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Who are romance readers?

 

A romance reader is often adjudged as being a single, cat lady in need of a man, or they’re someone who lacks romance in real life, or they are nice people, reading stupid books. Maya Rodale debunks these myths in her article, ‘Who Is the Romance Novel Reader?’ Contrary to the popular belief, the romance readers are educated, working women, averaging between ages 30-55, earning about $55,000 a year, successfully manage career and households and are usually in a relationship (Rodale 2016).

 

According to survey results from Romance Writers of America, 84 percent of romance readers are women and 16 percent are men — up from 9 percent a few years ago. The romance industry is large — more than half of the mass market paperbacks sold in the U.S. are romance — and its readership is vast as well (RWA 2015). Romance fiction is the most read genre, with the industry drawing $1.44 billion in sales in 2012, and sales are estimated to be $1.35 billion in 2013 (Patel 2014).

 

Romance is often considered a ‘lowbrow’ form of writing & readership. Who coined it first? No one knows. Maybe to understand this disdain attached to romance books and its readership, one must reflect on the last 200 years and the evolution of women’s fiction. I remember reading romances as a teenager, often covered in non-decrepit brown paper, to avoid being labeled as the ludicrous ‘romance reader’ or worse—an escapist. Even though it dawned on me that my reading material supposedly lacked in literary value and was colloquially termed as trash; I had no qualms in pursuing my happily ever after foraging.

 

Critic and literary historians have rationally subscribed to the view that readers are either highbrow or lowbrow. It’s usually believed that trained and untrained minds do not share the same taste when it comes to reading habits. The literary elite question the purpose of reading and the effect of lowbrow literature on ignorant minds.

 

Victor Nell, in his book, Lost In A Book, refutes this belief and labels it ‘The Elitist Fallacy’. According to him, the two groups of readers—highbrow or lowbrow, do not exist. He argues that a sophisticated reader will often enjoy deeply felt and delicately wrought literature; the same person is likely to lose themselves in a Harlequin romance during a long airplane journey (Nell, The Elitist Fallacy 1988).

 

As a child, when one first starts reading, the focus is on language and stringing the words correctly to form coherent meaning. A mature reader attains fluency in language and gains higher level of emotional engagement with the text. This is usually the tipping point where a young reader moves beyond the encouragement of parents and teachers and takes up reading as a voluntary habit (M. Wolf 2007). For me, this tipping point happened while reading Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie. The plot revolved around a regular sized woman, Min Dobbs, and her quest to avoid doughnuts & men pretending to be doughnuts. Min was smart, funny and real. This is when I fell in love with the idea of love. My point being, everyone has a tipping point when venturing into the magical world of books. What they end up reading depends a lot on who’s guiding them or where their natural affinity lies.

 

To better understand the romance reader, we must first understand the concept of ludic reading. Why romance readers read, what they read.

 

‘Ludic’ or ‘absorbed’ reading is often identified as a state in which readers become oblivious to the world around them, usually willingly. Some readers read like this, others can’t. For readers with the ability to become so absorbed in a book, aesthetic quality has little to do with enjoyment. The word Ludic comes from Latin Ludo, meaning ‘I play’. Ludic reading corresponds to the pleasure reading, reminding us that reading is a playful activity, is intrinsically motivated and usually engaged in for its own sake (Nell, The Insatiable Appetite 1988). It would be safe to say that romance readers are ludic readers to highlight the engagement and trance like absorption that can result during reading a great novel. This pleasure derives, in part, from novels’ intense components of emotion and fantasy, such that readers’ imaginative engagement with the story shapes who they understand themselves to be (Roach 2016).

 

In her book, Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf craftily inserts an excerpt from Proust’s book, On Reading and asks the reader to read the text as fast as they can.

 

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those . . . we spent with a favorite book. Everything that filled them for others, so it seemed, and that we dismissed as a vulgar obstacle to a divine pleasure: the game for which a friend would come to fetch us at the most interesting passage; the troublesome bee or sun ray that forced us to lift our eyes from the page or to change position; the provisions for the afternoon snack that we had been made to take along and that we left beside us on the bench without touching, while above our head the sun was diminishing in force in the blue sky; the dinner we had to return home for, and during which we thought only of going up immediately afterward to finish the interrupted chapter, all those things with which reading should have kept us from feeling anything but annoyance, on the contrary they have engraved in us so sweet a memory (so much more precious to our present judgment than what we read then with such love), that if we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and the ponds which no longer exist (M. Wolf 2007).

 

After reading the above text, Ms. Wolf asks the reader to analyze what they were thinking while reading the paragraph. She claims that Proust successfully conjures up the reader’s long-stored memories of books; the secret places they hid in, to read. Perhaps took them to the moments they spent reading underneath a tree, eating their favorite snack, completely lost in a trance; reading for the pleasure of reading (M. Wolf 2007).

 

Similarly, a romance reader has the ability of ‘Passing over’, a term used by theologian John Duane, describing a reader’s ability to step into the shoes of the character; be it a knight readying for battle, or how a heroine behaves, how an evildoer can regret a wrongdoing. The moment this happens; the reader is no longer limited by the confines of their own thinking.

