A while ago Horrible Histories author, Terry Deary, came out swinging against libraries. Quite properly almost every other human on the earth thought it was ridiculous. But a quote of his did get me thinking:
“People have to make the choice to buy books. People will happily buy a cinema ticket to see Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and expect to get the book for free. It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Books aren’t public property, and writers aren’t Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby. They’ve got to make a living. Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat. We don’t expect to go to a food library to be fed.”
And it made me wonder to myself how excellent life would be if books were public property. If there was some magical utopia where authors and publishers could simultaneously be paid for their hard work, while the masses could read whatever books they wanted. Also, as a secondary comment – If people can’t afford to eat, then I am fully in support of a food library where they could get it for free because I am not a monster.
But first, why are books so special? Why do we have public libraries, using tax payer money to loan out books, movies, music and TV shows for absolutely free? More specifically, why am I here arguing that it would be lovely if books were free and easy for everyone to access?
According to a report by The National Endowment for the Arts:
“There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans. Most alarming, both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates. These negative trends have more than literary importance. As this report makes clear, the declines have demonstrable social, economic, cultural, and civic implications…With lower levels of reading and writing ability, people do less well in the job market. Poor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement. Significantly worse reading skills are found among prisoners than in the general adult population. And deficient readers are less likely to become active in civic and cultural life, most notably in volunteerism and voting.”
When you read through the document, there’s lots of number like things and charts and statistics. Funnily, in a correlating kind of way, those coloured lines for academic achievement go up kind of at the same pace as reading frequency. Weird, huh? Anyway, read the report for yourself to see all the data they have to try and demonstrate the benefits reading has not just for individuals, but for society.
But putting all that aside. We kind of take it for granted that a public library is something worth investing in because people reading = good. And libraries are good because everyone can use them, authors still get some money and the world keeps spinning. Studies also show both a strong correlation between reading for pleasure and high literacy scores, and that a wide range of choice of books is one of the most effective ways to foster a love of reading. It seems basic and pretty simplistic that knowledge should be collected, cataloged and easy for everyone to access. That sharing and improving the world through information and stories is a human achievement that encompasses some of our species greatest accomplishments.
But the thing is, that access to information is still, by and large, for the financially blessed. Librarians work hard to build up a catalog of quality books and sources as well as those they think will appeal to readers. But they’re working with limited resources, and so are those in a lower socio-economic bracket. Result? The poorer you are, the harder it is to access the benefits of reading. And that situation doesn’t seem to be changing.
Can we? Is there a way to make books either free or super cheap for everyone without depriving authors, publishers and editors of their well-deserved and much needed payment?
As a blogger and reviewer, this question seems silly to me because this system, on a very small scale is already happening. So it clearly can be done – the problem is just figuring out how to do it. And, not to minimize any other industry, but isn’t using imagination, thoughtful application of lessons and knowledge, and our willingness to explore KIND OF THE BEST THING WE DO, PUBLISHING INDUSTRY?!
So here’s the thing. I can’t afford all the books I read. If I had to pay for them then, ha! No. I only end up buying my favourites and it takes a lot of money. Luckily, I don’t have to pay for all the books I read – and I do that legally because publishers send them to me. They send them to me, for free, hoping that I will read and review them, publicize them, and promote them. But get this, I don’t get paid to review. I don’t ask for money for people to read my shit. See, Cuddlebuggery earns its expenses by pageviews. Advertisers see our stats, recognize that for a small fee, our readers might accidentally glimpse their ad out of the corner of their eye and pay attention to it, or even click the link and buy it.
Clearly, giving everyone free books hoping that they’ll review it and then somehow buy it is not the answer. But it is an example that readers have something to offer. There is value in their time and attention. The only problem is turning that time and attention into something profitable for publishers and authors.
Then I was watching this video by Hank Green. He’s talking about the Ownership of Ideas, but he discusses this very interesting change to how corporations deal with derivative works on YouTube.
“The good news is that the internet is making all of this obsolete. Fewer and fewer corporations are enforcing copy right in the way that they used to. There’s just too much derivative work going on. I remember when wizard rock was first happening and, like, the publishing companies behind Harry Potter were like, “No, you can’t make derivative works based on Harry Potter. You can’t make Harry Potter songs, and-” Yeah you can! Why would you stop people from being enthusiastic about your creations? Harghhhh! Now when somebody posts a lipsync video of One Direction [Redacted: some truly horrible lipsyncing.] the video doesn’t get taken down. YouTube’s algorithms identify it as a One Direction song, advertisements pop up on it and Sony Music International gets the money from those advertisements.“
Incorporating advertisements into a product (like a book to subsidize its cost) isn’t even original or new. Remember when Apple put in a patent for that with future iPhones in mind? The point is, right now someone wants an ebook and they pay for it (or they pirate it. In increasing numbers). They pay for it once no matter how many times they read or reread it. But imagine a world where someone downloads an author’s book for free. And every time they read it, or loan it to one of their friends to read, or resells the ebook for someone else to read – that author gets paid for the advertising in there. A system of free product with advertisements and a paid product with no advertisements is already happening with the apps we download.
Say someone doesn’t want to have ads in there book every few pages. Guess what? They can pay money for an ad-free version. Either way – the author is getting paid. And even though I get books for free all the time, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve not read a book because it’s been too expensive to buy. That’s a lot of authors I never got to try. A lot of books I never got to experience. I lost out. Those authors lost out (or maybe not if I didn’t like that book and decided to review it), the publisher lost out – and according to society, everyone loses out.
And a lot of people mocked Amazon’s public desire to get into the used ebook business – but I think it’s brilliant and innovative and probably why the rest of the industry is kind of getting its ass-kicked. I easily have 30-50 ebooks that I paid for, read once and now sit wasting away on my kindle. But if I could make some money off of unloading those, if someone else got to buy them at a cheaper rate and if that author is getting more widely read then what’s the problem?
Think about other results. Book piracy and DRM – these aren’t going to be the significant problems they are today. Most people don’t want to actively rip off an author. If there is a free copy available that they can get legitimately, then I’m thinking a lot more people are going to be willing to take that then a bit torrented version. You no longer need to restrict an ebook to that one person because sharing becomes a good thing. Because the more you share, the more those ads get viewed. The more people get paid.
Clearly any and all ideas I discuss here are not finalized, not brilliant, probably not original. Discussion, experimentation, cooperation and innovation is needed. And I’m willing to accept the fact that this is likely a thoughtless idea. But I don’t think the discussion is worthless. I don’t think making books easier and cheaper or free to access on mass is a stupid discussion because reading kicks ass. And I would hope that anyone who truly loves to read would want everyone else to experience the magic of it. Even more, I want my authors and publishing people to be paid. I want them to be thriving again. That’s why, instead of talking about closing down libraries, there’s an entirely different discussion we need to have.