Scapegoating Libraries for Declining Sales. Again.

Let’s be honest. With few exceptions, publishers don’t really know what drives most book sales, so the industry’s focus on chasing bestsellers and trends lends itself to an unscientific combination of last-click attribution, confirmation bias, and way too often, scapegoats.

The author’s platform wasn’t effective! The reviews were bad! The Twitter Mob canceled it! Libraries are stealing your royalties!

Wait… what?!?


Publishers have relied on booksellers and libraries to connect with readers for decades, but—despite the continued decline of physical bookstores, the intersectional challenge of “book deserts,” and a lack of consistent and verifiable data on ebook sales—libraries seem to have become an easy scapegoat. Again.

Back in 2010-2011, as ebooks were allegedly on the verge of killing print and making libraries obsolete, forcing some publishers to collude work together to get Amazon’s boot off their collective throats, there was concern that libraries were cannibalizing book sales. There was no data to support this at the time but it became a popular narrative anyway, prompting Library Journal & Bowker to partner on a research project called Patron Profiles which found the opposite to be true:

“Our data show that over 50% of all library users report purchasing books by an author they were introduced to in the library,” [Library Journal executive editor Rebecca] Miller noted. “This debunks the myth that when a library buys a book the publisher loses future sales. Instead, it confirms that the public library does not only incubate and support literacy, as is well understood in our culture, but it is an active partner with the publishing industry in building the book market, not to mention the burgeoning e-book market… They add significant value to the content ecosystem as well as being a sustaining sales channel in and of themselves.”

—”Survey Says Library Users Are Your Best Customers,” Andrew Albanese, Publishers Weekly

That one finding (“50% of all library users report purchasing books by an author they were introduced to in the library.”) was an important one; if not the most valuable, definitely the most cited as it confirmed many people’s own experience with libraries—especially authors and other publishing professionals for whom libraries played a significant role in their own love of reading.

I mean, who doesn’t love libraries?

[DISCLOSURE: I worked for Library Journal at this time and was involved in Patron Profiles throughout its apparently too-brief existence.]


The ebook dust seemed to have mostly settled over the next few years as trade publishers “won” their battle with Amazon, allowing them to charge higher prices for ebooks to consumers, while tweaking their pricing and terms for public libraries to make them more expensive and less accessible, presumably expecting that additional “friction” would help boost retail sales.

Perhaps not surprisingly, ebook sales declined the next few years while print sales stabilized in most categories—except for mass market paperbacks, arguably the format most directly impacted by ebooks. (NOTE: I’m purposefully not referencing self-publishing here because the sparse industry “data” that exists rarely acknowledges their existence nor obvious impact on ebooks, especially within Amazon’s dominant walled garden.)

And then, suddenly this year, libraries seem to have become a convenient scapegoat again.

Further changes are on the horizon. At this time, none of the Big Five employs an embargo, save for the “test” that Macmillan instituted for its Tor imprint in July 2018, which ALA opposed. However, ALA is expecting Macmillan to make an announcement about its ebooks by the end of this summer. Based on its Tor test, Macmillan has had quiet consultations with a handful of librarians and ALA. It remains to be seen where Macmillan will end up—and the recent announcements by HBG and S&S may well have them reassessing their conclusions. ALA is greatly concerned that the embargo in the Tor pilot will become standard practice and spread to other Macmillan titles. An embargo policy is contradictory to the library mission of equitable access to information, and ALA is unequivocally opposed to the practice.

—”The Future of Ebook Pricing,” Alan S. Inouye, American Libraries

In a somewhat odd interview given to author Jason Sanford, published on his Patreon, Macmillan’s Fritz Foy made an interesting claim in defense of their embargo experiment: “What we were seeing was really reaching a tipping point, where we’d have to explain to our authors that while your readership is growing, your royalty statement will be getting smaller and smaller.”

Pitting authors against libraries is a questionable tactic, especially lacking hard data to support your claims of cannibalization—data that’s almost impossible to gather without several industry players coming together, including Amazon—so it will be interesting to see if they actually implement a windowing embargo across the board as their “findings” would seem to justify, and if any other major publishers follow suit.

More interesting will be how authors react to these changes. So many routinely pay lip service to the important role libraries played in their own careers, but how many will speak up in their defense when their publisher claims libraries are effectively cheating them out of royalties because…. [checks notes] they believe in developing readers, driving book discovery, recommending specific books based on individual interests (front and backlist), and generating book sales, all by offering equitable access to information to everyone in their communities?

That’s a really awkward mission to take a stand against, especially in the current political climate, but maybe those royalty statements tell a much more compelling story?

Photo by Philippe Mignot on Unsplash

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