 

When you read the above paragraph from Proust’s book, you engaged an array of cognitive processes like attention, memory, visuals, auditory and linguistic processes (M. Wolf 2007). Romance readers go through this process quite seamlessly. Even though, it is argued that romance fiction is repetitive and formulaic, but the reader simply wants the rush of familiar, yet elusive, euphoria that comes with finishing a great love story.

 

The good news for publishers is that romance readers are singularly voracious and loyal. A recent Nielsen study reported that around 15% of the genre’s fans buy new books at least once a week; 6% do so more than once per week. These core romance fans are avid readers who stay very loyal to the genre. Moreover, 25% of buyers read romance more than once a week, and nearly half do so at least once a week; only 20% read romance less than once a month (Nielsen 2015). Where an average American reads 12 books a year, a genre reader reads as many 20 titles in a single month (Ha 2016).

 

Considering the sheer volume of consumption of romance, why don’t more readers admit to reading them?

 

Perhaps the answer to this question can be found in the history of mass culture. Mass culture is a term that plays on the wide self-belief that there is an inverse relationship between the quality and quantity of culture. It has been deemed as being incorrect by G.H. Lewis who argues that there is no empirical evidence whatsoever that mass culture harms its consumers. (Lewis 1978). Since the sixteenth century, Western views of correct use of time and sinfulness of worldly pleasures have been powerfully influenced by religion, especially, Puritanism. The use of time and money, on anything not related to God-ly pursuits, was frowned upon and squandering away money for profane works of fiction was against the religious ethics. This belief has trickled down through centuries (Nell, Plague of Spirit, Death of Mind: Pleasure reading and the Social value System 1978). Women fiction was, and to an extent still is, given a cursory brush off.

 

These issues do affect the social and personal determinants of the romance reader’s choice of reading material and how they feel about this choice. Most romance readers see themselves as book addicts, like cigarette smokers, and feel compelled to justify their choices. Often believing that admitting to reading such books would alter how people perceive them, and run the risk of being tagged as ‘frivolous’. This is quite unfortunate because the idea of what is highbrow and lowbrow is skewed. Romance books are often labeled as trash, on the basis of being unoriginal, predictive, depraved or formulaic. While at the same time the same aesthetic is applauded as art, be it Titian’s Venus of Urbino or Bernini’s Rape of Persephone, where sexuality is celebrated or the repetitive reproduction of ‘Madonna & Child’ that held generations of artists in rapture. The interest or arousal boost one gets from such art is similar to what a romance reader derives from reading a novel. Yet, they are world apart as far as perceived literary value goes.

 

The fact that romance readers read really fast tends to suggest that they merely skim the text and do not sink between the lines, as a non-fiction reader would. To ascertain the credibility of this assumption, we must examine the relationship between reading speed and ludic reading. Reading speed is a function of text and comprehension. In a lab experiment, Nell engaged a group of readers to read three paragraphs of increasing difficulty, while pressing a buzzer at regular intervals. It would be an obvious assumption that readers pressed the buzzer more promptly while reading easier text, considering that it requires lesser attention. It would be a wrong assumption. The experiment threw light on the fact that as the difficulty of the text increased, the reader’s speed decreased and they became more susceptible to outside disturbances. This happened because comprehension failed to take hold of the reader’s attention and left them somewhat akin to a tourist who is listening to a news broadcast in a foreign language (Nell, Reading ability and reading habits 1978). Romance readers usually read fast because they understand the language of romance narrative, and not because the reading material is sub-par or lowbrow.

 

So, if the constraints of religious ethics were removed and a highbrow reader was marooned on a deserted island with bundles of romance novels, their covers stripped off, would the highbrow reader succumb to reading for pleasure, relaxation and reading trance? Your guess is as good as mine.

 

In my opinion, romance readers do themselves disservice by relegating their reading choices to trashy or lowbrow. Reading is a gift and an acquired skill. It should be able to serve us in a spectrum of ways. A reader can oscillate between complex, beautifully written literary works and just as well-written, poignant tales of love, without having to justify their choices. The debate between highbrow and lowbrow literature has been raging for centuries. The lines between the two have been blurring as the middlebrow literature is emerging. The romance reader, meanwhile, is lost in their kindle, away from all judgment and is enjoying a thrilling, imaginary ride.

 

William Faulkner once famously said, “Perhaps they were right putting love into books. Perhaps it could not live anywhere else.”

 

Perhaps he was right.

 

Anumeha Gokhale

MPub 2017

Works Cited

Ha, Thu-Huong. Maverick women writers are upending the book industry and selling millions in the process. 07 22, 2016. https://qz.com/711924/maverick-women-are-upending-the-book-industry-and-selling-millions-in-the-process/ (accessed 10 25, 2017).

Lewis, G. H. “The Sociology of Popular Culture George H. Lewis.” Sage Publications, 1978.

Nell, Victor. “Plague of Spirit, Death of Mind: Pleasure reading and the Social value System.” In Lost in a Book, by Victor Nell, 26-30. Yale University Press, 1978.

