Editors Note: In a nearly 3,000 word opinion piece published on July 25 in ‘The Globe and Mail’ Kenneth Whyte, publisher of Toronto-based indie Sutherland House Books, and former founding editor of the National Post, pinned the troubles of Canada’s independent bookstores and publishers on the work of public libraries. The “crux of the matter,” Whyte argued, is that libraries rely on “pimping free entertainment to people who can afford it” for their funding, concluding that all “the genuine good [libraries] do is to some extent made possible by being a net harm to literature.” On July 27, the Canadian Urban Libraries Council (CULC) sent a response to the ‘Globe and Mail’ opinions editor, which CULC officials say was rejected for publication.
What follows is a response from Mary Chevreau, chair, Canadian Urban Libraries Council / Conseil des Bibliothèques Urbaines du Canada and CEO of the Kitchener Public Library. The article was submitted to the Globe and Mail but not published.
In his July 25 opinion piece, Overdue: Throwing the Book at Libraries, Kenneth Whyte cites statistics, studies, and other sources to make his case that libraries are hurting publishers and booksellers. While there is no disputing the fact that many publishers and bookstores are in trouble, his rhetoric is demonstrative of a broader disdain for public services and an argument for privatization. It is otherwise hard to understand why public libraries are to blame when bookstores and libraries have coexisted harmoniously and supported each other for decades.
So what’s changed? While there are a lot of changes that point to shifts in the marketplace, such as the research identifying a decline in leisure reading, coupled with less and less space for literary reviews in major news outlets, these are minor compared to the two major developments that have dramatically altered the book and reading landscape—and they have nothing to do with public libraries. First is the explosive growth in popularity of e-books and digital audiobooks. Second, is the increasing dominance of Amazon in the book retail and publishing marketplace.
Brick-and-mortar bookstores, big and small, have been devastated by both of these developments. Independent bookstores generally don’t sell e-books so they don’t benefit from this revenue stream. And Amazon’s online sales of physical books offers not only convenience and a huge selection of titles, but also big discounts. By 2018, Amazon accounted for 42% of book sales in the United States.
It is true that traditional publishers’ e-book sales have been in decline since about 2016. However, sales by self-published authors and independent publishers continue to increase, largely due to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. It is estimated that, including independents, the e-book share of sales is close to 40%, with traditional publishers accounting for less than half.
Amazon is now publishers’ biggest competitor—by a mile. It is not only the world’s largest book retailer, but also a publisher of its own e-books and physical books under a variety of imprints. These titles dominate Amazon’s bestselling e-book lists as, unsurprisingly, Amazon preferences and promotes its own exclusive content. Major authors are starting to move to Amazon for its deep pockets and massive market reach—most recently Dean Koontz, Patricia Cornwell, and Mindy Kaling, to name a few.
Publishers are caught in a bind. On the one hand, they depend on Amazon to sell their products. But on the other, Amazon controls the market, consistently undercutting prices and controlling promotion for its own brands’ benefit. As literary agent Rick Pascocello has said, “They aren’t gaming the system, they own the system.”
Meanwhile, among the many perplexing statements in his column, Kenneth Whyte suggests that publishers are “beginning to fight back” against libraries, when in fact the Big Five multinational publishers (Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Harper Collins, and Macmillan) have been fighting back in the e-book sphere all along. It wasn’t until 2014 that all of these multinationals began granting libraries access to their e-book content. And libraries today pay a premium for digital access—often four to five times what consumers pay per copy—as well as other restrictions, such as time-limited and lend-limited licenses.
For many years libraries in both the U.S. and Canada have tried to get the Big Five publishers to the table to discuss more reasonable pricing and licensing models, without success. Libraries want and need a vibrant publishing industry. Librarians want fair prices that are sustainable for libraries, allow publishers to make a profit, and help authors thrive.
Contrary to Whyte’s assertions, public libraries are in fact good for bookstores, publishing, and authors. Public libraries purchase and promote a diversity of material from a wide range of sources, including books by local authors published by independent Canadian presses. And research shows library borrowers are also book buyers. Booknet Canada researched the intersection of library use and book buying and found that Canadians who both buy and borrow books from the library purchase more books on average per month than buyers who do not use the library at all. By exposing people to ideas and content they wouldn’t otherwise think to purchase, libraries help people read more. Libraries are not taking away market share from bookstores, we are making the market bigger for everyone.
“Libraries are not taking away market share from bookstores, we are making the market bigger for everyone.”
Whyte also goes on to make the rather astonishing claim that, “the dirty secret of public libraries is that their stock-in-trade is neither education nor edification. It’s entertainment.” Furthermore, he suggests it’s entertainment for the middle and upper classes, who can surely afford to buy their own books.
This implies that “the benighted underclass,” as Whyte calls them, do not deserve or should not have access to recreational material. That kind of wisdom harkens back to the 19th century, when civic leaders established the precursors of public libraries for their workers in the hope that edifying lectures and educational books would reduce crime, and keep people out of bars and brothels—but, no novels! It also suggests that the middle class have ample disposable income and should not be using the library at all, despite the fact that they, and all taxpayers, are paying for it.
This is troubling. Public libraries are a democratic institution that are critical in a civil society. More and more, they are playing a crucial role in empowering citizens to thrive in today’s changing world by providing the essential tools, connectivity and information in all its forms. And most importantly, libraries are committed to providing equitable access to the widest range of human knowledge, experience, and ideas. That includes John Grisham, and Jesmyn Ward.
Mary Chevreau is chair, Canadian Urban Libraries Council / Conseil des Bibliothèques Urbaines du Canada and CEO of the Kitchener Public Library.