Publisher Attacks Public Libraries, Gets Blasted in 2 Countries for It

Kenneth Whyte, a publisher, has written an op-ed decrying public libraries. In response, he received push back in 2 different countries.

Big publishing is waging a war on digital libraries. At the forefront is the lawsuit big publishing has filed against the Internet Archive. The Internet Archive, for its part, has issued a legal response to the lawsuit. So, the lawsuit seems to be moving forward despite the absurdity of this lawsuit even proceeding at all.

Now, you might think to yourself just how ridiculous it would be if big publishing took these arguments against libraries to the physical world. Can you imagine what it would be like if publishers started blasting public libraries and equating them to copyright infringement? That would be pretty much reputational suicide. After all, public libraries have been promoting literacy which has enabled more people to get into reading for decades. More recently, public libraries have helped those less fortunate use the Internet to get jobs. They have created countless public service initiatives. How many authors these days credit public libraries for helping to kick-start their journey into being authors themselves? At this point, attacking public libraries is, simply put, asinine.

Well, as it turns out, someone out there really is crazy enough to attack public libraries. Kenneth Whyte, publisher of Sutherland House Books, has written an op-ed in the Globe and Mail suggesting that public libraries are a form of piracy and an attack on literature. It’s almost beyond comprehension that a publisher would take up such a position. Still, we live in a world where Donald Trump is president, high treason is no big deal, reality is a liberal conspiracy, and wearing face masks is considered communism. Why not add public libraries is piracy to the pile of insanity we see on a regular basis? An excerpt of his Whyte’s comments:

It may seem strange to think of booksellers and libraries as competitors. Most booksellers I know don’t. Ask them to name their competition and they’ll point to Amazon and Indigo, not the public library. There’s a logic to that: They’re booksellers, and libraries don’t sell books.

That, however, is a fatally narrow lens through which to view the book marketplace. Booksellers are in competition with libraries whether they want to admit it or not. Just ask the libraries.

So, we’re already off to a pretty bad start here. Had it occurred to him that maybe libraries are not competitors to book sellers because, well, maybe they aren’t really competitors. Maybe, in this case, “most booksellers” are correct in this case? After all, until recently with Covid-19, most of the time, you have to physically go to the library to borrow a book. The supply is generally limited and you have to return that book after a period of time.

That is definitely no replacement to book enthusiasts who would prefer to have their own libraries. How often do yo see people in interviews with libraries behind them? Those books have to come from somewhere. If libraries really are competitors killing the publishing industry, no one in their right minds would have personal libraries. When it comes to reading books, nothing beats having a persona library. You can check out a book at any time and keep it elsewhere for as long as you want. In addition to this, the library is tailored to you personally. You control the supply in this personal library and you make the rules. You simply aren’t going to get that in a public library.

Another excerpt:

The Wichita, Kan., public library puts it right on your checkout receipt. A sample that circulated on Twitter last year contained the cheery message: “You just saved $164.80 by using your library. You have saved $1,384.23 this past year and $7,078.76 since you began using the library!”

The Massachusetts Library Association went a step further and developed a handy “Library Value Calculator” that lets you plug in the number of books you have borrowed from a library to see how much you have saved by not purchasing those books. It has since been adopted as a permanent tool on the American Library Association (ALA) website.

If you are thinking, “oh boy”, well, “oh boy” is right. First of all, this thinking follows the long ago debunked theory that one download means one lost sale. In 2012, I personally wrote a massive 20 part meta-analysis on what the science says about file-sharing. Among the findings is that the “one download means one lost sale” is not only unproven, but a completely inaccurate portrayal of what is going on in the world of file-sharing. If one study isn’t enough to prove what we’ve been saying all along, will 19 studies be enough? That is with the knowledge people have downloaded music and get to keep what they have. With public libraries, the argument is on even shakier grounds because those books have to be returned at some point.