Nell, Victor. “Reading ability and reading habits.” In Lost in a book, by Victor Nell, 84-97. Yale University Press, 1978.

Nell, Victor. “The Elitist Fallacy.” In Lost In A Book, by Victor Nell, 4-6. Yale University Press, 1988.

Nell, Victor. “The Insatiable Appetite.” In Lost In A Book, by Victor Nell, 2. Yale University Press, 1988.

Nielsen. LITERARY LIAISONS: WHO’S READING ROMANCE BOOKS? 10 08, 2015. http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2015/literary-liaisons-whos-reading-romance-books.html (accessed 10 25, 2017).

Patel, Sital S. Read lowbrow fiction in public: Novels like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ spark sales on e-readers. 07 22, 2014. http://blogs.marketwatch.com/themargin/2014/07/25/romance-novels-like-fifty-shades-of-grey-ignite-sales-on-e-readers/?link=instory (accessed 10 25, 2017).

Roach, Catherine M. ” Going Native: When the Academic Is (Also) the Fan.” In Happily Ever After – The Romance Story in Popular Culture, by Catherine M. Roach, 28-32. Indiana University Press, 2016.

Rodale, Maya. Who Is the Romance Novel Reader? 05 07, 2016. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/maya-rodale/who-is-the-the-romance-novel-reader_b_7192588.html (accessed 10 24, 2017).

RWA. Romance Writers of America – Romance Statistics. 2015. https://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=580 (accessed 09 28, 2017).

Wolf, Marryanne. “The ‘Natural History’ of Reading Development.” In Proust and the Squid, by Maryanne Wolf, 108-33. HarperCollins, 2007.

Wolf, Maryanne. “Reading Lessons From Proust And The Squid.” In Proust and the Squid, by Mayanne Wolf, 3-17. HarpeerCollins Publishers, 2007.

 

As I am writing this essay, Katy Evan’s Racer went live on Amazon. I have been following the author’s social media promotion from the conception of the book; right from announcing the book, revealing the cover, teasing excerpts, pre-ordering and finally, the release day. She has a burgeoning group of close 70,000 followers on Facebook and close to 18,000 on Instagram. It’s been two days since the release of the book. It has already got close to 200 reviews on Amazon and just as many on goodreads. Her Facebook group, run by her fans, has close to 5000 members, including scores of bloggers, who are sharing and hyping about her book. The book is close to reaching ‘Top 100 paid’ in Kindle store and is already at #6 in Romance/Sports sub genre, which means she is selling high numbers. There is one detail though; Katy Evans is a self-published author.

 

Katy isn’t the only one riding this thrilling wave of digital publishing. Hundreds of self-published romance authors have managed to break into the market and establish a popular brand identity. Who are these authors?

 

Alison Baverstock, an associate professor in publishing at Kingston University, Surrey, said her research showed a clear gender split, with 65% of self-publishers being women and 35% men. Nearly two-thirds of all self-publishers are aged 41 to 60, with a further 27% aged over 61. Half are in full-time employment, 32% have a degree and 44% a higher degree (Brown 2014).

 

These authors—men and women, come from all walks of life and life experiences but have one thing in come—they have successfully bypassed the traditional publishing channels and incumbent middle men, after being turned down everywhere else in most cases, to reach their target audience. That is, kind of, priceless. Self-publishing has created a brand new, level playing field where romance authors are blooming unchecked. It’s a romantic wilderness.

 

Romance publishing, for long, has been a highly lucrative, but moderated genre of publishing. Romance has evolved. It has been the money-maker, albeit underrated, for the publishing industry. If we look at the romance publishing life-cycle to date, we’ll be able to ascertain that the innovation and content, in romance publishing, has been driven from the reader’s side. The publishing industry has been forever playing catch-up to the market demands. It could be the move from traditional ‘sweet romances’ produced by Harlequin for decades, to the uproar of spicier historical romances termed as the ‘bodice-rippers’, to the tsunami of 50 Shades of Grey, which singlehandedly revived the bookstore sales across the spectrum. The audience has been ahead of the publishers (Markert 1985). The content has reflected the path of self-awareness in women. According to best-selling author Jenny Crusie, ‘‘the romance industry is more responsive to reader feedback than any other genre … Romance novels do not determine what readers think; readers determine what romance novels get published” (Crusie 2007).

 

An editor is a hunter-gatherer—a person who scrounges through the slush piles, networks with agents, actively looks for writers and ultimately gives the publishers the actual content to publish. This is a vital role. The editors are the gatekeepers. They keep track of the market’s wants and needs and calibrate their searches accordingly (Williams 1993). One of the reasons that romance has remained relevant in the era of globalization is that romance publishers have shown a unique willingness to diversify their offerings, along with a stalwart refusal to flinch away from social, cultural and demographic change (Tapper 2014).

 

The romance market is a different ball-game altogether; unlike other genres of publishing. It’s a demand driven market. Where an average American reads about 12 books a year, a romance reader devours about 15 books a month. That figure alone, should give you a pause. To put things into perspective, according to the Romance Writers of America’s annual report, the estimated total annual romance sales amount to $1.08 billion. Romance novel share of the U.S. fiction market is 34%, of which, eBooks is 61%, Mass-market paperback is 26%, Trade paperback is 11% and Hardcover is 1.4% of the pie. The readership constitutes 84% female and 16% male (RWA 2015).

