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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Public Library: Writer's Friend or Foe?

I rarely go to bookstores.

That’s a startling confession from someone who writes, someone who supports the publishing industry and spends an awful lot of money on books.

I didn’t even realize I’d stopped going until Lydia Dare’s first book came out at the beginning of April. I wanted to take a picture of her book on the shelf. That’s when I realized I hadn’t been there since Christmas. I’d been buying my books online.

How could I go four months without a trip to the bookstore? It used to be my favorite place. At a loss, I consulted my nine year-old daughter. She’s one of those Uber-readers, the 5% of kids who buy 80% of the books.

“When did we stop going to the bookstore?” I shouted in a panicked voice.

“When they covered up the YA sign with a paper that says ‘Vampires,” she answered. “I’ve read all their historicals. Now we go to the library or the church with cats.”

The church with cats is The Book Exchange in Nampa, Idaho. It’s a half hour drive from my home. The kids love this church-converted-into-a-bookstore because it has endless shelves of used books, every kind imaginable, not just the latest fad. And they have cats. Real cats.

I spent a few weeks feeling guilty about not shopping in the retail bookstores. Was I betraying my writer sisters by living at the library and used book store? I’d heard a published author say that using the library was like stealing money out of her pocket. And I would never do that.

Then I realized the role libraries and used bookstores play in promoting new authors. These places give us an opportunity to try out new authors that we might never read if we had to pay full price for them. If I like what I read, I’ll buy a copy for my mother or a friend with similar interests. I’ll check out the author's backlist. I’ll recommend her books to all my uber-reader friends. And when her next book comes out, I’ll be the first in line to pre-order it, hardcover and all.

Libraries and used bookstores are the source of that elusive word-of-mouth advertising no publisher can buy. Therefore, they help the author.

What do you think? Do you frequent used bookstores and libraries? Do you think they help or hurt the author?


  1. We go to the church with cats too! :)

    We enjoy shopping at the Yesteryear Shoppe as well.

  2. I totally agree with you. At 8 bucks a pop, I am not going to take a chance on an unknown author at the bookstore. If it is at the library, I will happily give it a try. The library is where I have found all of my favorite authors who I later purchased from to build my own little library.

    The author that you spoke of who thought libraries stole from her needs to step back and take a look at the bigger picture. Just consider it to be free advertising :)

  3. I was pitching my books to a gift-shop owner recently and mentioned that I was heading to the library next to donate a copy. She, in effect, told me that I was stupid to have the library carry it where people could read it for free. I picked up my books and walked away from such ignorance.

  4. I'm a librarian. I've seen die-hard fans forged in the library, who then go out and buy every book an author has written. Not to mention kids who can't buy every book they want, who get hooked on library books until they can. Libraries definitely help.

  5. I don't go to the library and only because I never, ever, ever can get a book back on time. I wanted to start reading the Avalon authors (they pretty much only go in libraries from what I understand) and checked out one book. I won't say how late I was in getting the book back. I am always embarassed to walk in with the book, an appology and my wallet. I am surprised my library card has not been revoked. However, I love used bookstores. Sometimes this is the only place to find the older books. Several times I have discovered an author and want to read their other books not in print and once I am caught up, I eagerly await the publication of the next book, which I will pay retail for.

  6. I agree, I've been introduced to a lot of great writers through the library---and then I've gone off to buy the books. There was also a used bookstore I went to on a friend's recommedation. It was owned by a very old man who followed me around the store the first time I went in. Needless to say, I was ticked off. Then he said "What do you read? You're looking at everything." Annoyed, I said I was browsing. He repeated "What do you read?" Finally, I named the last three books I'd read. He TOLD me what to buy. Now I was really ticked off---I can pick my own books! But he was elderly, I beleive in supporting bookstores---I bought one of his choices. I couldn't put it down. I came back to tell him that. He frowned at me like I was a moron and said "Of course. What? You think I don't know my business?" He didn't retire. He worked 'til he died and, of course, the store closed. Used books stores are going the way of the independents. That gentleman introduced me to more writers than I ever could have found on my own. When I bought their new books I'd sell them to him when I was done. That way, I figured, he could tell the next person what to buy!

    When I heard he died, all I could think was he'll walk up to God and say "So. What do you read?" And God would be better off for it.

  7. Emma, your story almost made me cry. "And God would be better off for it." Brilliant!

  8. I frequent the library not so much on the used bookstores. I love the library. I can try new authors (or new to me authors) and get some old books that might be out of print.

    Also great for research books.

    I still buy a lot of books, online and in the bookstore. I go more frequently to the bookstore because of my local book club. We meet there once a month. So I go looking for books once a month now.