Furthermore, the argument that the money saved in public libraries is a reason to believe that they are a threat to publishing has a logical hole so big, you could drive a Mac truck through it. First of all, the question is, would all of those have otherwise been purchases had public libraries not otherwise existed? The answer is no. It’s widely known that books do get borrowed as a method of discovery for some patrons. In fact, a number of authors get discovered by patrons through the public library system. It’s basically a method of sampling. In fact, there are countless stories of people who have later bought books from certain authors they would not have otherwise heard of thanks to the public library.

If anything, the dollar figure is an argument for the public service public libraries have for connecting new potential readers and authors. Look at how much more reading this patron is now doing thanks to the service the public library offers.

Furthermore, as anyone who has ever worked in the public sector knows, public services have to justify their existence to the government as well as to the public. Those receipts are a great way to showcase this. The personal receipts show just how much value it is bringing to the patron. In response, that patron would theoretically tell others about the value of public libraries. This, in turn, can promote more usage for others to use public libraries. In turn, this leads back to the comments about how potential readers can connect to authors they would never have otherwise heard of. So, you could very easily think of the library as a common area for people to launch off of and discover new authors.

As for the general calculators, this is a great way to justify to government that they should be funded. As a general rule, public institutions do have to show government why they need the public funding in the first place. If the answer is, “well, I’m not sure yet, but we could really use more dollars”, then that funding is going to get ripped away so fast, it’ll make your head spin. This is especially true when a conservative is running the show because, for them, everything is somehow government waste that needs to be trimmed back. This is regardless of consequences to cuts – even when the funding generates bigger returns for the government in the first place. It really can get that short-sighted.

While it is difficult to fully calculate the return benefits to the calculators specifically, it likely does help give perspective of what good public libraries are. That, in turn, allows public libraries to be funded which promotes reading which promotes discovery which promotes long term sales.

Because of this logic, a lot of Whyte’s arguments falls apart including this little gem:

The numbers are worse in Canada. Ontario and B.C. public libraries, serving half of Canada’s population, circulated 166 million items in 2018 (books, DVDs, musical instruments and, swear to God, power tools). If we double that to account for all of Canada, and if three-quarters of the circulated items were books, we’re looking at 224.1 million books borrowed by Canadians in a given year. There were 54 million books sold in Canada in 2018. That means that for every book sold, roughly 4½ are borrowed at no cost to the reader, which means Canadians are saving themselves about $400-million a year by visiting their libraries.

Still, logic set aside, Whyte continues with that argument, going so far as to suggest that public libraries are to blame for authors barely making ends meet:

Last January, the U.S. Authors Guild declared a “crisis of epic proportions.” The median income for its members, including full-time, part-time, traditionally published and self-published authors, was US$6,080 in 2017, down from US$10,500 in 2009. If you isolate what the authors made on book sales (as opposed to speech-making and pole dancing), their median income was US$3,100. Gentrified authors, those working with traditional publishing houses, made US$12,400.

The crisis is just as epic in Canada, where the average writer made $9,380 last year, according to the Writers’ Union of Canada. That’s down 78 per cent from 1998.

Writers are loath to draw a line between the fact that they’re poor and the fact that four out of five of their patrons get their books at no charge. Most of us grew up in libraries. We love libraries. Our first library card was as important to us as our first driver’s licence. We do our research in libraries and meet our audiences in libraries. We think libraries are important civic institutions. It is difficult to conceive of them as problematic, so we ignore inconvenient facts to shield libraries from embarrassment.

Chances are, the reality is that not attacking public libraries is more of a shield to prevent public embarrassment of themselves. Let’s say we get rid of those evil public libraries altogether. What do you think is going to happen. First of all, it generates ill-will from the public because many of them will look at publishers as being excessively greedy. Second of all, you break the chain of potential new readers. If people suddenly lose access to the public libraries, chances are, discovering new authors is going to be even more difficult. If it becomes more difficult for readers to discover new authors, then the end result of obvious: actual lost sales.

If authors think things are bad now, just try wiping out public libraries off the map. Those dollar figures will likely drop substantially after.

