-taking, because you can take a chance on reading something new if you don't have to pay to try it. But that doesn't mean I think that authors should foot the bill for providing the books to read.

Libraries need to be funded properly, run by librarians and treasured as the skeleton key to many, many doors. So let's nip this idea about asking authors for the books to loan out in the bud, eh?


Sue Bursztynski said...

Tamsyn, I'm not a volunteer. I work in a school library, but for the reasons you mention, I have had my budget cut in half the last couple of years and it was peanuts to begin with. Now, I have to make do with $3000 a year to cover ALL my costs, not just books.

I don't ask for free books from authors, but this is why I write book reviews on my blog: to get a few free books for my students, who are from the bottom of the socioeconomic demographic. And recently, some publishers have had the bright idea of offering book reviewers Netgalley ARCs instead of print books. I have had to tell them over and over that I can't put a Netgalley ARC on my shelves.Then they tell me they don't have any print copies, even though there will be print copies in the shops.

I do sometimes get donations worth having from fellow YA book bloggers, from the Young Australian Best Book Awards , from the Premier's Reading Challenge, and I have started to donate books from my own shelves, which are in good condition and which I liked at the time, but won't read again. I won't take someone's shabby old Jackie Collins book or a textbook no one is using any more. I absolutely won't take a piece of self-published rubbish from a former student of the school(they DO donate)

Just saying: don't assume the requests from libraries are from people who don't know any better and don't need them. And you may find it worth the occasional donation, perhaps to a local school; if you have the same deal we have here, the school may do the lending rights survey and bring you some money. ;-)

sensibilia said...

Disturbing for both writers (of course they need to be able to earn a living) and library users - this looks like a symptom of terminal decline.

Libraries have always been a source of great joy to me. Our main town centre library is now full of CD's ad DVD's plus a Council Advice Centre. You do see children studying there, but rarely do I see anyone browsing the shelves for a book.

A concerted nation-wide campaign to save libraries seems called for.

catdownunder said...

Our local council library is the very centre of the community. People go in and out all the time. They leave messages for one another, even occasionally parcels for one another. They meet for chats, for book groups, knitting group, scrabble group, gardening group and other groups. There are holiday activities for the children, computer sessions for the older residents, access to all sorts of things. Much of it depends on volunteers.
I can walk in and the staff will ask something like, "Cat can you help this person find something on..." or "Cat this boy needs some recommendations for his year 8 project..." and so on. And they ask because they are, at times, grossly understaffed. It is volunteers who shelve the books and run the home-bound service.
Despite the immense and very obvious value of the library the council keeps cutting back. It is the one thing that should be immune from spending cuts.

Stroppy Author said...

Sue, I get that 'we don't have any print copies' from my publishers sometimes. If they forget to send my contractual copies, they then 'don't have any copies'. I do give a copy of anything I think suitable to my daughters' ex-schools now and then. But I wouldn't respond to requests from random, non-local, libraries. It's exactly the same as going to a farmer and asking for free food, or picking any random citizen and asking them to send £10.

Here, loans from school libraies don't generate any PLR and aren't included in the lending survey. Sadly.

Tamsyn Murray said...

Sue - I certainly wouldn't assume the donation isn't needed; I'm sure the requests come from a desire to provide excellent books for readers under very difficult circumstances. And as writers, we want our books to be read. But asking us to provide books for free is unfair, especially when we have to buy them in order to donate them.

School libraries are perhaps slightly different but not massively - I think some schools have forgotten that reading is at the heart of all learning and need to refocus on encouraging readers by having an excellent in-school library, but that's a whole other argument.

Heather Dyer said...

I think the underlying problem is that people seem to think that published authors must be wealthy. Writing is a very poorly paid and time-intensive occupation, and an author might be lucky to get 15 pence from the sale of a paperback. I've been asked to donate books too, and my earnings are so low that I'd qualify for unemployment benefit if I wasn't self-employed. Stroppy Author is correct - it's exactly like asking an already struggling farmer to donate free food.

Heather Dyer said...

...actually it's more like asking a struggling farmer to buy their own produce from the supermarket, and then donate it!

Tamsyn Murray said...

That's exactly it, Heather and Stroppy! I have three jobs (not including motherhood) to make ends meet. I don't necessarily blame the people asking for books - I think they don't understand how it works.

Sue Bursztynski said...

If writing was well paid, I wouldn't be working in a library in the first place. ;-)

Stroppy, don't you guys get ELR? Lucky us, then! I get three times more ELR than PLR. And the book doesn't have to be borrowed either, just be in the library. The Australian Society of Authors managed to persuade the incoming conservative government to keep the previous government's promise by arguing that tey would be interfering with the running of small business by scrapping ELR.

Anonymous said...

As a self-published author, I don't see a problem with giving free eBook copies to libraries. They could put up a poster of my book if I can't always afford to send them a free paperback copy. Also, you'd still get paid the same amount every time your book / eBook gets checked out / borrowed. But that's just me. I think outside the box and libraries wanting free copies of books sounds like a good thing. My books get into libraries through distributors not publishers, as I'm an indie author, but if a library asked me for free copies I wouldn't hesitate. This is probably because being self-published means getting paid over a longer term, rather than immediately, like when a new book of yours is released, or when a library buys your book. Think long term. The important thing is for your books to actually BE in libraries, however they get there.

Andrew said...


Your comment doesn't look out-of-the box to me. It seems firmly inside the one marked 'self-interest'.

So you give a piece of digital content, that has cost nothing to replicate, and then you want a poster up.

Do know what a library is for?

Jon M said...

It's fine to donate anything when you can afford it, Suz, and I don't think Tamsyn is objecting to that. Giving away free stuff is nothing new. I offer free books to most venues where I do an event but often they want to buy them because they recognise that I'm an artist who needs paying for his work. That would be true as a point of principle whether I got paid 'immediately' or 'over the longer term.' Librarians or volunteers shouldn't feel they need to ask for donations because budgets are tight. Libraries need funding so that they can buy a balanced range of stock for all tastes and ages.Too many donations from one source and your shelves become dominated by one kind of genre. Libraries need funding so they can meet requests for books from the public. So they need funds to buy titles that may not be universally popular and they need someone who knows that those titles exist. So, yes, donations are fine but its the thin end of a nasty wedge which leads to poorly-stocked and underused libraries.

Barbara Band said...

The other problem with stocking a library with free books is that those who have budget control will then see no need for giving the library any further money. They will just see books on shelves, it won't matter to them that the year 7 boy who has just discovered reading through the latest Charlie Higson book needs to be encouraged to carry on with the next in the series or something similar once he's read all of them. Or that the year 8 girl who doesn't have any books at home and can't get to the public library is desperate to read the latest Cathy Cassidy to keep up with her friends who do have access to books. You can't stock a library with donations, however well meaning they may be ... you need to be able to select your stock according to the demographics of your users and their needs, which will change. Constantly. That's why libraries need budgets.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Very true, Barbara! You sound like someone who has had bitter experience of school administrations. And then there are the ones who say," who needs a library, they get it all off the Internet anyway these days..." and that's not good news for writers either.

But when you desperately want a book for that Year 7 boy or Year 8 girl, you get it however you can - reviewing, even, sometimes, from your own pocket, even knowing the admin might take advantage.

You don't, of course, ask the author for a freebie. ;-) Only amateurs do that.

As I said, I review, and not only new books. I ask the publisher, not the author, offer not only a review but, sometimes, an online interview.

I know, a bit of a hassle just to get a new Charlie Higson or whatever for the shelves, but you do what you can.