Libraries and the Lectosystem

The desire to turn every bit of reading into a monetary transaction seems to me driven by a short term strategy that in the end would be destructive for publishers, not to mention the entire country, because the system of reading that supports publishers, libraries, and general literacy depends upon non-market forces that would be destroyed if indeed the ultimate commodification of reading were successful. We might call this system of reading the lectosystem, and like a natural ecosystem it is a sensitive totality where change in one place can have negative effects in another place. The lectosystem would collapse if all reading were commodified.

The more literate a population, the more books will be read, and the more books that are read the more books will be bought, even if not all the books read are bought directly by the individual reader. But mass literacy requires that some people get books for free, whether it’s through public schools, school libraries, public libraries, college libraries, charity, or gifts. To make this impossible, which is the implied end of turning every reading transaction into a monetary exchange, would reduce the percentage of the population that can read, which will not only ultimately reduce the number of books sold, but even further decrease the educational average in the U.S., which never seems very high even in the best of times. This inevitably would lead to the long, slow decline of America as a leading country.

Well, maybe that’s a bit extreme, to blame publishers refusing to sell ebooks to libraries for destroying the country. However, there’s still a lectosystem upon which everyone involved with books depends, and that system includes not only publishers and their market relation to readers, but also libraries and the gift economy. To destroy that system would also damage the market for books. If publishers thought about the long term, they might realize this, but long term thinking is anathema to most corporations.

On the other hand, publishers probably don’t have that kind of power. If the current lectosystem is damaged, it might repair itself and end up bypassing current publishers. A recent news story reported on a study by Columbia University which found “70 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they had bought, copied or downloaded unauthorized music.” The story was about music “piracy,” but I’m sure a large percentage of that cohort who read books do the same thing. (I put piracy in quotation marks because I find it amusing to compare this with this.)  It’s a fear of “piracy” that drives publisher support for SOPA. They really seem to think that the laws can lock technology down to the nineteenth century standards that publishers seem to like so much, just like Amazon thinks its DRM really keeps determined readers from doing what they like with their Kindle ebooks. Or just like a decade ago, when movie and music corporations thought the DMCA would help control what people did with the media they thought they had purchased. Legally, you can’t copy the video from a DVD you’ve purchased to play it on a portable device. The reality is quite different, and unless you’re sharing the file with a torrent service or something there’s not much anyone can do about it. If millions of people flout a law and don’t feel the slightest bit bad about it, that’s a good sign that the law isn’t in the public interest, and that’s what routinely happening with online “piracy.”

People who read are going to read more than they could afford to read if every book read was a book individually purchased, and the more expensive the books the more that will be the case.  If publishers try to make that impossible, so much the worse for the publishers. Platforms like Amazon are already allowing writers to connect to readers and also make some money. There’s no inherent reason that public libraries couldn’t set up a similar system to connect writers to readers that would get more reading into the hands of more people while still allowing writers to profit. This would be parallel to the movement in academic libraries to support open access. It’s not that everything would be free or freely provided, only that the costs would be lowered through technological efficiency and the absence of a need for the content provider to also make a profit.

The purpose of publishers, from Elsevier to Penguin, is to sell stuff to make a profit. The purpose of libraries, both academic and public, isn’t to buy books and journals. The purpose is to connect interested readers with interesting reading, whether that’s a scholarly article on philosophy for the philosopher or a mystery novel for the general library user, or for that matter, a mystery novel for the philosopher who might want to read something besides scholarly articles. Libraries of some sort are crucial to the lectosystem because they’re the most popular places to read more widely than one can afford to read if every act of reading requires an individual purchase. Publishers used to be crucial, but are much less so now. They’re easier and easier to bypass, whether it’s through non-commercial open access journals or self-publishing at Amazon. I’m not that worried about the future of libraries, because I think libraries will be able to adapt and continue their contributions to the lectosystem. I would be more worried about the future of my industry if I worked for Elsevier or Simon and Schuster.*

*I was already working on a draft of this post, but a stimulating lunch conversation today with Pete Bromberg of the Princeton Public Library influenced my thinking in the last couple of paragraphs.