the complete review Quarterly
Volume III, Issue 2   --   May, 2002

Borrower Economics:

A Response to Tim Parks' Lender Politics


Liu Zhang


Introduction: Tim Parks' Lender Politics
I. The Public Lending Right Statistics
II. The Big Fallacy
III. The Smaller Fallacies
IV. Ownership versus Borrowing
V. My Experiences with Tim Parks' Books
VI. Some Notes on Book-Acquiring in General


Introduction: Tim Parks' Lender Politics

       Tim Parks is a British author and translator. He has published ten novels and half a dozen works of non-fiction, and translated numerous works from the Italian. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books.
       On 27 March 2002 an opinion-piece by him, Lender Politics, was published in The Guardian. The sub-title of the piece proclaims:
More books are borrowed from libraries than bought in shops and that means authors are short-changed. Isn't it time for a new system ?
       Parks writes a number of things about British libraries and the library system before he gets around to this, but the purpose of the piece does seem to be to call attention to this situation.
       Parks finds that "books are more frequently lent by libraries than sold in shops (to the ratio of 3-1 in my case)", and that "a novel is particularly heavily borrowed in the first year of its life when it is getting some coverage in the press"
       From this he concludes that:
not only do libraries encourage a cosy self-righteousness about the value of reading, any reading, but they also make the already difficult economics of publishing books, particularly those that don't easily pay their way into the recommended-titles shelves, even more arduous
       Parks then also proposes a remedy to this particular ill (what he perceives as the short-changing of authors):
unless it can be demonstrated that a book is immediately essential to the reading public, libraries should not be able to buy it until at least one year after publication.
       Unfortunately, Tim Parks' argument is fundamentally (and catastrophically) flawed. He apparently assumes that library-loans of books are substitutes for actual sales, that if a given book is not available in the library consumers would instead go out and purchase the title. This is incorrect, as basic economics (and common sense) prove, and as is explained below.
       Parks' suggestion is also a bad one -- and not merely because it it is not a solution to the problem he perceives.

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I. The Public Lending Right Statistics

       What set Parks off was his getting his PLR-payment (having lived abroad he was previously not eligible). The Public Lending Right allows British authors to collect a royalty for every instance their book(s) is/are borrowed from a public library. The amount paid out depends on the PLR funding available that year; for the 2002 payments it was what Parks calls "a handsome 2.67 pence" for every time a book was checked out. (The maximum that can be paid out in any one year to any one author is £ 6000 -- a total reached by a considerable number of authors (130 in the period in question); see this page for the distribution of disbursements.)
       Parks' concern isn't with the PLR payments themselves, but rather what the statistics behind them reveal. To his apparent shock he discovered:
books are more frequently lent by libraries than sold in shops (to the ratio of 3-1 in my case). In particular, I discovered that a novel is particularly heavily borrowed in the first year of its life when it is getting some coverage in the press
       It is apparently true that more books are "lent by libraries than sold in shops" (in Britain). A page on the PLR-site numbers total UK book loans from public libraries at 430 million. The only Internet page (see Table 2) I could find giving comparable sales-volume statistics for a similar period gave a total 336 million volumes sold in 2000 in the consumer market in Britain. (It should be noted that the ratio here is less than 1.3 to 1 -- far less than the ratio Parks found for his titles.)
       As to whether a book is "particularly heavily borrowed in the first year of its life", the evidence here is not entirely clear. It is certainly possible that it is true for Parks' work(s). However, the PLR data of the most borrowed titles, suggests that this is only very broadly speaking true. New titles are among the most popular -- but brand-new titles (one year old or less) can hardly be said to dominate the list.
       In an article considering the lending habits of library users (also published in The Guardian) D.J.Taylor in fact comes to a very different conclusion:
The PLR hot 100 bears almost no relation to the year-on-year bestsellers list printed annually in this newspaper. (...) This discrepancy confirms that book-purchasers and book-borrowers, if not exactly distinct communities, are separated by huge gaps of age, preference and prejudice. At a rough estimate, the book-borrowing taste lags about 20 years behind its book-buying equivalent. The borrowing top ten - Catherine Cookson, Dick Francis, Jack Higgins, Agatha Christie - looks uncannily like a bestseller list from the late 1970s.
       Parks is clearly not in this league of most-popular authors, his books rarely approaching bestselling status (or, I assume, most-borrowed status). Still -- or perhaps for this very reason -- one might think he has a valid grievance, if library-borrowings are cutting into his books sales. Perhaps his points aren't valid for the most popular authors, but are for less popular ones such as him. (The fact that the ratio of his books borrowed from libraries to those bought in shops is considerably higher than what appears to be the national average certainly supports the idea that he is being injured more than most.)