Naturally, the pile of flawed arguments then leads to this grand gem:

Which returns us to the crux of the matter: For their funding, libraries rely on the traffic generated by pimping free entertainment to people who can afford it. All the genuine good they do is to some extent made possible by being a net harm to literature.

There it is ladies and gentlemen: getting people reading is a net harm to literature. Perhaps if everyone is illiterate, then maybe we can somehow save the publishing industry? This is where we appear to be at as a society: elements suggesting that public libraries are this monolithic threat to literature as a whole. Don’t worry about us, we’ll be over here trying not to lose our will to live.

We contacted the Canadian Library Association to see if they have a response to this, but did not hear back.

Naturally, such a short sighted piece did garner push back from observers. In Canada, Michael Geist issued his own comments on this entitled a quarter million dollar bag of beans (a reference to Whyte saying how publishers and authors are merely being thrown a few beans in all of this). Geist noted that groups that supposedly supports Whyte’s position have remained silent in the wake of the pieces publication. From Geist:

Public policy in Canada has long recognized that there is a public interest in supporting the publication of Canadian books, their distribution, and public access. That is why the Canada Book Fund has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in grants in recent years to support book publishing and promotion and why the provinces have spent millions more with their own book publishing programs. It is why the government has maintained support for Canadian ownership in the sector including retail sales, sought to strike a copyright balance between creators and users, funded libraries as integral to community access, and (as further discussed below) contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to support authors through the public lending right.

The net effect of these policies? As Whyte acknowledges, “there are more authors and more books than ever.” Indeed, many studies have found that libraries and bookstores have a symbiotic relationship with discovery of books and encouragement of book reading that leads to a better educated public and more robust marketplace. As Meera Nair notes in her excellent post responding to the op-ed, a study on independent booksellers in Canada released just this month which featured input from ten Canadian publishers states:

consumer research shows that most book readers frequent both libraries and bookstores. Library browsing and reading can substitute for book buying, but research data show that it also generates book purchases. Together, a public library branch and an independent bookstore will support and sustain higher levels of discovery and reading than either would generate on their own. Both have a common goal of encouraging book reading. Both share a commitment to the cultural goal of Canadians reading Canadian.

How do authors garner income from library loans? The public lending right, which has paid out nearly $275 million to Canadian authors since it was established in 1986. As Rob Tiessen notes in his review of the history of Canada’s public lending right, the PLR is not a matter of copyright (indeed, if it were included in the Copyright Act there would be a need to provide equal treatment to all authors and Canadian authors would receive far less). Rather, it is a government funding program that provides support exclusively to Canadian authors.

Whyte largely dismisses the PLR as throwing “a few beans at guileless authors in compensation for the use of their works in libraries,” though one of his proposed solutions is to “vastly expand” the system. Yet Whyte neglects to mention that the PLR has been significantly expanded in recent years. According to the most recent PLR Commission Annual Report released earlier this month, in the past two years, the annual funding envelope has grown by just over 50 percent from $9,765,635 to $14,781,301. The annual payment is now more than five times larger than it was when the program was first established with more than four times as many Canadian authors receiving payment. The most recent payment data indicates that the average payment increased significantly from $712 to $822, the maximum per title payment was $467.88, and the maximum payment to an individual was set at $4,500. The maximum per title payment reflects a “hit rate” of $66.84 per title. The PLR conducts a survey of book holdings with seven representative public libraries and if the book is found in all seven surveyed libraries, the maximum is paid (the formula includes hit rate X library sampling results of seven libraries).

As Geist notes, there have been other responses to the piece. One such response is from Neera Nair who writes on the blog Fair Duty:

Some articles make one’s head spin. They project good argument, seemingly backed by facts and figures, maybe a dash of pathos, and even a tone of earnestness in pursuit of the betterment of all.

And yet, facts may be incomplete, pathos closer to hype than history, and the earnestness, in aid of simplistic responses to complex problems.

