The other day Forbes published an online op-ed arguing that local Amazon bookstores should replace public libraries. A shitstorm blowback ensued, prompting Forbes to take down the article. Unfortunately I never got to read the offending piece, but from the reactions posted online it seems that the public outcry centered on the value of the local library as a “third place” — a social environment that’s neither home nor the workplace. For members of the local community the library offers free meeting space, educational programs and services, access to computers and the Internet, and a place to hang out without having to buy a cup of coffee. The Forbes writer pointed out that libraries aren’t free because they’re funded by tax revenues. That’s right: the venerable public library is a socialist institution, paid for as a collective resource by the citizenry rather than as a commodity by individual consumers.
In an earlier incarnation of this website I made a strong pitch for decommodifying books altogether, replacing bookstores with libraries. E-books cost nothing to copy and distribute, so an unlimited number of free copies could be made available on demand without ever having to return them. But what about the authors: how do they get compensated when copies of their books get handed out for free to all comers? My proposal: have the local libraries retain their socialist function by buying the copies of the books they distribute.
The United States has around 16 thousand public libraries, including branch facilities in larger cities, providing localized services to a nation of 320 million people. Suppose 10% of U.S. libraries — 1600 of them — were each to buy a copy of a particular book. At $10 a pop that’s total sales of $16,000. For that price 10 percent of the national population, or 32 million people, can acquire, on demand and for free and for keeps, their own personal copy of the book. That’s a cost to the general public of less than one cent per copy.
But $16,000 total revenue — that’s not enough to pay the author, is it? Well, it’s nearly double the status quo: most authors get paid $6,000 or less per book. Yes, but it’s not just the author who needs to get compensated: what about the publishing house, the agent, the editor, the printer, the warehouse, the distributor, the retailer? In today’s book industry the author gets maybe 12 percent of the total revenues, with the remaining 88 percent going to these various middlemen. By getting rid of printed books and replacing them with e-books, a lot of those costs disappear. Get rid of for-profit publishing houses by having authors organize themselves into publishing collectives and even more costs go away. Get rid of retail outlets, selling books only to libraries, and the costs go down even more. Pretty soon most of the $16K in hypothetical revenues goes to the author — still not enough to quit your day job, but a much better deal than the commercial book industry offers most writers.
Replacing local libraries with Amazon retail outlets merely perpetuates the status quo of commodity capitalism, which in the book industry has been rendered an obsolete business model. Instead, replace Amazon by local libraries. It’s a better deal for the readers, and it’s a better deal for the writers.