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II. The Big Fallacy

       Parks believes that the ability of people to borrow his books from public libraries for free cuts into his book sales, especially in the first year after publication.
       This notion seems -- at first glance -- plausible. But it is a gross oversimplification. Parks seems to be assuming that if his (new) book were not available in the library, readers would, of course, rush out to buy it instead.

       That is not what would happen.

       I repeat: That is not what would happen.

       True, his sales likely would be nominally higher, but the difference would be an essentially trivial one -- and would also come at some cost.

       Parks' claim is much like that made by the music industry regarding Napster (which allowed Internet-users to download an unlimited amount of music at practically no cost -- and with no money flowing to the rights-holder). The record labels claimed "losses" in the billions. These losses were, of course, illusory. The record labels determined their losses by calculating how much money they would have made had all the music that was downloaded for free instead actually been bought from them. But the point is: if it hadn't been free, consumers would not have acquired the music. Napster did have some effect on music-sales, but it was nowhere near as devastating as the music industry numbers (regarding supposedly lost revenue) suggested. (It must be noted that Napster and similar file-sharing methods also offer a slightly different product than for example books: one of the great advantages of Napster was that one could pick and choose what one wanted, whereas when one purchases CDs or audio-cassettes one has to buy the whole package (including, often, much that one would be just as glad to do without). Consumers who only want certain tracks off an album still have to pay for the whole album in order to get access to them under the traditional music-selling model; Napster allowed them to only take what they needed or wanted. In contrast, few readers will only want a few chapters of a Parks novel.)

       Books are a price sensitive commodity. Consumers -- readers and book purchasers (two separate though largely overlapping groups) -- base their book-acquiring decisions on, among other grounds, price. The peculiar nature of books and book-selling -- with a thriving primary as well as second-hand and remainder market, a two-tier publication schedule for many titles (hardcover publication followed, almost inevitably, after a year, by paperback publication), and free access in libraries -- makes them a very odd commodity. The patient and resourceful consumer can certainly read most any book at no cost (beyond the costs accruing to the reader in waiting and/or going out of his or her way to obtain access to the book), and most books can eventually also be acquired at minimal costs (see more below).
       Consumers weigh the costs and benefits of gaining access to a book at a certain time -- as well as the value of actual ownership versus mere access. Some consumers feel they must have certain titles as soon as these are published, and they will be willing to pay the premium for purchasing the hardcover copy as soon as possible. Others are interested in the content and in owning the text, but feel no pressing need to do so; they will wait until the book is remaindered, or available in paperback or second-hand. Others will merely want access to the text, and are satisfied with the brief loan-period extended to them by the library. (An important part of this decision-making process is also the question of how much disposable income a consumer has and how much s/he can allot to the books s/he is interested in. Parks writes that when he was a late teen he "discovered that books did not cost that much", and he essentially ignores the question of cost in his piece: it seems almost completely irrelevant to him. I have no idea where he made his discovery; my experience is a different one. See more below.)
       Borrowing from a library is also a much lower-risk activity -- there is almost no cost involved -- than purchasing a book. Many consumers are thus willing to consider books that they would not if they had to pay full price for them. But Parks seems convinced library users are just out to screw him out of his royalty (substituting a measly -- if "handsome" -- 2.67 pence in its stead).