 

You can love self-publishing or doubt it, but you cannot ignore it. The numbers speak for themselves. Kim & Mauborgne conducted a study of 150 strategic moves spanning more than a hundred years and thirty industries and argue that companies can succeed by creating blue oceans of uncontested market space, as opposed to red oceans where competitors fight for dominance, the analogy being that an ocean full of vicious competition turns red with blood (W. Chan Kim 2005). Traditional publishing has been a red ocean for long, primarily because of the checked flow of content and the restriction on volume.

 

Digital publishing, by the way of its business model, has opened the doors to blue oceans, where independent writers could get their books to the intended audience without having to go through the traditional distribution network. Considering the behemoth size of the romance field and the new wave of self-published or indie authors, the editors today have a new avenue to find their next big find. These relatively unknown authors, who do respectable amount of business and have a ready-made following are the perfect candidates for the traditional model of romance publishing.

 

The hunter-gatherers in the romance publishing have finally caught up the insurgence of self-published contemporary romance, YA romance and adult fiction. Scores of self-published authors have been signed up by publishers to capitalize on the ready-made market. To find the next best-seller, maybe the editors need to analyze Amazon’s sales data (how much ever it is). The publishers have been cognizant of the changes. Harlequin Mills and Boon (HMB) ventured into a self-publishing imprint in 2009, but received severe flack from the publishing world for exploiting unsuspecting writers, as they charged ‘for services’. It was argued that what HMB were offering was NOT self-publishing but vanity publishing (Friedman 2009). Following the furor, HMB changed the name of the venture from Harlequin Horizons to DellArte press (Gardner 2009). But that too died a slow death over the following 4-5 years.

 

Jane Friedman argued, “Harlequin is clearly at an advanced stage of considering how it will evolve—or devolve, considering on your perspective. But most writers and writer organizations (and publishers) have NOT grappled with these questions yet. Publishing has often been slowest to change and adapt of all industries. Some argue Harlequin should’ve been better prepared and planned more strategically to respond to the criticisms that would arise. But when you’ve already moved on, like Harlequin—and are seeking solutions—it’s tough to backtrack to the mindset of those people who are stunned, angry, and indignant, and can’t even conceive of adaptation” (Friedman 2009).

 

Friedman also quoted Shatzkin in her blog post.

 

A friend of mine in the financial business wrote a book 20 years ago and wanted to get an agent to sell it. He knew the advance would be low, but he also knew the book would add credibility to his business. He wanted it sold. An agent told him that the agency only handled books on which they thought the advance would be $25,000 or more, yielding a commission of $3,750 at the normal 15%. This friend told the agent, take the first $3,750. The agent took the book, sold it for $6,000, and everybody was happy. This kind of arrangement, as well as others where the agent actually charges a fee for helping an author manage self-publishing options, are going to have to become more common in the future. Let’s not be too judgmental about the pioneering agents who change the paradigm. (Shatzkin 2009)

 

This is tricky. Because the market is flooded with self-publishing options for budding writers. Author Solutions is well-known for this. But the publishing industry is not quite ready to give their stamp of validation to the party crashers—the self-publishing authors. HMB tried to bridge the gap between the two forms publishing, but weren’t successful. They have, since then, launched Carina Press, a digital-first publishing platform, where they publish new authors in digital format and later go into print.

 

It ought to be simple; this amalgamation between print and digital platforms; this meeting of hunter-gatherers and the romantic wilderness. It isn’t.

 

Even though the scenario is well laid out, the integration between the two isn’t as simple. Consider this: Author Marie Force has 50 titles in her backlist—30 titles self-published and 20 titles with traditional publishers. She took her early works to numerous publishers, got published in 2008 (very small release) and made no waves. Around 2010, she took the plunge into the self-publishing and has been swimming strong, since. She prices her books between $4.99 and $6.99. She is consistently ranked in the Top 100 best-selling authors on Amazon and does decent business in print. But nothing compares to her returns on Amazon. She is digitally present in a market that primarily reads eBooks. Also, Author Kristen Ashley, who routinely tops the Amazon charts. She has the attention of her audience and even managed to get her books into Wal-Mart, which is no small feat. She has small team handling her editing, design and PR. Her focus is solely on writing. These authors also have presence on Kobo, iBooks and Createspace. (Observer and Dale 2016)

 

Now consider the pricing model of these self-published books. Most self-published works are priced between $2.99 and $6.99, with most authors pricing the earlier books low and progressively going higher as a series evolves. Collectively, these authors are looking at a $30 proposition in each customer (assuming it’s a 5 book series). It makes sense to reel in the reader early on with lower prices. Romance readers are extremely price sensitive, so the authors can only play around so much.

