Sunday, 5 June 2011

Libraries, frugality and alternative futures

My daughter Alice works in Bexhill library.  Quite often she takes out a DVD and we all enjoy watching a film together in the evening.  She finds all kind of books, too (obviously).  Some of the texts on mediaeval background information she has brought home for me to see have been brilliant source material for the novels I’ve been writing this last year – set in fourteenth century northern England.

When I was a child, we lived in a village out in the country.  My father travelled abroad, away for home for months at a time; and for several years, before my mother could afford a car, we relied on the bus to go for our grocery shopping in a nearby market town.  On Tuesday nights the fish-and-chip van came to the village, and we’d wait patiently for it to arrive – a scruffy old green vehicle – to order our cod and chips (chips are US French fries) wrapped in old newspapers.   And once a week the mobile library came to our village.  I remember standing in that big van choosing a book from the shelves – I can recall the smell of the books, just thinking about it now.  I discovered Gerald Durrell’s writing for the first time in our mobile library.  We had very little money, and books were an occasional luxury purchase.  Borrowing from the mobile library, the school library and friends was the only way to get my hands on new books, until I started to earn my own money working in the evenings after school and at weekends, when I was fifteen.  Then I could buy my own books.  I remember buying St Francis’ Fioretti, Face Up With A Miracle by Don Basham, Free To Be Faithful by Anthony Padovano, and John Powell’s Fully Human Fully Alive, among others.  Those books changed my lives.  They shaped who I became.  I was never the same after I read them.

Now of course they would have moved me and changed me and shaped me just as much if I’d borrowed them from a friend or from the library, or bought them new or from a second-hand bookshop.  I think I got Face Up With A Miracle at the Bible bookshop in Frinton-on-Sea, where I was working in a residential care home for elderly blind people during the school summer holidays.

Later on in life, as I got my nose to the trail of simplicity, both frugality and environmental responsibility became very important to me, and I started to buy my books second-hand whenever I could.  On Amazon, I could buy a book for just a penny, plus postage – brilliant!  So I did that for a long while; but it isn’t what I do any more.

Here’s why.

Who’s your favourite author?  One of mine is Alexander McCall Smith.  He wrote The Number One Ladies Detective Agency series.  Some of his titles are fab just by themselves, before even opening the book: The Full Cupboard of Life, for example; or Morality For Beautiful Girls.   Alexander McCall Smith is a Christian, and his faith resonates through the kind and gentle wisdom of his writing.  I’m so glad his books are in the world.  I love C.S.Lewis too – always have.  Love his Chronicles of Narnia.

Imagine now that C.S.Lewis had written The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Alexander McCall Smith had written The Number One Ladies Detective Agency, and each had been submitted to a publisher and the writers had waited impatiently to hear if their manuscripts had been accepted, and at last came the letter from the commissioning editor saying (hooray!) they were going through to publication!  Result!!  Celebration!  And the books were duly published and went on public release, and people loved them.  Wonderful! 

But suppose those people who loved them never actually bought their own copies, but only took them out from the library.  Suppose, as good Christians practising frugality often do, they waited patiently for their turn to borrow the one copy that someone in their church had bought to lend all her friends.  Suppose, in the world as it is now with everything available on Amazon, they looked out for the copies being sold for just a penny and the postage.  That would be brilliant: they would have their own copy, devour the wonderful stories, staying up half the night because they simply couldn’t put the book down.  Long after they had finished the book it would be at work in their imagination, changing them, shaping them, lingering in their memory.

But there would be one thing different from the way things are, which is this: that would be the only Narnia story, or the only Precious Ramotswe story, they ever got to read.  However excellent and powerful an author’s writing may be, a publisher cannot afford to take on a second book if the first one doesn’t sell.

Everywhere in the UK Christian bookshops are going out of business.  There is no literary agent for Christian writers in the UK.   There are almost no writers of Christian fiction in the UK – and those there are have started flocking to the one UK Christian publisher who has revived a Christian fiction list.

Why?  Because UK Christians don’t buy Christian books – most of all, they don’t buy Christian fiction. 

Would it surprise you to know that (though my novels have sold thousands and thousands of copies) as far as I am aware, not a single person in my family has ever bought a single copy of a single one of my books?  With the blessed exception, that is, of my daughter’s American mother-in-law.  Would it surprise you to know that in most of the churches I pastored, in most cases the only copies of my books the members of the congregation bought were those I gave them as gifts to raise money for church funds?  And would it surprise you to know that every time I have a book published, my friends (with one or two precious exceptions) do not buy copies but ask me to give them a copy?

If it were not for the American market, and the Australian market (thank you Elvira!!!), my Hawk and the Dove series, originally published in the UK, would have been long dead and forgotten.  As it is, they have gone on steadily selling for 20 years.

The three new books in that series will be released this summer . . . this winter . . . and next summer.  These three new ones are books I am really proud of.  I have dug down to the depths of my soul for where the Word speaks in me of goodness, gentleness, truth, and the power of the Gospel, to craft those stories. 

At the present time I am writing another.  Again I have gone out into the stars and down into the earth and deep into my own heart to find and touch the reality I have tried to capture for that novel.  It’s been prayed into birth and it’s nearly finished.  I know without a shadow of doubt that my publisher will love it, and that it is as good as it should be.  And it won’t leave my hands – I will draft and re-draft – until it’s as good as it could be.  But whether it is ever published won’t depend on me, or even on my publisher.  It will depend on how readers choose to access the three that go before it – how many wait to borrow them from a friend, or take them out of the library, or look out for them coming up for a penny on Amazon, or on a giveaway on a friend’s blog, or in a competition in a magazine; and how many buy copies in the straightforward way – whether online or in a bookshop, whether in paper or electronic format.

