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In the UK there were reported to be a little over 4,600 local libraries, run by local authorities to national standards in 2002/3 (statists.com). The latest estimate I found (theguardian.com) was that in October 2017 there were 3,850 and that approximately 500 of these are now run by volunteers, rather than the local authorities and paid librarians. I’m sure these are still run to a very high standard. But they are not obliged to run to any national standard. I’ve also observed, but not found any data, that many local libraries have increasingly limited opening hours.

Why should I, or anyone, care? Ignoring the argument from academia about the use of libraries rather than the internet for research (which is a big enough subject for another post on its own) I think there are three big reasons that libraries are vitally important.

  1. They provide free (or at least free at the point of access) reading materials. I grew up going to the local library once a week and getting library books. If I didn’t have that access I doubt I would have been able to read anywhere near as widely as I have. For some the library is the only access they have to books.
  2. They are a community resource. As well as the location where books, music and these days free internet access can be found, libraries also offer some combinations of meeting rooms, social spaces, classes and courses, a warm and safe space for people to study, a place to read newspapers and magazines etc. etc.
  3. A skilled librarian (paid or volunteer) is a joy to talk with. They can help you to find a good book to read, research materials, local knowledge and a wealth of other things. Google is simply not a skilled librarian, it is a blunt tool. A Google search will find you a million hits, a librarian can often offer the one thing you actually want.

There is another reason why I, as a writer, think that libraries are massively important. I guess that everyone knows that if you buy a book from a retailer the author gets paid. What you may not know is that if you borrow a book from a library the author gets paid. We’re talking pennies a copy (7.67 pence per loan on a library book in England and Wales up to a maximum £6.600 per author according to theguardian.com). But, it’s income. By comparison, if you buy a book from a charity shop the author gets nothing. (I’m not having a go a charity shops, I buy books from them all the time. I just don’t think that people always realise that re-sold books don’t make any money for the author.)

Authors are not, generally, rolling in money. We’re not all JK Rowling. Far from it, most authors, even those published by big name companies and whose name you may know, make pennies per book sale and less than minimum wage if you divide their income by the number of hours it takes to research, write, edit and promote a book. So why not throw an author a bone. Even if you borrow a book and return it unread (not that I recommend it) the author is still getting their 7.76 pence. If you have an e-reader and subscribe to an unlimited service (such as Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited) the author is paid per page view, so the author gets a return on your loan. If you only read a few pages (or if you read offline and your reader doesn’t register the page views) the author gets less in return, but will still get something.

At the moment there seems to be far more supply of authors than there is demand for books. The economics don’t stack up. But if the good authors are not making money (or at least some return) for their efforts they’ll stop writing. If you want to keep reading quality books, but can’t or don’t want to buy full price titles from retailers, please keep supporting your library so that they can, in turn, support authors. By all means buy books from charity shops, lend them to your friends and pass them around – above all authors want to be read and build an audience – but once in a while, and as often as you can, think about feeding an author and borrow or buy a book through a route that means they get some return please?

All numbers and links in this item are for UK or England and Wales. If you want to find your local library in England and Wales go to www.gov.uk/local-library-servicesIn Scotland it’s www.scottishlibraries.organd in Northern Ireland www.librariesni.org.ukI’d love readers from other territories to add links below to their country’s library service if you have one.

I’m off to swap my library books. Please join me.

 

© Chris Johnson 2018

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