02/15/2013 12:40 pm ET | Updated Apr 17, 2013

Why Terry Deary Is Wrong: The Case For Libraries

If someone too poor or otherwise unable to buy a specific product is given that product for free, has the product's creator lost a sale?

In most instances, I'd argue, the answer is no. You can't lose money that doesn't exist in the first place, or which your potential customer is unable to spend on whatever it is you're selling. What you've lost, if anything, is a specific product, and therefore the opportunity to sell it to someone who can pay.

If Lamborghini were to give me a free car, for instance -- or if some altruistic third party were to do so instead -- then either they've lost the money they could've earned by selling that specific vehicle elsewhere, or they've lost the opportunity to sell to me directly. In the latter instance, though, they haven't lost a sale, because someone actually did buy the car; and in the former instance, while they might have lost a sale, they haven't lost my sale, because the chances of my being able to afford a Lambo in this lifetime, let alone wanting to buy one if I could, are slim to none. The only way for Lamborghini to lose my sale, therefore, is if I were both willing and able to buy a car from them, but elected not to -- and even then, I'd still be within my rights as a consumer to look elsewhere.

I mention all this because Terry Deary, author of the Horrible Histories series, has not only said that libraries are defunct, but accused them of stealing the income of authors -- "cutting their throats and slashing their purses", as he rather dramatically has it. "Books aren't public property," he says, "and writers aren't Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby. They've got to make a living. Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat. We don't expect to go to a food library to be fed."

Ignoring his rather snide and sexist slighting of Blyton, as though authors are somehow fundamentally less deserving of recompense if they happen to be middle-class women who do it for fun (the horror!), the linchpin of Deary's argument seems to hinge on his belief that, because his books were borrowed more than 500,000 times from public libraries last year -- earning him the maximum return of £6,600 under the PLR scheme -- he's effectively lost out on the £180,000 he feels he ought to have had if he'd instead sold 500,000 extra copies.

Never mind the fact that all those library copies were themselves bought and paid for in the first instance, such that, by virtue of being in a library, they've collectively netted him more money than if they'd been bought by members of the public: the maths he's used to reach his £180,000 figure is predicated on the assumption that every single person who's borrowed his books was otherwise both willing and able to pay for them - an assumption which is categorically false.

He then tries to bolster his outrage by saying:

"What other industry creates a product and allows someone else to give it away, endlessly? The car industry would collapse if we went to car libraries for free use of Porsches... This is not the Roman empire, where we give away free bread and circuses to the masses. People expect to pay for entertainment. They might object to TV licences, but they understand they have to do it."

Well, actually, no: they don't. Ignoring the fact that not every country has a TV licencing scheme, even in the UK, it's entirely legal to watch regular programming online, for free, using sites like BBC iPlayer and 4oD, so long as you only watch catch-up and not live streaming. More pertinently, perhaps, Deary has clearly never heard of radio, video rental, museums, art galleries, or, indeed, the internet, because if he had done, then there'd be no excuse for making the claim that libraries are some lone, perverse bastion of free panem et circuses in a world where absolutely everything is paid for otherwise.

And then, of course, there's the moral/historical angle: "Because it's been 150 years, we've got this idea that we've got an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers," Deary moans. "This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that."

The bolding above is my own, and it's there for a reason. Take a good, long look at that sentence -- specifically, at the crucial use and placement of the word wanted, whose past tense indicates that allowing the impoverished access to literature is something we don't want to do any longer; or rather, that Deary believes we shouldn't.

There's so much wrong with this statement that I hardly know where to begin. With the fact that, under Deary's ideal system, the poor are only entitled to literature while they're of school age, perhaps? With the fact that most of the literary benefit one experiences while a student comes, not from English class, but the school library? Or how about the novel idea that treating support of literacy in poverty as a quirky Victorian prerogative rather than an ongoing social necessity is not only morally repugnant, but incredibly shortsighted when one depends for one's living on the existence of a literate, interested populace?

But let's return to Deary's primary argument -- that his 500,000-odd library rentals represent some 500,000 lost sales -- and why it's so inaccurate: first, because it assumes that he gained no sales by virtue of readers encountering his books in the library and later deciding to buy them; second, because it assumes that everyone who borrowed his books was similarly able or inclined to buy them, and only went the library route out of sheer cheapness; third, because it likewise assumes that the figure of 500,000 borrows corresponds to 500,000 discreet individuals; fourth, because it ignores the fundamentally obvious point that many, if not most people will try all sorts of things for free for which they'd never readily pay money, or for which they wouldn't pay money without a free sample first; and fifth -- and specific to Deary's case -- because his books are aimed at a middle-grade audience, meaning that his readers and the persons who actually hand over money are overwhelmingly two different sets of people, with the latter tending (one suspects) to be the parents and relatives of the former.

Those last two points in particular are worth expanding on, because they're linked in quite a significant way: that is, that parents are about infinity times more likely to buy specific books for their children when in possession of cold, hard proof that their gift will actually be read, rather than mouldering quietly on a bedroom shelf.

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least ten books or series that my parents bought me in my pre-teen years as a direct result of my having borrowed and re-borrowed the library copies: they knew they were making a successful purchase, and I in turn was getting something I wanted. Without libraries, I'd never have bought the entirety of Geoffrey McSkimming's Cairo Jim and Jocelyn Osgood stories, or convinced my mother to shell out the princely sum of nearly thirty Australian dollars for my own hardbacked copy of the Pan Macmillan Book of Greek Gods and Heroes -- a book, I might add, which I still possess today. As wrongheaded as Deary's comments are, they'd at least be marginally more comprehensible if he wrote for adults, who have direct control over their discretionary spending -- but children?

All my life, I've been a patron of libraries. Even now that I'm an adult with my own disposable income, I still use them. Why? Because, not unreasonably, I'm reluctant to outlay money on unknown authors if I can sample their works beforehand for free. My book-buying budget is limited, and I want to make the most of it: now that I have a Kindle, I'll often download sample chapters, and when I have time to browse through bookshops at leisure, I'll read the first few pages to help me make a decision, but ultimately, neither method guarantees that a book will be worth my time and money.

And so, I'll try the library: that way,  I lose nothing on books I don't like, but can still discover new authors -- and once I've discovered an author I like, their books go on my 'automatic purchase' list. Tamora Pierce and Sara Douglass are both authors I discovered through libraries in my early teens; thus hooked, I proceeded to buy their entire respective works, even the titles I'd already read, because the idea of not owning them was insupportable. Libraries are an investment in the creation of new readers, and if Deary thinks for a second that nobody has ever bought his books as a direct result of having encountered them first in libraries, then I'd venture to suggest that he's in the wrong profession.

Libraries don't inhibit a writer's profits: they add to them -- not just through the PLR scheme, but through the creation of new readers and the maintenance of a literate, book-hungry populace. And while, as I've said, Deary is wholly wrong in his assertion that libraries are unique in providing entertainment or creative content for free, they are unique (or at least, almost unique, the internet having joined their ranks) in promoting an actual, necessary life-skill -- literacy -- among those parts of the populace who might otherwise suffer for its inaccessibility. The idea that such beneficence should begin and end with the classroom (and where does Deary think many poorer students are getting not only their assigned reading and reference books, but free internet and computer access, if not the library?) is a social Scroogism that ill becomes a professional author even moreso than it would any other person, and particularly one who writes about history.

So here, then, is my advice to Mr Deary: conduct a campaign to have your books removed from libraries everywhere. Petition schools and librarians, call the distributors, go by in person and tear up their copies if you have to, but rid the freeloading reading world of access to your work; and when, having done so, your annual income fails to increase to the tune of £180,000 pounds?

Then, Mr Deary, I will laugh at your hubris -- and buy someone else's books.