Monday 18 February 2013

Terry Deary wants to abolish libraries

Newcastle City Library
Last week, I spotted a tweet from Neil Gaiman, calling Terry Deary selfish and avaricious for his attitude towards libraries. He'd included a link to the Guardian's website, so I clicked through to have a look. What I saw shocked me. Deary appears to have a thing against libraries because they're losing him money. According to the article, his books were borrowed more than half a million times during 2011/12, and due to the Public Lending Right scheme, he only made £6,600 from those books. Had he sold them, he'd have made over £180,000. According to him, "The libraries are doing nothing for the book industry. They give nothing back, whereas bookshops are selling the book, and the author and the publisher get paid, which is as it should be. What other entertainment do we expect to get for free?"

His main gripes with libraries seem to revolve around cost - both the cost to the tax payer in keeping libraries open, and the cost to the authors and publishers who lose money when books are borrowed, not bought. It seems he puts his right to be paid above public access to information. To put it bluntly, what an arsehole attitude. I originally planned a post that would have potentially blistered paint, but I thought I'd break down his argument that libraries are bad, and explain what he's clearly missing.

1) Books as entertainment.

At one point, Deary makes the point that people wouldn't expect to go to the cinema for free, so why should we let them borrow books for free? The key thing that he's missing is that you cannot equate books with cinema. Books straddle both education and entertainment, and just as many people borrow non-fiction as they do fiction books. One wonders where he finds the books to do the research for his Horrible Histories series. But given the vast number of people who use services like Lovefilm or Netflix to watch films at home at a much lower price than the cinema, it seems Deary is a little behind the times regarding how people spend. Bottom line is, people just don't have that much money. Which leads me on to...

2) The cost of books.

In and of themselves, books are not expensive. However, if you're from a low income family, or you're a student, paying for all the books you want/need is going to get very expensive very quickly. Everyone knows I'm working on my PhD at the moment, and my current chapter is an overview of the horror film from 1897-1978. Just as an example, if I'd bought all the books I needed for a 1000 word section in that chapter on the giallo film, it would have cost me, at a minimum, £136.10. That's just for one small section of a single chapter. I can't afford that! But I can easily borrow the books from the library as and when required. Furthermore, Deary seems to believe that libraries are putting bookshops out of business but I'm sorry, both co-existed quite peacefully until the rise of online shopping. Stores like Amazon are putting bookshops out of business, simply because their product is cheaper. (Incidentally, I've found that the online prices at Waterstones match, and in some cases are lower than, Amazon's, so I've switched from buying at Amazon to buying at Waterstones).

3) Marketing.

Due to the cost of books, people might be put off buying, say, the first in a series in case they don't like it. But how many people might borrow the book from a library, discover they like it, and then go on to buy another book by that author? Allowing people to borrow books is a good way of 'hooking' readers and getting them to buy new books as they're released. I've sometimes borrowed books from libraries and enjoyed them so much that I've bought my own copy. After all, in an interview with the Evening Standard back in April 2012, he was backing a literacy campaign, saying he preferred children to discover his books themselves without being forced to read them by schools. Without libraries, how can children discover these books then? (As a side issue, he also backed a literacy campaign by saying children have never been more literate because they text and use Facebook. Has he ever actually seen a student's work? I suspect not.)

4) What about the other services?

Libraries don't just offer books any more - at our main City Library, they offer genealogy services, advice for small businesses, education facilities, conference space and a means of getting online. Deary needs to remember that not everyone has a computer at home, or they may not have an internet connection, and the only way for such people to get online is to use computers in a public space. Libraries are far nicer than internet cafes, and they can provide a lifeline to older people, giving them somewhere warm and welcoming to go to get them out of the house. Besides, if you need to get online and you have children, you can safely leave them in the children's section while you do your online errands. Without libraries, what would you do?

5) Other methods of obtaining books.

Really, if Deary is going to complain about libraries, then I'm assuming he also wants to see an end to secondhand bookshops, or books being sold in charity shops to raise money for good causes. Does he also want people to stop lending books to their friends? At least if people borrow from a library, he earns 6.2p every time they do so. If I bought one of his books at an Oxfam shop, he'd get nothing for it. In Deary World, do all people only buy their books from established bookshops? In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Deary's favourite historical event was the destruction of the library at Alexandria.

Hundreds of authors have rallied behind the cause to save libraries, recognising the universal need for access to information - if the comments section is anything to go by, then so do most readers of the Guardian. Yes, authors and publishers need to make money but I really don't think that books being available in libraries is going to cause enough of a dent in earnings to make it necessary to abolish libraries altogether. I seem to be quoting this more often than not lately but Deary needs to remember that "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one", and as long as we live in a society where the have-nots outnumber the haves, then we need to provide education and information in an accessible, affordable way. If Deary doesn't like that, then I might suggest a change of career to one that will bring him into contact with as few people as possible.


Larry Kollar said...

Very well-put. The paint-blistering version might have been more entertaining, but cool facts are what is needed here.

As far as films go, many American libraries also offer various titles on DVD and/or VHS. And what of movies shown on TV or cable? And why is it only the most successful authors that complain about how much they're "losing" to alternate distribution channels?

Janet Lingel Aldrich said...

I was just going to say the same thing Larry said, that our libraries here in the greater Cleveland area have a large selection of DVDs and BluRays of both movies and television series. Not to mention e-books.

BTW, if he's going to complain about libraries, he'd better take on Amazon Prime, where you can lend out and borrow Kindle format books. I wonder how much of that revenue (from Prime) gets shared out to authors?

Icy Sedgwick said...

I just get the distinct impression all he can see is a loss of earnings to himself. He complains that we're not living in the Victorian age any more but one look at society would tell him things haven't moved on all that far.

Tony Noland said...

Libraries contribute to a culture of literacy, playing a complementary role distinct from that played by booksellers. If that culture is not nurtured, fewer people will read. Within a generation, ALL authors will suffer in such an aliterate society.

But he doesn't care because HE wants his money NOW.

Katherine Hajer said...

Right, he's definitely getting crossed off my list of authors whose books I shall give my nieces when they're old enough (and I've given them a lot of books).

The whole idea that any time someone experiences a cultural artifact (book, DVD, CD, whatever) without paying for it first should be considered a "lost" sale is on its face ridiculous, and history doesn't back him up at all. I wish I could remember the numbers, but one of my profs had worked out approximately how many people per copy sold read Dickens and other 19th-century serialists, and it was a far higher ratio than today -- something like ten to twenty to one copy as opposed to two to four.

Deary should learn about marketing. And how the world works.

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