This will be my last blog post for about three weeks because on Sunday I'm flying out to Hong Kong to join the Queen Mary 2 for a cruise lasting about two and a half weeks, and as usual I'll be giving lectures on the ship before I fly back from Sydney. It'll be a couple of quite long long haul flights, which I'm not really looking forward to, but at least there'll be a lot of sea time as the ship heads south across the Pacific Ocean to Australia, so there'll be no excuse for not getting quite a bit of work done.
One thing this liner does have, as well as its more unusual and better publicised features, like the world's only oceangoing planetarium, is a decent library, and that sparked a train of thought. With the increasing domination in the marketplace of electronic books, pieces of text that in at least one sense don't really exist, what is the future for libraries? Suppose one of the many predictions about the future of the publishing industry comes true and most novels end up being released as ebooks rather than paperbacks? Can you have a virtual library, and if you can, how would it work?
In fact, libraries do seem to be under threat. You may recall the British government's ill-advised plan to close down most of them, the spin doctors claiming by a piece of tortuous illogic that this would somehow improve the service to the public, and now it seems that much the same thing is happening in America. Obviously in a time of recession cuts do need to be made in many services, and it's probably only fair that libraries should also share the burden. And of course libraries do require funding if they are to remain up-to-date and relevant, not least because they have to buy books, and books cost money.
According to a report in Library Journal, almost two thirds of libraries in America saw an increase in their budget last year, albeit a maximum of only 2.9%, and with an overall average figure of just over 1%, but costs, expenses and salary increases far outpaced this, leading to a net reduction in operating revenue, while the remaining third of libraries surveyed saw a significant drop in their funding. About a quarter of libraries were forced to cut staff simply to make ends meet. Predictably, the bulk of the materials budget – about 60% – is applied to book purchases, while spending on ebooks, audiobooks and music languish in single figures.
The other thing which is clear about libraries is that they do need to change to reflect the changing lifestyles of their potential customers. It's no longer enough just to fill wooden shelves with hardback books and wait for people to walk in through the door. They needed to make going to the library a pleasurable and relevant experience, which might well mean branching out in non-traditional directions, such as providing comfortable chairs, a coffee bar, Internet access (though many do this already) and anything else which will help improve the experience of their customers.
But without doubt they still fulfil an important need, by bringing people in the community together, and providing comprehensive and professional access to all manner of reading and communication materials in one place. This is particularly important for people who may not have enough disposable income to buy books for themselves, or may simply lack the skills needed to operate a home computer.
They are also important for authors, and not just because of PLR payments. I have done many talks in libraries around the United Kingdom, which has assisted me in generating publicity and gaining recognition as a writer, and I would like to think that in some small way I helped the budding authors who came along to listen to me. And, finally, even in this digital age, libraries hold reference materials and written resources which are frequently not available anywhere else.
In short, our libraries are important and we need to keep them, guard them jealously and do whatever we can to make sure they survive. And authors are particularly well-placed to help in one way.
Whenever a new book is released, the publishers invariably send a number of free copies to the author. It has long been my policy that my local library in England is one of the first to receive a copy. It cost me nothing, but it puts my books on their shelves, which not only saves them money, but also must increase my exposure, and generates a little bit of free publicity.
But exactly how the library system will work when the ebook finally comes to dominate the market – which I'm quite convinced that it will – I have no idea.
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