       Just as price-conscious consumers will wait for even the most talked about book to be published in a less expensive paperback format, so too frequenters of libraries will simply bide their time rather than purchase the new Parks title if it is not immediately available at the local branch. Yes, some won't wait -- but not enough to make much of a difference.

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III. The Smaller Fallacies

       Parks ignores the possibility that widespread availability of even his new books in public libraries might actually increase sales. A number of scenarios suggest themselves:        Admittedly, most of these situations can also apply to readers who originally purchased the book (rather than borrowed it from or saw it at the library) -- but my contention is that the total number of people who actually read the book would be far smaller if it were not originally also accessible in libraries. One imagines (or at least I imagine): the more readers an author can reach -- even if not all of them pay in full -- the better for him or her in the long term. Readers become familiar with a writer, look forward to his or her forthcoming works, possibly switch from becoming book-borrowers to book-buyers, etc. Why Parks would want to reach a smaller audience -- other than the fact that they are willing to pay for the privilege -- mystifies me.

       Sales to libraries of an authors book are also not insignificant -- and in the case of many authors, very significant. (Twelve authors had a million or more loans in 2000-2001 in the British public library system: if each book was out for only one week and all books were constantly on loan, the library system still would have to stock almost 20,000 copies of books by each of these authors to make for a million loans.) The number of copies of Parks-titles purchased by libraries is presumably relatively small, but it is also something to consider.
       (Parks' proposal would merely defer the purchase of these books for a year, of course: instead of buying their copies immediately, libraries would wait for a year. Since most borrowing occurs in the first year after publication -- so says Parks -- they would, however, presumably purchase a smaller number of copies to satisfy the now lesser demand.)

       There are a number of other dubious points in Parks' peculiar piece:

       He compares his proposed one-year deferment period to: "the average time between a film release and its wider availability on video". A film release and a video release are two very different things: the big screen experience is very different from the small-screen one. And in both cases: one still pays. (Why not compare the hardcover publication of a book with the common cheaper paperback publication a year or so later ?) A better example might have been the release of films on public television, where they can then be seen essentially for free. (The time between original theatrical release and TV broadcast is, however, usually considerably more than a year, and there are some consumer-limitations -- the consumer is not able to determine when (at what hour and on what day) the film will be available for free on TV, whereas a library book is almost always available.)

       Parks claims that libraries: "also make the already difficult economics of publishing books, particularly those that don't easily pay their way into the recommended-titles shelves, even more arduous". In fact, for many small publishers and specialized texts, the certainty of being able to sell a specific number of copies to libraries (private and institutional, admittedly, as well as public), far from making the economics more arduous makes it far more simple. Possibly this is not true for the middle-tier of published works (to which Parks' belong), but it certainly is true for an important segment of the publishing world -- not that Parks seems to care.

       Parks is also puzzled "why the authorities felt the need to supply us with free entertainment". It is, in part, a valid question: why have public libraries ? to what end ? Parks easily dismisses them as "taking on the function of the free toyshop". But I think the public library serves more important functions as well -- including many from which Parks-as-author also benefits.

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IV. Ownership versus Borrowing

       Parks writes of finding some use in public libraries, but that his "intense relationship with public lending libraries came to an abrupt end when all at once it became necessary for me to write on the books I was reading." (He was in his teens when he came to this realization.) The library allowed him a taste of literature, but apparently did not allow him to engage it: real literature had to be tackled "pen in hand". This apparently means that he had to underline and scribble in the margins: "as the endlessly glossed manuscripts of the distant past suggest, the provocative page was always an interactive medium."
       I admire Parks' passion, his hands-on approach, his willingness to take and retake volume in hand and work with it and learn from it and return to it again and again. And all that annotation and underlining: yes ! that is certainly how one should read !
     For Parks, book ownership was apparently a revelation:
All at once it became clear to me that anyone in work can easily possess books, argue with them, toss them aside and go back to them years later and say, "Why on earth did I underline that ?"
       While this seems an odd thing for a teen to realize, perhaps Parks really did have this insight back then already.
       Certainly, there is much to be said for book ownership -- which allows for such marginal scribbling, and so much more -- , and it has undeniable advantages over books that can merely be borrowed for a few weeks.
       But ownership isn't all that easy:        Parks apparently does not have these problems, and so I envy him all the more.