 

Now consider the traditional publishing pricing. Hard covers are priced at $25, paperbacks at $14 and eBooks at $9.99 (averages). There has been a raging discussion about publishers increasing the rates of the eBooks, which in turn has hampered them from making any headway into the digital market, although it has led to the resurgence in print sales. Even if successful self-published authors wanted to go through traditional publisher, there is no room for potential agreement when it comes to pricing. The readers will not pay $9.99, if they know they can get comparable books for less. This has been a key deciding factor for many authors, who don’t see merit in publishing only through traditional methods.

 

Also, the traditional model of publishing allows for maximum 15% royalties for the author, as opposed to 70% they earn when publishing with Amazon. That is a big chasm to fill. So what does it mean for the hunter-gatherers and the blooming romantics?

 

Traditional publishing and self-publishing are not mutually exclusive. It would be erroneous to think that in the current market you can do either-or. Publishing is transforming organically, hence, everything is changing. Digital and print publishing, as we know it, are transmogrifying. The market is turning a new leaf. Although, the market is more dynamic and price sensitive; the good news is—there is plenty of demand.

 

Publishers have an incentive for hunting in the self-publishing field, for newer, yet tried and tested content to meet the high demand of the romance readers. It would be wise to skim the top, but  focus on the next tier of writers who are on the verge of breaking out in the market. On the other hand, the self-publishing segment can gain more ground with print sales. Even though it is a digital market, 30% of readers still read print, and only print. There is no other way of reaching these people, but through traditional publishing.

 

Ultimately, publishing industry needs new talent and the authors need the validation that can be achieved only through traditional forms of publishing. It could be a win-win situation, but only if the wheels of publishing can align. As is the nature of business, in due time, it always re-calibrates itself. It would be interesting to see how this unfolds.

 

Anumeha Gokhale

Master of Publishing, Fall 2017

Simon Fraser University, Vancouver

Works Cited

Brown, Maggie. The Guardian. 11 9, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/09/fifty-shades-of-grey-women-dominate-self-publishing (accessed 09 28, 2017).

Crusie, Jenny. http://arghink.com. 04 14, 2007. http://arghink.com/2007/04/please-remove-your-assumptions-theyre-sitting-on-my-genre/ (accessed 09 25, 2017).

Friedman, Jane. Writer’s Digest. 11 03, 2009. http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/digitization-new-technology/harlequins-self-publishing-venture-is-it-the-future-of-publishing (accessed 09 26, 2017).

Gardner, Suzzane. Quill & Quire. 11 26, 2009. https://quillandquire.com/omni/harlequin-bows-to-pressure-changes-name-of-self-publishing-imprint/ (accessed 09 23, 2017).

Markert, John. “Romance Publishing And The Production Of culture.” Poetics Vol.14(1), 1985: 69-93.

Observer, The, and Brady Dale. Titans of Kindle. 03 16, 2016. http://observer.com/2016/02/kristen-ashley-digital-author/ (accessed 09 28, 2017).

RWA. Romance Writers of America – Romance Statistics. 2015. https://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=580 (accessed 09 28, 2017).

Shatzkin, Mike. The Idea Logical Company. 06 29, 2009. http://www.idealog.com/blog/the-evolving-role-of-agents/ (accessed 09 26, 2017).

Tapper, Olivia. “Romance and Innovation in Twenty-First Century.” Publishing Research Quarterly 30, no. 2 , 2014: 249-59.

The Observer, Brady Dale. Titans of Kindle. 03 16, 2016. http://observer.com/2016/02/kristen-ashley-digital-author/ (accessed 09 28, 2017).

Thompson, John B. Merchants of Culture. New York: Penguin, 2012.

  1. Chan Kim, Renée Mauborgne. Blue Ocean Strategy. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Press, 2005.

Williams, Alan D. “Who is an Editor?” In Editors on Editing, by Gerald Gross, 3-9. New York: Grove Press, 1993.

 

 

In 2010, The Guardian reported that “Ebook restrictions leave libraries facing virtual lockout” (Page and Pidd 2010). The article frames the issue as a showdown between public libraries in the United Kingdom and the Publisher’s Association, which aimed to crack down on remote downloading of ebooks in hopes of preventing “fake” library customers on the other side of the world from trying to download and steal ebooks. “It’s a move,” says the article, that one library boss described as “‘regressive’ at a time when they [libraries] are trying to innovate as they fight for survival.”

Suffice it to say, I believe that the Publisher’s Association had ahold of the wrong end of the stick.

A Brief and Very Limited History of the Public Library

In Reading Publics: New York City’s Public Libraries, 1754–1911, Tom Glynn tracks a fascinating social history of the modern public library. Public libraries evolved during an age of high capitalism in the United States, when the idea of “the public” was still new and constantly in flux. Amid the turmoil, the development of public libraries was, as Glynn notes, tied to “a new fluidity and permeability of the boundary between the public and the private that reflected a significant reconfiguration of the public sector at all levels of government” (Glynn 2015, 233) and led, eventually, to a unique mix of public and private that is the governance and funding model of the New York Public Library (NYPL) and was, arguably, the beginning of the public library.

