I have blogged before about the threat from the UK's delightful coalition Government to the Public Lending Right, the annual payment made to authors according to how many 'lends' a book gets from a library. I received my latest payment recently and very welcome it was too. My books seem to do well in libraries. This means I have a vested interest in saving libraries. Because forget the PLR, as that's merely gravy: many of Britain's libraries are under threat as a direct result of Government cuts. A campaign is now underway to try and save them. A Save our Libraries day earlier this month attracted a great deal of attention, and more protests are planned as the threat of cuts, in the dread name of 'efficiency,' loom larger.
As well as income, which is comparatively meagre, I also have a library to thank for switching me on to great literature. During my 'gap year' between school and university, instead of travelling the world like most young folk seem to do now, I ended up on the dole, working as Father Christmas and then as a cashier in a bank, Pudsey library played a vital role in alleviating my boredom and providing me with free access to the world of imagination. I wonder how many other millions of people over the years, skint and and at a loose end, have found solace or inspiration or escape in a library? To lose them is short-sighted and wrong, and everyone who is involved in books should rise up and do all they can to protect them, because they foster readers and writers, and without those what do we have?
Then there was the local studies section of Kensington and Chelsea library where I did much of the research that made up The Blood Detective. Without it, it would have been half the book. I doubt Kensington and Chelsea library, being a true blue Tory borough, is under threat, but many libraries out there with local studies collections are, so other authors, researchers and students will suffer. Libraries also give a community its focal point, a place to gather and meet. The death of libraries is just another part of the destruction of any concept of community.
I could go on, but others have put it far more eloquently. Philip Pullman for one. He gave a speech protesting about proposals to close 20 out of 43 libraries in Oxfordshire. Apologies for the length of this quote (you can read the full speech in its entirety here and you should, even if Oxfordshire and its libraries are and seem a very long way away) but it pretty much sums up not only what's so boneheaded about closing libraries to save money, but also what's going wrong with the whole book industry. Book shops are closing too, as we all know on here, mainly because, as far as the UK is concerned, the greedy ghost also told publishers that they could sell a lot of copies of books in huge supermarkets for £2. Of course, once people realised that, why the hell would they go to a bookshop, who can't afford to take that kind of hit, and buy a book for £6? Anyway, Pullman...
In the world I know about, the world of books and publishing and bookselling, it used to be the case that a publisher would read a book and like it and publish it. They’d back their judgement on the quality of the book and their feeling about whether the author had more books in him or in her, and sometimes the book would sell lots of copies and sometimes it wouldn’t, but that didn’t much matter because they knew it took three or four books before an author really found his or her voice and got the attention of the public. And there were several successful publishers who knew that some of their authors would never sell a lot of copies, but they kept publishing them because they liked their work. It was a human occupation run by human beings. It was about books, and people were in publishing or bookselling because they believed that books were the expression of the human spirit, vessels of delight or of consolation or enlightenment.
Not any more, because the greedy ghost of market madness has got into the controlling heights of publishing. Publishers are run by money people now, not book people. The greedy ghost whispers into their ears: Why are you publishing that man? He doesn’t sell enough. Stop publishing him. Look at this list of last year’s books: over half of them weren’t bestsellers. This year you must only publish bestsellers. Why are you publishing this woman? She’ll only appeal to a small minority. Minorities are no good to us. We want to double the return we get on each book we publish.
So decisions are made for the wrong reasons. The human joy and pleasure goes out of it; books are published not because they’re good books but because they’re just like the books that are in the bestseller lists now, because the only measure is profit.
The greedy ghost is everywhere. That office block isn’t making enough money: tear it down and put up a block of flats. The flats aren’t making enough money: rip them apart and put up a hotel. The hotel isn’t making enough money: smash it to the ground and put up a multiplex cinema. The cinema isn’t making enough money: demolish it and put up a shopping mall.
That’s all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for.The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards? Why don’t you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books – you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there – what’s on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs.