Friday, February 25, 2011

The Greedy Ghost

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.


Dan - Friday


  1. Hi Dan,

    When I reached the end of your post I caught a glimpse of the title for Stan's piece, "My Heart Breaks." It perfectly summed up my reaction to yours and Pullman's thoughts.

    I still remember the day my parents allowed me the solo adventure of heading off to obtain my first library card. Had to take two streetcars and walk a few blocks to get there through a neighborhood a bit tougher than even the one I grew up in. But they let me to do it on my own. It was a big day in many ways.

    Libraries are the great equalizer and soul of a community, dealing more directly with the problems of the under served than virtually any other arm of government. They are where children find safety from the streets and the unemployed access to new skills and information.

    When Andrew Carnegie made his fortune and built all those libraries around the United States, emblazoned with the motto above the entrances “Free to All,” “Free” was a relative term, because he never endowed them. Thereby making every library a fund raising entity. For example, in Carnegie's home town (and mine) of Pittsburgh, in 1898 the City council resolved to contribute $40,000 annually to run the libraries he'd built. I don’t know for sure, but it sounds like it could have been a generous amount.

    More than 100 years later do you care to guess how much the City was contributing each year to the system? Yep, $40,000. It was only when the $68 million in annual private fund raising was not enough, and some local libraries were threatened with closure, did people yell loud enough to get the funding increased…but only temporarily and that was before the Great Recession.

    Yes, libraries matters, and what's happening to them breaks my heart.


  2. Hi, Dan, and thanks. Pullman is dead center. But publishing is also facing a sea change that will probably leave the landscape unrecognizable. We live in very interesting times.

  3. In the February 25 edition of the Library Journal there is an article written by Josh Hadro -

    In the first significant revision to lending terms for ebook circulation, HarperCollins has announced that new titles licensed from library ebook vendors will be able to circulate only 26 times before the license expires.

    This is the very long link (which I hope works because I'm still learning).

    Jeff, where is another Andrew Carnegie who can get the importance of libraries across to all those who don't use them and see them as another waste of the public's money?


  4. Thanks all.

    Beth, you hit the nail square on the head: there are people out there, a growing number, who don't see the value in things that don't make money. The great things about libraries are that they are there, for when we need them. I think those of us that do use and value them need to get off our backsides and do what we can to save them.

    Jeff, I share your sentiments and your fears. Libraries and those little cards give people power.

    Tim, publishers do face a sea change. The question is whether someone with vision and passion can come along and make it work, and if they do, whether they will be given time to make it work or will the greedy ghost and all the careerist bottom liners take fright. Or do we just muddle, muddle, muddle along, and end up with ideas like HC's one to cap loands of ebooks?