The NYPL’s early history was a bumpy one filled with litigation and unreliable funding. Money issues were, in fact, largely responsible for the final form that the library eventually took, which thereafter influenced subsequent public libraries that sought to follow the NYPL model. The NYPL was founded when a wealthy benefactor, Samuel J. Tilden, died and specified that his estate—about $5 million—be used to fund a free public library and reading room. His family, though, was having none of it, and they took the case to court to argue their way back into their inheritance. When all was said and done, the family triumphed, their moral characters irreparably tarnished. The hypothetical library, through some earnest dealings with more generous branches of the family, was left with half the estate. This amount, though, was insufficient for the library’s intended scope, so the trustees determined to consolidate their resources with those of two other public libraries in the city, thus creating the NYPL. Eventually, the merged library committee was able to obtain funding from the City of New York to build a facility—the “marble palace for booklovers” (236). Then, through a series of machinations and some careful ego stroking, as Glynn tells it, the NYPL came to include both an in-branch reference department and a circulating library, thus establishing the basis for the public library in its modern incarnation. The “public library idea” (230) was born out of practical considerations and financial necessity that in some ways belies its current idealistic cultural position.

Nowhere is this dubious and contradictory ideological background more apparent than in Andrew Carnegie’s contributions to the modern public library. The “coolly calculating robber baron” (243) donated $5 million to the NYPL in 1901—a drop in the bucket compared to the total $56 million he gave to libraries worldwide and the $333 million sum that he otherwise disposed of throughout his life—which had, as Glynn notes, the effect of “creat[ing] policy in the absence of public funding” (241). Carnegie used his donation to extricate public dollars from the City of New York on behalf of the NYPL: essentially, the $5 million dollars came on condition that the municipal government commit to funding the library on an ongoing basis. Carnegie’s condition was born of his philanthropic philosophy, which required that money go only to those institutions that would help people help themselves; the philosophy extended to the institutions themselves, in that only those capable of garnering the support of their communities would be seen as a worthwhile investment in terms of the public good. The NYPL, therefore, needed to achieve public support in order to obtain its private funding.

Since then, public libraries have served as community hubs, bringing all manner of content, from books and magazines to on-demand video subscription services, to their users. Their hundreds of years of experience have led to highly developed expertise in organization and accessibility, allowing “equal access to knowledge regardless of class” (Farquharson 2009). They’ve been a space for learning and community, but, while they certainly aren’t going anywhere, they have faced their share of challenges with the so-called digital revolution, many of which are resulting directly from publishers’ attempts to cope with the very same challenges. But publishers are not going to find a friendlier partner in distribution than libraries, who have evolved in parallel to the rest of the publishing world but have, under the least likely of circumstances, escaped from crass commercialism. I humbly submit that it is time for publishers to take a page out of the NYPL book and look for ways to better unify publishing’s two different systems of distribution.

Current Status of Ebook Lending in Public Libraries

Despite high circulation, ebook publishing has failed libraries, by and large. The various locks on content and platforms have ensured that libraries lack the freedom to easily and effectively fulfil their mandates to educate and entertain. The modern public library needs to be able to offer accessible, free, available, and usable content. Not one of these requirements can be met easily by ebooks, which are almost always protected by DRM and caged within prohibitively expensive licensing agreements (Poulson 2012). In addition, library users, as Deborah Poulson reports, are frequently frustrated in their attempts to borrow ebooks from libraries, either because of availability problems, which 52 per cent of surveyed users had experienced, or because of compatibility problems with ereading devices, an issue for 18 per cent of surveyed users (Poulson 2012).

BookNet Canada’s data on ebook readers supports many of these findings as well. In The Canadian Book Consumer 2012, BookNet reports that ebook readers struggle with restrictions on lending and borrowing, suitability as gifts, limitations on title availability, issues with transferability between devices, and pricing (BookNet Canada 2013, 31). Not all of these issues are equally applicable to libraries (e.g., gift purchasing), but generally, challenges with ebook reading are felt by all parties in the supply chain because they begin at the top with publishers, who demand protection for copyright and hefty sums of money to hedge against the risk posed by the convenience of digital books and the ease of copying texts using a computer. HarperCollins, for example, maintains an infamous 26-loan limit on its ebooks, while Penguin Random House simply charges exorbitant fees (Arch 2016, 24).

Jacqueline Whyte Appleby, Scholarly Resources Librarian with Scholarly Portal, requests three rights from publishers when it comes to digital content: the right to keep a local copy, the right to access that copy in perpetuity, and the right to transform that copy into the formats of the future (Bailey, Sharon, Maria Cipriano, Jacqueline Whyte Appleby 2017). According to her, each of these rights is necessary to ensuring that libraries can continue to meet the needs of their customers, and things like excessive DRM are problematic. She notes that, in addition to their job as distributors of culture, libraries have a role to play in preserving books and that without the rights to manage the various forms in which ebooks are coded, that preservation mandate is almost impossible to achieve. Accessibility of materials, too, is crucial because many jurisdictions have legislation requiring libraries to meet minimum thresholds for accessibility. A time may be coming when publishers will have no choice but to rethink their DRM and pricing strategies for ebooks.

