How big an effect do libraries have on book sales figures?

There’s a current thread on how libraries pick what books to buy and one of the criteria mentioned was libraries buy best-selling books.

And that made me wonder how self-reinforcing this policy could be. If libraries buy a book because it is selling well, then those purchases are counted in the book’s sales total and in turn make it more likely other libraries will buy a copy.

So how significant are library purchases as a percentage of total book sales? If I write a book titled Librarians Make the Best Lovers (and Deserve a Payraise) and every library in the country pre-orders a copy, will my book make the best-seller list?

IIRC, the New York Times and other best-seller lists use retail sales as a basis. Libraries generally don’t buy their books through retail outlets, so it should have no effect.

Curses, foiled again.

Although I thought the methodology of the NY Times had been updated. I seem to remember reading an article about how they now include Amazon sales. But maybe I’m thinking of the Billboard chart.

The ALA says there are 122,500 libraries in the US. That’s not going to be much of a change in the sales numbers for a best-seller with millions of copies. It could be a significant boost to a more modest title. It’s certainly not enough to get very far on best-seller lists by virtue of library purchases alone.

(If, in fact, the library purchases are counted at all).

I would think they drive down the overall sales. I know I’ve waited for some books on order rather than buying them.

Which is countered by the number of people who first get acquainted with an author through a library and then start buying the author’s books.

Despite decades of heated argument about which effect is greater, nobody in the industry has a clue to actual numbers.

Libraries do make a difference to the bottom line of many books. In the old days, companies like Doubleday and St. Martin’s primary audience for their mysteries were libraries. (This was before superstores, when bookstores carried few hardcover mysteries.) Authors made a steady but not large amount of money and could sell their next book.

This is still true in a small way for many books on specialized subjects. Libraries will add them to their collections when it’s unlikely that individuals will buy sufficient numbers, especially for expensive big illustrated books.

Making back an advance is a long, long way from becoming a best seller. Libraries are followers in that and there aren’t enough of them to make a best seller by themselves.

That 122,000 figure is totally misleading. If you go to the actual ALA page you see that there are fewer than 10,000 public libraries. Unless the book is already a best seller you won’t sell it to all of them. The policy now in my local system is that book buying committees meet and the various city and suburban libraries decide which ones will purchase actual copies of the book, while the rest rely on an efficient hold and reserve system to move them to borrowers in all branches.

Getting books in the 99,000 school libraries would seem to be a better bet, but those are sure to be broken down into elementary, junior high, high school, music, art, and other specialized libraries. Very few if any titles will be bought by all of them.

Library sales are nice. That’s really all an author can say about them.

No idea these days.

As a collector of first edition books, a typical story is that First Books by First-time Authors - e.g., To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye - had a print run of maybe 5,000 - 10,000 copies. Of those, a large number - say 3,000+ - ended up in libraries and the rest were sold retail or distributed through some other means. Then, when time has passed and the enduring books rise to the surface, you start seeing “ex-lib” books being sold in a quasi-collectible state…

So with that in mind - back in the day for first-time authors - libraries were a big deal…

Your own cite says there are 16,671 public libraries in the US.

No! No! No! You keep posting this in every thread about libraries and it is not true. As far as I know, it was never true. But no such buying policy has existed in the Monroe County Library System in at least the last 15 years.

The page cited says that there are 9,042 “Central Buildings” and 7,629 “Branch Buildings”, giving 16,671 “Total Buildings”. It also says,

So there are 9,221 public libraries, offering services through 16,671 public library buildings.

And each building is considered a separate library by the public. Buildings is the key, not the number of library boards running them.

That’s certainly the general perception. However, the page cited did, in fact, say that there were 9,221 “public libraries”, because the American Library Association has a different view from the general public on what a “public library” is.

I never said they were wrong, but technically there are over 16,000 public library buildings all buying books.

Every library system is going to be different, but I know that in many systems each “building” doesn’t buy their own books. The collection development is done system-wide, and the books are sent to the branches/buildings where they will see the most use or be the most appropriate. This creates efficiencies in book-buying (more bulk purchases), efficiencies in receiving and cataloging the books, etc. Thus, the library system is the “library” buying the books, not the library building. Again, it does depend on the organization, so if you tell me “well, my library doesn’t do it that way,” then I totally believe you. But one can’t make a blanket statement that the 16,000 “libraries” are all buying books, either.

Well, not really my cite. I was linking to it because dracoi used it for the claim that there are 122,000 libraries, which is clearly an order of magnitude off. You’re quite right that I should have caught the branch number.

I post this because this is exactly how the process has been described to me more than once by currently working librarians in the Monroe County Library System. It may not be true that all the individual towns get together in one meeting with the city librarians. They do talk to one another, though. And I know it’s not true that the individual city branches can make all their own buying decisions, any more than branches of individual town libraries normally can. It is not meaningful to suggest that all 16,000 libraries make their individual buying decisions. The true number is somewhere between 9 and 16 thousand. Not 122,000.

If you can describe how the buying process actually works, please do so. However, the effect is certainly there. Far fewer books are bought than exist individual libraries in the county. They are swapped freely among branches. Only the top few titles are bought by all. troub correctly describes my understanding of the process.

If we’re both wrong, give us the details.

While all books aren’t purchased by all libraries in the MCLS system, that’s to be expected with so many individual buyers. troub is correct in that many library systems do their purchasing collaboratively. But many don’t. For example…

The MCLS system does not use collaborative buying. Full stop. While it is true what the city branches purchase is often dictated by the Central Library, it’s not total. And each library does their own cataloging.

Beyond that, no town does collaborative buying in the MCLS system. Librarians meet, they discuss what they’re purchasing and what people are reading. But then they take that information back to their home library and all ordering is done individually.

What’s wrong with a number that includes all of the school and other non-public libraries? Surely all 122,000 libraries have to buy books? Neither the OP nor my post said what kind of libraries we were talking about.

Maybe the schools I grew up with were unique, but they all (from elementary to high school) carried a decent selection of current fiction. If I were a kid today, I’d be counting on my school’s library to have selections like Harry Potter and the Wheel of Time.

Going back over my library school notes, it seems that libraries account for 10-15%of the sales of all “popular” (fiction and non-academic non-fiction) books.

And I’d wager that Exapno is pretty close to the mark when stating that libraries most affect “genre” writing. Sci-Fi/horror/mystery authors rarely crack the NYT bestseller lists, but they are hugely represented in the vast majority of libraries.