  9. Great post, Gail, and a very interesting topic. I've always done a mix. When I babysat in the city, I would walk by the tables on the street filled with used books that the near-homeless folks sold 3 for $5. I would always scour for ones that had Regency titles, and that's how I discovered a lot of my favorite authors. Once I had fallen in love with them, I started buying their books new so that I would have a pretty collection. Nowadays, I don't get into the city much for the used book tables OR to the bookstores, so most of what I buy is new from Amazon. Oh, and I'm just like Amy with the library...I absolutely cannot get the books back on time! LOL!

  10. I absolutely do NOT think that these 2 sources for books hurt the authors. Libraries do have to buy the books to begin with. And used bookstores offer an author and her books a "second chance" at life by introducing new readers to them. Unless an author has written only a single book and never plans to write another, having new readers find that author, even via these less expensive methods, means that, for example, a new "fan" who isn't able to afford to buy the next book will request that her library gets it. Or may buy it later - and while I guess most used bookstores' purchases of the used books doesn't help the author, the perpetuation of her "reputation" may well serve to give her an opportunity to get new fans. Would these authors who object rather than people, once finished with books throw them out? Would these authors also say never donate books to hospitals, or nursing homes because they weren't going to get the tax break? I guess my position is clear! Nice blog post and I hope you can change some minds about the value of these 2 outlets for books.

  11. Wow. What a great defense of libraries and used bookstores. You all make such great arguments. I guess I can stop slinking around in shame.

    And Amy, I have the same problem with my kids' library books. Whenever they like a book, they lend it to a friend. Usually when I finally track the book down, the kid goes out and buys his own copy. Another sale chalked up to libraries.

    Thanks everybody for all the comments!

  12. I almost always try out a new (to me) author through either the library or the used book stores. In my hometown (Denton, Texas), we have the BEST used book store in the world: Recycled Books. They're in an ugly purple building on the town square, and they've been there for ages. The floors creak under your feet as you move around over rickety stairs and through room after room of books. I love the smell of that place--the smell of old books. I probably make a trip to Recycled at least once a month. And I never know what I'll find there, too.

    Once I've read a book or two by an author, if I love that author's work, then I'll head out to the new book store and buy as much as I can get my hands on.

    Another subject that I've seen some authors get all up in arms about is sharing books. Well, all I have to say about that is that my older sister shared Twilight with me and my younger sister, and all three of us ended up buying the entire series. My younger sister shared Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Apprentice with the other two of us, and we all went out and bought our own copies of the entire series, even waiting in the massive lines at midnight for the release of the last few books in order to read them that night. We've shared countless books and authors that way. I'm not sure I understand how authors get so upset about sharing. When I'm published, if someone reads my book after getting it from a library, from a used book store, or from a friend and wants to read more, I'm a happy camper.

  13. What a terrific topic!
    I absolutely think libraries and used book stores are part and parcel of where I want my books to be (okay, slightly less the used book stores). The library is where I've found so many new authors which yes, then I go out and buy sometimes the book I've just read, as well as new ones. The used book store is often the only place to find older works by an author, or some authors I've fallen in love with who's books have gone out of print - I admit to frequenting even used bookstores online quite a bit!

    I've never heard other authors saying the library was taking money out of their pockets, and I'd have to heartily disagree with them. It's a huge batch of readers as a writer you have the chance to connect to! And, when I read a great book / find a new author at the library, I tell my other reader friends, who then also start there before buying. Isn't that what we all want? Word of mouth is hard to get otherwise.

  14. I'd have to agree with everyone here, Clarrissa. I'd go so far as to say anyone who doesn't think the library and used bookstores help in the longrun are very short sighted people and need to widen the focus of thier lens. It's a tool just like anything else a writer has in her arsenol, when used correctly, it can be a very effective one. Excellent blog! Excellent answers and I loved the story of the old man in the store.

  15. Well, how lucky would an author be if every library in the country bought their book? Think about the number of sales that could mean!

    AND it introduces you to reads that may buy you in the future if you win them over.

    The same can be said for used book stores. No, they're not sales for the author - but they do introduce you to readers.

  16. I love the library!!!! LOVE it! I've got so many books from 1/2 Price Books and from winning them on blogs that I quit going to the library until I get them read. It may be awhile before I get back there. :)

  17. Sherrinda,

    You are so lucky to have a 1/2 Price Bookstore. We don't have them here in Idaho. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

  18. I agree, more with the library than with the used bookstore...somehow I always feel guilty when I do go to the used bookstores for my fiction reading, although I do find great research books and other out of print things at used stores from time to time.

    As to the library, I love it. We are so fortunate in the US to have the incredible library system that we do. Many times, I've discovered someone new and then bought up their backlist or new stuff when it came out. I will be honored to have my books in any library that will take me someday :)

  19. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Heather. I know I'll see your books in my library soon.

  20. I love the library and have discovered my favorite authors there. I've later gone on to buy books from them because I couldn't wait to get my hands on a new release, and when there is a waiting list at the library... Also, I'm sorry to say I've written off authors who's books I have purchased that I didn't like immediately. However, with the library, I've given second chances to authors whose one book I picked at random didn't grab me. Later I've become a fan.