Still, ebooks are immensely popular with library users, and publishers would do well to realize exactly why that is. Libraries are a facsimile of a world in which ebooks are free, readily available—if not always as immediately as consumers expect—and exist in only one format, which is usable on most devices (in Canada, at least, Kindle ebooks are not available through libraries; ePub reigns supreme). In the Toronto Public Library system alone, more than 13.3 million titles have been loaned out to users since the library began offering digital content (“Toronto Public Library Dashboard” 2017). In fact, it’s the largest lender of econtent in the world (Toronto Public Library 2016). Watching the loan stats on the OverDrive dashboard reveals a constant churn of activity, with everything from romance novels to the latest and most popular grip lit moving through the checkout line (Ruth Ware’s book The Woman in Cabin 10, for example, has 999 holds on 120 copies). Maria Cipriano of the Toronto Public Library describes the dashboard as “reality TV for librarians,” (Bailey, Sharon, Maria Cipriano, Jacqueline Whyte Appleby 2017) and it’s easy to see why: this mini utopia of digital books shows quite clearly that plenty of readers already have or are prepared to make the switch to digital—as long as the conditions are favourable.

Towards a Future of Ebook-Based Public Lending?

Libraries have really had only ten years to confront the spectres of ebook publishing. The Kindle was released in 2007, and everything since then has proceeded rapidly (Inouye 2016), leaving libraries reeling and only now beginning to think about what comes next. Whatever else one might say about the print book, it has always been remarkable for three traits: usability, stability, and predictability. Its ability to unify inscription and interface makes it a relatively uncomplicated piece of technology; all you need to use a print book is the book itself and some knowledge of how to decode it. Indeed, as Richard Nash argues, the book, along with the wheel and the chair, is one of humanity’s most supreme technologies, “so pervasive, so frequently iterated and innovated upon, so worn and polished by centuries of human contact, that it reaches the status of Nature”(Nash 2013). What makes the print book such an effective technology is difficult to say, but few would argue that it is not good at what it is designed to do—which is, as Nash says, to “deliver a very large set of words.” This ubiquity is what makes printed books so well-suited to lending, especially in a public-library context. As the history of the NYPL shows, getting a library up and running is no easy thing, even without adding technological complications to the mix. Cataloguing, setting up shelves, and tracking loans, for example, are all made easier by having usable, stable, and predictable materials.

But the ebook is, emphatically, not the print book. With its multiplicity of formats and increasingly frantic paranoia, both about piracy and about competing in the free market, ebook publishing seems determined to ignore most of what makes print books so successful while simultaneously (largely) failing to capitalize on the opportunity that ebooks represent. We can, as John Maxwell says, do better (Maxwell 2013). And, at least in the context of libraries, we really should.

No evidence suggests that putting ebooks into libraries cannibalizes sales of books, print or digital. On the contrary, library users are often such voracious readers that they alternate between buying and borrowing, depending on what is most convenient (Poulson 2012; Millar 2012). We also can’t expect to see the disappearance of readers who fetishize print books, who want to own a pristine, crisp, and delicately scented copy of their favourite texts. Ebooks, however they are priced, protected, and distributed, are unlikely to change that; consider publishers themselves, who typically epitomize the print-over-digital attitude and are utterly intractable. And even if libraries did hurt sales by offering easily accessible ebooks (which, again, they don’t), readers need not be paying for copies of books in order to be of value to publishers. Libraries are invaluable for driving discoverability and for fostering a reading public, as Glynn describes in his history of the NYPL and as BookNet Canada repeatedly discovers in its surveys of book buyers.

Publishers of ebooks should be looking at the ebook loan numbers with an eye to increasing this free distribution, not to locking it down. The reason is simple: libraries are an early example of an abundance model, with practices perfected long before the web came along and made everything into an abundance model. Libraries have always tried to acquire as much material as possible—all of it, preferably—and to ensure that all of it is freely (or close to freely) and constantly moving among customers—as many customers as possible, preferably. Libraries even go so far as to set up complex sharing networks with other systems so that readers can access even more content (Arch 2016). And as potentially disruptive as that model is, it is still a distant runner-up in the race for the library’s greatest asset. That honour, without question, goes to librarians.

Librarians are the key to the whole operation of the library abundance model. They have mastered metadata, they have mastered search engines, and they have mastered customer service. They are the original Amazon algorithm, creating pathways through the chaos that would be invisible to anyone else—in the case of metadata, “anyone else” refers particularly to publishers who struggle mightily with bibliographic standards because they have no direct experience on the customer end of things.

This system is unmatched by any other player in the supply chain. Certainly, traditional retailers, including the superstores, are unable to equal the sheer quantity and variety of books—not to mention everything else—that large library systems can offer, and even Amazon, the so-called “Everything Store,” isn’t willing, or at least legally permitted, to give away all of its materials for free. Libraries are in a unique position to offer content under the conditions that the web has led us to expect; they already have a long history of offering free books to anyone who wants to read them.

But libraries can’t continue to operate on this model as the number of published books multiplies. Their resources are limited. Therefore, I have a modest proposal: publishers should stop wasting these precious resources. Work with libraries to make ebooks more abundant, more discoverable, and more accessible. Let libraries do the work of experimenting, focus testing, and figuring out what readers want from ebooks. Abandon the one-book-to-one-user model and realize that these kinds of restrictions on ebooks are not necessarily driving potential readers into our welcoming papery arms: the only thing we can say with any certainty is that they are driving away potential readers of ebooks. Embrace, instead, the model of digital abundance that readers are increasingly coming to expect. Maybe even publish some titles specifically for libraries, if the math can be made to work.