Such was my reaction when I encountered Kenneth Whyte’s 3000+ word opinion piece in Saturday’s Globe and Mail titled, “Overdue: Throwing the Book at Libraries.” Whyte blames libraries for the precarious state of authors, publishers, and booksellers. His argument that borrowing books represent lost sales is buttressed by an array of figures (drawing heavily from American data) about declining author incomes and ongoing struggles of booksellers and publishers. (Left unsaid is that writing, publishing and selling books have been precarious ventures for well over 300 years.)

Whyte’s suggestion regarding money merits closer inspection:

Perhaps adults, then, should pay for the right to borrow books for entertainment – something in the range of a Netflix fee, $12.99 a month (those below a certain income level could be exempted from the charge). Or maybe Ottawa’s “public lending right” program, which at present throws a few beans at guileless authors in compensation for the use of their works in libraries, could be vastly expanded (and adopted in the U.S.)

Through municipal taxes, many Canadians already foot the bill for public libraries. Our federal taxes also contribute financial support to aid the writing and publishing of books. (I suspect that if I look hard enough, I would see evidence of provincial funding in support of possibly both libraries and writers’ grants.) These contributions are effectively set by a means test; poorer Canadians likely do not pay property taxes and may not rise to the level of taxable income. If Whyte wishes to petition all levels of government to increase taxation on those who can afford it, and direct the monies raised to libraries, I would happily support his efforts.

But to suggest a user fee for Public Libraries is repugnant. A public library may be a last bastion of equality in modern society; it is a truly egalitarian space where all individuals have equal access to the same services regardless of income, class, or status.

Suffice to say, in Canada, Whyte’s commentary has made him something of a national embarrassment at this point. His supposed allies have yet to back him on his naked crusade against public allies and supporters of the public library system are already in the process of tarring and feathering him while throwing in a dunce cap for good measure. Of course, this being the Internet, your opinions can reach international audiences as well. Unsurprisingly, American’s had no problem taking on Whyte’s comments given how much his comments rely on American statistics and American information. As a result, his comments received backlash from both sides of the Canada/US border.

Mike Masnick of Techdirt issued his own response on the matter. Masnick, naturally, held no punches when he responded to Whyte:

As someone who frequents the library (and was thrilled when our local library finally introduced curbside pickup after months of pandemic closure) but also owns way too many books (and literally has been talking about renovating a large closet in a bedroom to turn it into more bookshelves), it’s silly to argue that the two compete. I end up buying books all the time that I first found at the library. And libraries serve a public service for people who cannot or would not ever buy those books, but for whom having access to those books might be incredibly useful.

This is why we have libraries. But to Whyte, it’s all very unfair. He seems particularly upset that some libraries have advertised the fact that you can borrow books for free as a cheeky way to get people to pay more attention to their local library

The thing is, libraries have always lent books for free, and the fact that they “compete” with booksellers has never changed the fact that people buy a ton of books. Whyte then goes on to use a calculator set up by the American Library Association to show how much value libraries create each year, and basically uses that to argue that the value of libraries is effectively losses to booksellers. This kind of “we copyright holders must capture all the value” zero sum thinking is ridiculous at the best of times, but is particularly pernicious here. The nature of value creation is that it’s not a zero sum game. Borrowing books from libraries helps to educate people, enables them to do things that, in turn, may help the world in lots of other ways. Some of that may lead to more books sold. Some of that may lead to just society being a better place.

The dirty secret of public libraries is that their stock-in-trade is neither education nor edification. It’s entertainment. The top three reasons people patronize libraries, according to a massive Booknet survey, are to “relax,” for “enjoyment” and “for entertainment.” That is why the TPL system has 90 copies of Fifty Shades of Grey and six copies of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.

These entertainment readers are not a benighted underclass for whom Tom Clancy is a stepping stone to literacy and employment. They are people who can afford books: disproportionately middle-class, upper middle-class and well-educated.