       For Parks the public lending library has taken on "the function of the free toyshop". He apparently sees no room for any sort of scholarship here, for serious, interested reading, for engaging with the text. Which seems pretty damn arrogant -- and completely mistaken.
       I still find the library a useful place to dip into books, to do research, to use books that I don't want to own, but from which I need a quote or a piece of information. And I find it especially useful to learn about authors whom I do not know enough about, or whose work has failed to grip me but still seems like it might be of interest. Like Tim Parks. Yes, often I would rather buy a book than consult it in or borrow it from the library, but that is not always possible.
       Parks is fairly (or, perhaps, unfairly) dismissive of the public library system. He makes fun of it, but also notes he has "no quarrel with it". He tells his readers: "I do not believe that libraries could sensibly be used to encourage a more serious type of reading."
       Yet he does have a complaint about some of the serious reading going on there: the reading of his new books -- for free ! And he actively wants to discourage that.
       I find that unbelievably misguided. But maybe it's just me.

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V. My Experiences with Tim Parks' Books

       One reason Parks' piece struck me so is because of my own experiences with Parks' writing. A fairly prolific, Italian-centered author, apparently with some literary pretensions, his work has been of some interest to me. I stray across his pieces at The New York Review of Books, and feel that his books should hold some appeal to me.
       I have purchased two of Parks' books: his prize-winning first, Tongues of Flame, many years ago, and, more recently, Europa. I did not manage to finish either: his style here and there and, apparently, everywhere simply doesn't engage me. I simply don't get it.
       (In Lender Politics, for example -- aside from the poor presentation of his poor argument -- I find I don't know how to take him. He writes of the "handsome 2.67 pence for every book lent", for example, or notes that his new book "is priced at an incredible £ 15 in the shops (as if it were worth a football match or a cheap seat at the theatre)", and I get the vague (very vague) impression that he means these comments to be caustic or sarcastic -- but they simple miss the mark with me. To me £ 15 is a fortune to spend on a book, an amount I would only consider spending in the rarest circumstances -- and do only a handful of times a year, out of the several hundred book purchases I make annually (see more below). His wit (or is he serious ?) escapes me entirely.)
       Parks would have actually done better had I borrowed the two titles from a British public library rather than bought them: the two I purchased unfortunately did not enrich the author by a single pence: the first was a publisher's proof, the second a second-hand copy. Total cost to me: under five dollars. I am a very price-conscious consumer, and unwilling to risk what little disposable income I have on literary experiments I am not fairly sure of. Still, because of the low cost of acquiring these titles I don't feel totally ripped off or too disappointed, and I have not entirely written off Mr. Parks. (Next time, though, I think I will try one of the non-fiction titles.)
       My point here is that if I had spent £ 15 (or even the 12.95 dollars his recent paperback publications here in the United States go for) I would be both furious and far more wary of picking up another Parks-book -- a reaction admittedly more visceral than rational. But that's part of the book-accumulating process too.
       I would also have been the poorer for the experience had I paid full price -- not only literally being out of pocket, but also because of the books that I then could not have purchased. £ 15 gets me, on average, at least four or five books (of which at least one then usually turns out to have been worth my while and money), and I would not have been happy if a Parks-purchase had kept me from those.

