Marketing, Writing and Editing

A Writer’s Defense of Public Libraries

Next week (Thursday, to be exact) the library in my hometown will be hosting a book launch and reception for my new novel To Hemlock Run. Refreshments will be served, a door prize will be offered, and my books will be displayed enchantingly somewhere nearby. Of course I speak for a bit. Other than reading a sample passage from the novel, I really haven’t a clue what I might say. Probably some form of gratitude. Probably something about the forty years and counting struggle to become an overnight success.

I’ll figure it out over the next few days.

Now some of you might be wondering why I am holding the event at the library and not at our local (and very good) bookstore. After all, I’m in the business of selling my books, aren’t I? Libraries don’t sell books; they lend them. Right?

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first one is that the library approached me and offered to host it; the bookstore didn’t. And this is not surprising because bookstores are less and less willing to put on such events because—unless the author is a major national name—they don’t profit from them. In order to make the expense of labor, advertising, and general disruption worthwhile, they have to sell books. A lot of books.

Unfortunately, over the past few years, fewer people have been coming to these events and fewer of those who do come, actually buy books. The last one I did, a couple of years ago, lasted about an hour and was attended by about twenty people, most of them my friends and family. Unfortunately, most of my friends and family already had copies of the book. I probably sold five or six copies. So out of $90 dollars in gross sales, the bookstore netted $36, against $30 in labor costs and $60 in advertising.

The math just doesn’t work, so I fully understand why they are hesitant to host such events. It’s bad business.

Which leads into the second reason why I’m having this event at the local library: I am more than happy (and proud) to support my local library.

Libraries, particularly libraries in small, rural towns like mine are rapidly becoming the cultural and artistic centers of their communities, especially in modern times when local governments and school districts are too strapped for cash to sponsor such events. Where else, in a small town of 2000 souls can one attend—free of charge—a lecture on the efforts to save the endangered snowy plover; hear a demonstration of various musical instruments from exotic times and cultures; or meet and listen to the work of a published novelist?

Libraries are not just about lending books anymore.

They are also in danger. Libraries across the English-speaking world (I don’t know about other cultures but I assume they are facing the same forces) are being forced to shut down by calls for austerity. Taxpayers are disgruntled. They think they are paying too much and want the government to cut back and libraries are an easy target. More than half the adult population does not read for pleasure. To them the library is a waste of money. Others think everyone has access to everything through ebooks and the internet. To them the library is obsolete.

I think they are all terribly misguided. The library—any library—is neither a waste of money, nor obsolete. True, libraries have had to adapt to the new technology and demographics. Most now, in addition to books, allow you to check out DVD movies and television shows, as well as music CDs, audiobooks, and even ebooks. Some even allow you to check out a tablet.

Most also now have computers available for those who do not have their own at home, as well as wifi, and landline internet access. Many people, for economic reasons, would have no access to online media or services without the library. These same people, for the same reasons, would not read as much as they’d like to were it not for the library; they simply cannot afford to buy that many books.

Still, I hear someone whispering in the back, we’re in the business of selling books. The public library kind of defeats that, doesn’t it? After all, if you sell one book to the library and ten people check it out, that’s only one sale, versus ten. Right?

Right. But I think of it differently. I don’t think of it as nine lost sales. I think of it as ten readers I have recruited—especially if those readers actually like the book. Some of those ten readers can’t afford to buy my book and probably never will. If I was depending on them buying my book, I would never be able to count them as my readers.

Then some of them will be devoted readers who have never read my work before and have heard little about me. Realistically, probably the most challenging part of this writing gig is convincing someone who does not know you, your life, or your philosophy, to shell out $15.00 for your new novel. What if they don’t like it? What if it just isn’t their preferred genre? We’re asking them to take a chance here. We’re asking them to risk their money.

The way I allay their fears, is direct them to our library (which has all my novels) and have them check one out. It’s like the free cheese samples the grocers sometimes hands out. “Try it,” we say. “If you like it, buy the whole block.” The public library is the writer’s “free sample.” I’m not the sort who wants to sell my novel to everyone, whether they’ll like it, or not. I want to sell it to folk who will genuinely enjoy my stories and my style.

I do not write because it will make me rich. (And if that is your plan, I wish you the best of luck, but hope it is not your only motivation. The odds of becoming rich from your writing are approximately the same as winning the lottery. It happens, but not to people we know). I write to be read. And the library is one of the methods I use to do that.

Support your local library.

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