Pushing bestsellers in competition with book retailers, to the detriment of publishers and authors, has become an addiction for librarians who, again, rely on steady or growing patronage statistics to justify their funding requests.

It has to stop.

No. It doesn’t. Because that’s why libraries exist. There are all sorts of reasons why people go to the libraries — some people get recent books. Plenty of people get other works that they otherwise would never have access to. My own kids now like reading because every week we’d try out new books from the library to find what kinds of books they like — including (gasp!) some “entertainment” books. Should we have had to waste money on lots of books they’d never read until we found the ones they liked?

But, Kenneth Whyte, thanks for making the truth clear: copyright maximalists have always hated libraries. It’s just rare to get one to outright admit it like Mr. Whyte has here.

Whyte concludes with suggestions on how to “fix” the “problem” he concocted himself. He thinks that people should have to pay a subscription fee to borrow books from the library. He also thinks that libraries should pay a lot more for books. Or maybe libraries should just give authors money. He suggests if none of those are okay, then publishers should stop offering their books to libraries (apparently unaware that fair use rights mean they can just go buy the books elsewhere). Of course, this is why we’ve been concerned that publishers have already been trying to jack up the prices on ebook lending for libraries, while limiting how many ebook licenses they can purchase.

The whole article is quite incredible, but at least it’s a copyright maximalist admitting to what many are thinking: they hate libraries and would sue them out of existence if they weren’t grandfathered into our broken copyright system.

As Geist notes, Masnick isn’t the only American voice pushing back against Whyte’s comments. Brewster Kahle also responded to Whyte’s comments:

There is a recent written attack on libraries that I find odd and somewhat dangerous– libraries overlap too much with new-book bookstores. At first I thought it was trolling, but I now believe it is sincere. More worrisome is that anti-library lobbying is generally growing in strength but their attacks on the concept of libraries have been more implied and disguised, until recently. Maybe it is time to think a bit about what a library is and what they are for.

A library is all about context, a library helps their patrons come up with new ideas and connections whether by reading a whole book or a few pages of lots of books– new and old. Libraries offer historical newspapers and new newspapers, and from distant lands and opposing points of view. And libraries have experts on tap: reference librarians.

To do all this, librarians work hard at “information about information”, or metadata, to provide context. Libraries strive for comprehensive collections in their areas of expertise not just the popular– they keep old editions because they can be important context. Libraries typically offer many types of media: books, recordings, moving images, archives.

In this way, a library helps people come up with ideas and connections, and if the ideas and connections are novel, and then get recorded, then they can be added to the library. Libraries help readers, many of whom become writers, whose works can then be made accessible, forever, in libraries. The great circle of knowledge creation and preservation.

As Jim Gray said “Libraries are engines of research.” They are not the research, they power the research. To research something, a person does not need to buy all the books on the subject, new and old– rather, there is a more efficient way– they can go to the library.

Booksellers offer books for sale, and thank goodness books are still for sale (don’t get me started on restrictive licenses on ebooks).

Librarians offer access and preservation.

Both are valuable, both are necessary, and they are different.

Of course, the backlash doesn’t end there. Apparently, there has been even further pushback on social media. Whyte tried defending himself in the face of widespread condemnation – often in ways you’d typically expect from conservative’s: “oh yeah? I can’ insult you better!” all the while doubling down on dubious talking points and seemingly relying on conspiracy theories thrown in:

So thin nowadays @globeandmail. Why give almost 3 pages to @KenWhyte3 and his nonsense abt “misalignment of interests btw libraries and publishing market”. People who go to #PublicLibraries buy more books than the ones that don’t.

This is the standard librarian talking point. Their way of avoiding the fact that four out of five books in Canada are read for free.

Tell that to librarians and their friends at the Martin Prosperity Institute

Yes Jack, the organizations and people that have facilitated the dissemination of the ideas of millions of creators have done more than any of those individual creators.

it is seriously asserted here that librarians have made a greater contribution to civilization than the authors they distribute. wow

Imagine living during historic civil rights movement & historic global pandemic crises and deciding to take time out of your life to vilify public libraries.

or to look out for the interests of the authors who will record what is happening and perhaps help us find the ideas to improve our lot.