       Admittedly I did not free-ride on his books at the library (though perhaps what I did was worse). But he should be aware that readers like me (and I imagine there are many of us) need the possibility of exploring works like his at little or no cost (by borrowing them from the library or buying them on the cheap, second-hand) if we are to even consider taking the full-price plunge. It is a transition I have made with quite a few authors (though not, admittedly, Parks) -- and I would not have made it without that low-risk, low-cost introduction.
       As to a one-year library ban when a book is introduced: well, the press and publicity coverage the book gets means that is when I am apt to be most curious about the work -- but the cost hurdle remains too great for me to take the plunge then (unless I feel very certain about it). I might remember to check back in and check his book out after the one-year ban has been lifted, but my interests might have wandered off elsewhere in the meantime.

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VI. Some Notes on Book-Acquiring in General

       The complete review is an odd place: devoted to literature, yet unwilling (and/or unable) to support it financially in any meaningful way. I am far from the worst offender associated with the complete review: I actually occasionally pay retail (or Amazon-discounted) prices for a book. Most here spend nary a penny that winds up in authors' (or publishers') pockets: aside from the review copies publishers kindly (if self-servingly) toss our way, most here find and purchase only second-hand or remaindered books, beside a fair amount of library-borrowing.

       (It is a source of much guilt and a good deal of debate hereabouts: to what extent does the financial investment in the books under review color our opinions and our coverage ? It has a definite effect on which books are covered: new books that publishers are unwilling to provide us with are essentially beyond our purview. As are books otherwise difficult to obtain. (Library-borrowing isn't much of a solution because of the number of hands a book generally passes through.))
       Parks writes that when he was a teen:
I discovered that books did not cost that much. All at once it became clear to me that anyone in work can easily possess books
       My graduate student existence perhaps leaves this a lesson to be learned in the future ... and yet it is still far from imaginable. Parks is arguing for newly-published books not to be freely available in libraries -- but in that first year of their existence almost the only alternative is: retail prices (or close to them).
       The occasional book-buyer, the once-a-week man, may be able to live with retail prices. I buy a couple of hundred books a year: paying retail is a luxury I can only occasionally indulge in.
       A glance at The New York Times' bestseller lists of 24 March 2002 finds that:        If these are prices that Parks can afford then he isn't doing all too badly by his royalty and PLR payments. Even with Amazon-type discounts, these prices are unconscionable, and only in the most desperate situations would I shell out this kind of money. (My literature-loving colleagues at the complete review are even more ruthless and will have nothing to do with the retail trade -- yet they acquire more books than anyone I know.)
       Parks' own most recent paperback publications in the United States, including Juggling the Stars, Mimi's Ghost, and Destiny, all retail for 12.95 (and generally slightly less in Britain) -- more than I would pay for practically any but my absolute favorite authors. Publishers perhaps understandably work toward profit maximization, which is why they publish books in the horrible oversized trade paperback format, rather than as mass market paperbacks (reserved for lesser (but generally better-selling) books). The margins on trade paperbacks are much higher than on mass market paperbacks (though those prices have risen outrageously too). While fewer copies of a given title may be sold, more money is raked in. If Parks wants to complain about bad policies, there is the one he should start with.
       If Parks' books were available for say three or four dollars a pop, I would buy a couple: it would be worth the risk to me, despite my previous bad experiences. At 12.95 -- forget it !
       The only chance an author like Parks (or hundreds of others) has with me is if I can gauge their work before making the costly full-price plunge. In this regard libraries also serve an important purpose, as a place where I can check out an author or a much-discussed work. And yes, chances are the books I'll look at first are the ones that I read about in the newspapers, or that are currently being discussed -- i.e. the new ones that Parks wants to keep out of the library for their first year.

