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Getting Paid: How Do Authors Make Money from Library Books?

by on August 18, 2016

Much has been said about the battle between publishers and libraries. Libraries objected to high prices, especially for e-books, and publishers moaned about decreasing profits. Discussions center around ownership models and digital preservation, but one variable is missing in all of these equations: the author.

The E-Book and Right of Use

It used to work like this: the publisher (i.e. one of the Big Five or their subsidiaries) bought the author’s manuscript. The author signed a contract to collect a certain amount of royalties from each sale. Different sales yielded different royalties. Sales to a bookstore or a library resulted in different royalty amounts, with library sales earning less than bookstore sales. If a book was popular enough, libraries often bought books by the case, but that type of popularity was rare, and not every author saw their books in a library at all. Then came the e-book. No longer is it something that takes up shelf space. But at the same time, a library cannot just copy the file and let multiple people borrow a single copy at the same time. That would be a violation of copyright, just like it is with physical books.

However, the model was not even that simple. If it had worked like hard copies, a library could buy five e-copies and loan them out at will. But they don’t. Because they don’t own the e-copies. In fact, if you have a Kindle or other reading device, you don’t either. When you buy an e-book, you buy the right to use the content under the terms of the retailer.[1] When Barnes & Noble closed the Nook store in the UK, readers lost sometimes hundreds of books they had paid for.[2] Those books did not make the migration to Sainsbury’s, the replacement platform for Nook. The same holds true for many digital products like MP3 files, movies, and more. You purchase the right to use the content under certain conditions, but you don’t own it. Does the artist still get paid?

Self-Publishing and Small Press

Enter the self-publishing author or small press. They too can offer books to libraries through Overdrive and other services, and many libraries are implementing Self-E programs,[3] another way for authors to get discovered, recognized, and paid for their work. These self- and independently published books can include print and e-book titles. However many of these titles are not as popular as those released by major publishers, so will not be borrowed as frequently. In the case of print books, low circulation means wasted shelf space, and in the case of e-books, it means squandered money in the acquisitions budget. Of course, many self-published authors may donate their books to libraries, at least in the case of physical books. But then their earnings drop from the pennies they get from library sales to zero.

The Global Book Economy

Library books are not free. They are pre-paid, usually from some kind of tax base. Often there is an opposite effect to the need of the community: when the economy takes a downturn, the need for libraries grows just as budgets decrease. It is uncertain what effect Brexit will have on the British economy, but the tax base is sure to be affected in a country where libraries are already underfunded,[4] making getting books into libraries and paid for even more difficult for an author. The UK is just one example of this precarious state of libraries. Many libraries are reinventing themselves and thriving, while others are struggling with declining visits and borrows. This is tough news for authors as well.

Making a Living

Making a living as a writer is tough enough. Most writers have a day job of some sort, and while skills they gained from getting a liberal arts degree are in demand in any number of professions,[5] working full time at what they love is a true challenge for writers. An author can be as artsy about their book as they wish; however, the finished product must be marketed and distributed like any other product. Libraries offer authors two things. They can buy their books, which nets the author some royalties. They can also offer exposure, allowing the author to gain a new audience who might buy their books the next time rather than just borrowing them. For libraries to survive, authors must keep creating books. For them to keep creating books, they need to get paid. When libraries buy authors’ books, everyone comes out ahead.

[1]Survey of Ebook Usage in U.S. Public Libraries” (fifth annual survey by Library Journal and School Library Journal, Place of Publication, 2014), 83–84.
[2] Stuart Lauchlan, “B&N nukes the NOOK with a 15 March deadline for customers to save content,” diginomica, March 7, 2016.
[3]SELF-e: Connecting Self-Published Authors, Libraries, and Readers,” Library Journal, May 20, 2014.
[4]The Global Political Implications of the June ‘Brexit’ Decision,” Master’s in Political Management Online, George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, July 26, 2016.
[5]Why Liberal Arts Skills Are Important in Every Profession,” Marylhurst University, n.d.

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