Apparently, a response was also published in PublishersWeek written by the Canadian Urban Libraries Council (CULC). It reads, in part:

It is true that traditional publishers’ e-book sales have been in decline since about 2016. However, sales by self-published authors and independent publishers continue to increase, largely due to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. It is estimated that, including independents, the e-book share of sales is close to 40%, with traditional publishers accounting for less than half.

Amazon is now publishers’ biggest competitor—by a mile. It is not only the world’s largest book retailer, but also a publisher of its own e-books and physical books under a variety of imprints. These titles dominate Amazon’s bestselling e-book lists as, unsurprisingly, Amazon preferences and promotes its own exclusive content. Major authors are starting to move to Amazon for its deep pockets and massive market reach—most recently Dean Koontz, Patricia Cornwell, and Mindy Kaling, to name a few.

Publishers are caught in a bind. On the one hand, they depend on Amazon to sell their products. But on the other, Amazon controls the market, consistently undercutting prices and controlling promotion for its own brands’ benefit. As literary agent Rick Pascocello has said, “They aren’t gaming the system, they own the system.”

Meanwhile, among the many perplexing statements in his column, Kenneth Whyte suggests that publishers are “beginning to fight back” against libraries, when in fact the Big Five multinational publishers (Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Harper Collins, and Macmillan) have been fighting back in the e-book sphere all along. It wasn’t until 2014 that all of these multinationals began granting libraries access to their e-book content. And libraries today pay a premium for digital access—often four to five times what consumers pay per copy—as well as other restrictions, such as time-limited and lend-limited licenses.

Whyte responded to the piece by attempting to brand PublishersWeekly as being in cahoots with the evil librarians who, as suggested by the op-ed, are obviously key instruments in destroying literature:

@publisherswk, which you might think would be fair to publishers, published a critique by librarians of my essay on libraries without first reprinting or summarizing my views. I guess most of PWs subscribers are librarians.

So, we now have the suggestion out there that there is this big conspiracy brought on by librarians everywhere. If you’re not on side with, as Whyte sees it, publishers, then you must be one of them! After all, those librarians are everywhere! They could be walking down your street, hiding in trash cans, or maybe even watching you drink your coffee at the coffee shop. They are everywhere, and, sooner or later, they’re gonna getcha! (obvious sarcasm)

So, how much further off the rails this is going to get is anybody’s guess. Still, if you’re going to publish something this absolutely insane in such public fashion, don’t be surprised if you receive blow back. If the dogpiling continues, at this stage, barring any kind of miraculous sudden realization that he might have been wrong, Whyte is not going to get any sympathy from us on the matter either.

At this stage, the best case scenario is that this whole thing blows over in a day or so and Whyte becomes long forgotten. That well and truly is the best case scenario for Whyte. Otherwise, there is the very real possibility that things could turn uglier. We’ve seen this sort of thing happen before a few years back with The Verge’s infamous $2,000 gaming rig build video:

We’ll spare you some of the details, but long story short, that one got quite ugly. The video above was a sampling of what happened. Different topic, sure, but very similar situation.

Our advice for Whyte is this: For your very sanity, quit while you are “ahead” here. If this spirals further out of control, it can very easily become a train that is almost impossible to stop – and it is a train that will not let you off without a serious fight. We’ve seen this happen with others and it is not pretty. This is not a piece of advice to try and bolster why we disagree with you, this is a piece of advice being made because we’ve seen situations where people get absolutely wrecked mentally. We’ve seen this happen with Paul Cristoforo, we’ve seen this in the above example, and we know there are countless other examples out there. You seriously do not want to go down this road. At the very least, drop the argument and, at minimum, wait for the potential storm to pass over. We don’t know if it’s too late to offer this piece of advice, but better to have at least tried in this case.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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