       What books to spend money on is a complex process, at least for some of us (with limited funds, limited time, and too many interests). My most recent book-buying spree yielded three relatively new titles:        Both the Mitchell and the Estrin are, in the United States, brand new. List price: over fifty dollars for the two of them. I paid two dollars, for publishers proofs. (And, as it turns out, I could at least have read them for free -- either in the library or at the complete review, where there are copies available). The proofs aren't as attractive as the hardbound copies, but at one-twenty-fifth the price they were a bargain, and they meet all my needs (content and ownership being my only two needs).
       Parks might believe the authors are getting screwed out of their royalties. As they are. But I could not have been persuaded to purchase either of these titles for much more than I paid, so there is no scenario in which these authors could have gotten their justly deserved royalties from me (unless their publishers made the books available at a reasonable and affordable price -- in other words: if hell froze over.) The Estrin got a nice write up in The New York Times Book Review which piqued my interest; I would have paid up to five dollars for it, in whatever format. The Mitchell has gotten a lot of coverage, first in England and now in the US, but I was very disappointed by Ghostwritten and so I wouldn't have picked up this one for more than ... probably four dollars. Also: I might have checked the Estrin out at the library, but I wouldn't have bothered with the Mitchell.
       The Whitehead is a bit older -- and was a bit more expensive. I paid four dollars for a remaindered copy of the 1999 paperback edition (list price: 11.95). It was withdrawn from circulation to make room for the 2000 paperback edition. List price: 12.95. (With remaindered copies floating around at four dollars a pop ... yeah, that worked out well for Mr. Whitehead. Publishing: a great business, run by brilliant business people.) I might, at some point, have borrowed it from the library if I had not found an affordable copy. But I would have never considered paying anywhere near the retail price demanded by his publisher -- I would have rather done without the book entirely if that were the only other option.
       Cost, you see, is practically everything. I've waited ten years to find a cheap copy of certain books -- I have the patience (and I don't have the money). Immediate gratification would be better, but it isn't always within reach.

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       Tim Parks doesn't like the fact that people are reading his new book for free. The ungrateful bastards aren't going to their bookstores and shelling out £ 15 for it (probably wasting it instead on cheap theater seats or food), they are taking advantage of the public library system and reading his book for free ! Why, it's like they are stealing from him !
       If the library-users who borrow his book from the local branch really would purchase the book if it were not available from the library, then Parks would have a point -- a very good one. But the vast majority -- essentially all, I believe -- would simply do without the book. Parks is being screwed out of much less money than he believes. (Why, with the purchases of copies of his book by the libraries themselves and 2.67 pence per loan he might actually be coming out ahead !)
       Books are expensive. And they are, for the patient and resourceful, eventually accessible at little or no cost. Even if the library didn't stock them, eventually one would find them (at least books like the ones Parks writes), as a cheaper paperback or used or remaindered.
       Publishers want to maximize their profit. They price and publicize their titles accordingly -- well aware that some consumers are lost to them because these will borrow form the library rather than buy (or wait until the cheaper paperback version comes out, as many consumers also do). Indeed: if Tim Parks is upset, think how annoyed Catherine Cookson's publishers are, or Danielle Steel's or Ruth Rendell's -- all authors whose books are borrowed over a million times annually. Think of all that lost revenue ! But, of course, publishers are aware of that "lost" revenue. If they lowered their cover-prices they could capture a larger segment of that audience -- but their margins would be slimmer and overall profits lower. And they know there are other advantages to being much in demand in libraries (including creating demand and buzz for their authors).
       Parks writes of a £ 15 price tag for a book. That is obscene. Certainly, more copies would be sold if the price were more reasonable. But the profits -- his publisher's and his own -- would be less per book, and perhaps less overall. If he is disappointed that three times as many people are borrowing the book from the library rather than purchasing it maybe he should have a talk with his publisher about the pricing of his books -- because that, of course, is where the problem lies.

       Parks' one-year ban plan is not a good one. In fact, it is self-defeating. The only ones that get hurt are Parks and authors like him. He should be glad for every reader he can grab, by any means. Eventually, he has to believe, they'll make it worth his while. He has to try and hook us by any and all means possible.
       If some sales of the current book are lost to library readers, that's the price one has to pay. Isn't it better to have more readers ? Isn't it better to have readers who react to the publicity and marketing campaigns and want to get their hands on the book and maybe will be won over by it and might recommend it to someone or then eagerly await the next one ? Maybe, eventually, they'll even be willing to pay for the product ? Maybe even at ... retail prices ?

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