It seems a bit radical to suggest that publishers should let libraries have things all their own way, and perhaps it is. I still cannot see a way entirely clear of DRM—the potential economic fallout from digital piracy remains an area that publishers don’t know enough about, and there’s a decided risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater—but DRM that is limiting accessibility and jeopardizing the mission of libraries themselves clearly has to go. It is, as Louise Pisano Simone argues, a threat to intellectual freedom and democracy (Pisano Simone 2012, 75); supplying content to libraries on those terms defeats the purpose of supplying content to libraries at all.

If the ideological reason is not enough, though, publishers should consider the birth of the NYPL and remember that every ideal has at least one underlying practical truth. In this case, that practical truth is that Amazon could at any time decide to change the rules for ebooks. Consolidating our efforts and cooperating more extensively with libraries, much like the various independent New York libraries did in the nineteenth century, is a potential hedge against that uncertainty. Remember as well that change is almost certainly going to come to ebook publishing, whether we like it or not: print books predate publishing, which allowed the form and the industry time to evolve separately; the same cannot be said of ebooks, and as situations change, we’re going to find ourselves changing tires on one moving vehicle or another. Marrying ourselves to particular forms of distribution and production in an effort to prevent that particular jig is probably futile, and it’s therefore a poor justification for bad user experience.

Conclusion

In his afterword, Glynn quotes the directors of New York’s nineteenth-century Mercantile Library: they said that “the public is a multiple personage” (Glynn 2015, 257). It means, in essence, that public libraries serve readers of vast and varied tastes and by catering to all of those tastes, libraries are able to support readers in their efforts to define their identities via their chosen reading materials, whether those are trashy or sanctioned or both.

If the public was a multiple personage then, it’s even more so now. We have more books, more content in general, and when we are digging through it, our options are not limited to trashy and sanctioned: we now have to multiply those terms by the voice we’re seeking—trashy according to whom? sanctioned according to whom? Publishers are no longer the sole gatekeepers of reading material. Perhaps it’s time to unlock the gates.

References

Arch, Jenny. 2016. “Ebooks in Libraries: Equal Access to Digital Content?” Information Today 33 (5): 1–25.

Bailey, Sharon, Maria Cipriano, Jacqueline Whyte Appleby. 2017. “Ebook Usability from the Library’s Perspective.” In https://www.slideshare.net/booknetcanada/ebook-usability-from-the-librarys-perspective-sharon-bailey-maria-cipriano-jacqueline-whyte-appleby-ebookcraft-2017.

BookNet Canada. 2013. “The Canadian Book Consumer 2012: Annual Report.” SFU Digitized Collections. May. http://digital.lib.sfu.ca.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/islandora/object/sfulibr:288.

Farquharson, Vanessa. 2009. “How Dewey Came to Be; An Illustrated History of the Library System.” National Post; Don Mills, Ont., August 18, sec. Arts & Life.

Glynn, Tom. 2015. Reading Publics: New York City’s Public Libraries, 1754-1911. New York, U.S.: Empire State Editions.

Inouye, Alan S. 2016. “What’s in Store for Ebooks?” American Libraries Magazine. January 4. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2016/01/04/whats-store-ebooks/.

Maxwell, John W. 2013. “E-Book Logic: We Can Do Better.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada / Cahiers de La Société Bibliographique Du Canada 51 (1): 29–47.

Millar, Pamela. 2012. “Canadian Book Buyers and Their Relationship to Libraries.” BookNet Canada. August 21. http://www.booknetcanada.ca/blog/2012/8/21/canadian-book-buyers-and-their-relationship-to-libraries.html.

Nash, Richard. 2013. “What Is the Business of Literature? | VQR Online.” Spring. http://www.vqronline.org/articles/what-business-literature.

Page, Benedicte, and Helen Pidd. 2010. “Ebook Restrictions Leave Libraries Facing Virtual Lockout.” The Guardian, October 26, sec. Books. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/oct/26/libraries-ebook-restrictions.

Pisano Simone, Louise. 2012. “eBooks, Libraries and the Digital Divide: Harper Collins, the eBook Industry and the Debate on eBook Lending, Econtent Distribution, DRMs, and Democracy.” International Journal of the Book 9 (2): 69–80.

Poulson, Deborah. 2012. “How Patrons View Library Ebooks.” Information Today 29 (8): 8–8.

Toronto Public Library. 2016. “2015 Annual Performance Measures and Benchmarking.” http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/content/about-the-library/pdfs/board/meetings/2016/apr25/15-2015-annual-performance-measures-and-benchmarking.pdf.

“Toronto Public Library Dashboard.” 2017. Toronto Public Library Dashboard. Accessed March 31. http://insights.overdrive.com/dashboards/bf060ec0dbdd4c8ba5bc0812ddf6e94f.