Bread, Circuses and Terry Deary

In May, I’m going to see the Horrible Histories tour in York with my daughter (Terrible Tudors, if you’re asking). If it were not for the disappointment it would cause her, I’d pretty tempted to tell Terry Deary where to stick Horrible Histories following this article in today’s Guardian.

At first, I thought that Deary was trying to write a provocation, calling as he does in the middle of the article for a debate on the future of libraries. But too much of what he says cannot be left unchallenged. Here’s just one of the things he says during the course of the article:

“What other industry creates a product and allows someone else to give it away, endlessly? The car industry would collapse if we went to car libraries for free use of Porsches … Librarians are lovely people and libraries are lovely places, but they are damaging the book industry. They are putting bookshops out of business, and I’m afraid we have to look at what place they have in the 21st century.”

One of Deary’s principal complaints is that libraries “give away” what bookshops sell, and that this deprives him of income. His income from the Public Lending Right is 6.2p per book borrowed to a maximum of £6,600 (around 106,450 loans).  Many authors get less of course. However, I think Mr Deary is fundamentally misunderstanding the point, given some of the things he said during the article:

“People have to make the choice to buy books”
Indeed they do. But this presupposes of course, that the choice to buy the book actually exists for some people. For those who can afford them, this might seem like an entirely reasonable argument. However, as a youngster I had an almost limitless appetite to read. But my parents did not have a limitless income; they had a far from limitless income, which predominantly had to be spent on food and keep us warm and clothed. For me, the library was a Godsend.  There are many kids still like that now. And the Internet, for all its many wonders does not provide access to all of those found in books. Of course, you can get the Internet in libraries too.

“The libraries are doing nothing for the book industry”
And where do libraries get their books, sometimes multiple copies of them? They have to buy them from somewhere. And once a book is sold in a bookshop, that’s it for the author. Deary gets his 30p But with PLR, an author may get some income from a book for a number of years into the future. Libraries do not “give books away”   – they rent them. and, like the NHS, the cost at point of delivery is zero, but that does not mean to say it is free. We pay for it. We, the taxpayers buy your books and subsidise their rental so that you can receive a payment. It’s not perfect, but there is something to be said for it.

And for those who do use libraries and can afford books, I am fairly certain there is a conversion rate to consider.  How many people read a library book so much they goa nd buy a copy for themselves, or recommend a book to others, or even buy something else because of something they saw in a library. I bet the number is higher than Deary thinks. Where does he think the demand for his books comes from?

“”I’m not attacking libraries, I’m attacking the concept behind libraries, which is no longer relevant,”
First, I believe you have misunderstood the concept. Second, the concept as I understand it is now even more relevant than ever in an era of low social mobility and the retrenchment of the wealthier. A library does not exist purely as a mechanism for generating income for an author. For those not fortunate enough to have access to knowledge and media that many of us take for granted, a library is a haven, a place where those needs can be fulfilled and where knowledge can be found.  Public libraries are a vestige of a civilised society, evidence that there is more to life than the pursuit of money. He complains of ever dwindling numbers using them. Well, that’s because more of them are closing, or have had services cut. The people who do use them are the ones who need them the most. Making the calculation of their public good purely on the market share they command  is a philosophy James Murdoch would be proud of.

“What other industry creates a product and allows someone else to give it away, endlessly?”
Spent much time on the Internet recently, Terry?

It’s a disappointment. But perhaps having a contrary voice out there that thinks that libraries have had their day might help to concentrate the minds and the arguments of those of us who do think they have a place in the modern world.

In the end, however, I think rather less of him than I did before, though I don’t suppose he’ll lose any sleep over that.

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