I am so grateful for all the other readers who, with me, bought The Number One Ladies Detective Agency, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; because without them The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Kalahari Typing School For Men could never have been published.

Now I think libraries and second-hand bookshops and lending to friends and swap-shops are a really good thing.  Some people truly cannot afford to buy the books they long to read; and I say, by all means get the stories that bring the Gospel to life into their hands. 

I don’t want you to feel guilty if you only borrow and buy second-hand; and I don’t want you to feel coerced into buying books that don’t interest you.  I borrow too, and I also buy second hand.  And I buy only those Christian books that, on a flick through, genuinely interest me.   But I do buy some new; it’s part of my commitment as a Christian to do that.  And it’s also (in a good way) kind of selfish: I don’t want to wake up one day to find that all the books in the store celebrate adultery and power games and cynicism, and immerse me in a world of twistedness and corruption – what critics call ‘dark’ as though that were a good thing.  I want there to be more and more stories by those writers who know how to tell the story of the beautiful, the good and the kind – stories that shape the person I am into something better by filling my imagination with a world view that is worthwhile.  So I buy Book 1; and that way I cast a vote of faith in Book 2.  That’s the economics of the Gospel.


Bean said...

All very true.
Many bookstores are closing here in the US, sales are down, part of the reason is economic, and part of it is electronic, Kindles etc. are very popular. Also, I don't think people read books like they used to, they read things online. I guess we live in a changing world.
We live on a budget and I generally check books out of the library, or visit my very favorite secondhand bookstore Hyde Brothers. I have enjoyed the first three books in the Hawk and the Dove series, I borrowed them from our library and I really enjoyed them. However, if the books are being checked out of the library surely it encourages the library to purchase future books from the same author??

I was born and raised in England until I was fourteen, we used to go to the Golden Chip in Bury St. Edmunds, there is absolutely nothing better than fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. I visited England a few years ago and my sister and I went to the Golden Chip, (30 years later :)) and the food was wonderful, but was no longer wrapped in newspaper.

Once your books are released do you do radio interviews on American Christian stations, because if you do, you should really see if you can get on Mid Morning on WBCL in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Lynne Ford the host is an excellent host and has interviewed hundreds and hundreds of Christian authors over the years. You can google WBCL and easily find them, they have been on the air since 1976.
It was nice to see an update to your blog, I enjoy your posts.



Ganeida said...

I buy ~ because I reread ~ & books I love are friends for life. I am choosy about my friends but I too want more of what I like & the authors of those need their tea & bickie money just like I do & I will go without a good many things before I will deny myself a book I want. Borrowing is just not the same ~ though if I have borrowed & loved a book I will move heaven & earth to acquire my own copy.

Lynda said...

It's good to hear from you again Ember :o)

Ah yes...the mobile book van! it was the highlight of my week when my children were young. I couldn't wait till friday nights, and my husband got home (to mind the children) and I could run across the road to get some new books from the van. Then my husband would go out on the town, and after I put the children to bed I would immerse myself in another world...the world of books!!

I do buy second hand (and from Amazon) but usually only if they are books I can't get here. I love to have my very own copy (and get rather protective of my books), but I also buy lots new (mostly from Koorong)...too many in fact...more than I really should! I'd rather buy books than clothes :o)

And I have all your books...bought new!...except for a second copy of the Hawk and the Dove trilogy that I picked up at an op shop for $2...I do like a bargain too!


Ember said...

Hi Bean, hi Ganeida, hi Lynda! Yes, I buy second-hand still, too. I believe in thrift, re-using and re-cycling, and if I bought only new I'd be able to afford far fewer books - and 2nd-hand book stores are small local businesses, which bring good health to the local economy.
On what you said about the library buying more books by the authors who are read, Bean, I'm sure that must be true - but of course they will buy only one copy, and even if most libraries stock it that doesn't add up to much in the way of sales. However, I think what libraries do that is very helpful (from the writer's or publisher's point of view)is introduce people to unfamiliar authors. Readers can borrow a book knowing that nothing is lost if they don't like it, and can go on to buy it if it really grows on them so that they want their own copy.
Many of the books I want to read are obscure or out-of-print texts that are available only 2nd-hand; so that way I do my bit for the 2nd-hand shops and the re-cycling; but I try to buy new, at times when I can afford it, the sort of books I think the world should have more of.

Buzzfloyd said...

I agree with what you say except for the inclusion of libraries.

In the UK, the law supports the book trade by subsidising libraries and paying royalties to authors on the basis of how many times the books are borrowed from the library. So authors make money out of libraries.

Also, the more the book is borrowed, the more often it will be replaced by the library. So publishers also make money out of libraries.

And, something that people often don't realise is that there is something that could be called the Library Effect on sales. If a publisher can get libraries to stock a book, that will boost sales because of the tendency of some readers to sample and then want to own their own copy. In other words, reading a library book encourages people to go out and buy that book new. This is a documented effect with a recognised economic impact.

So libraries make money for authors and publishers as well as helping readers to budget over a lifetime. :-)

Ember said...

Thanks Buzz! Interesting as always!

Julie B. said...

I have always secretly thought I should be your U.S. agent. A friend introduced me to The Hawk and the Dove years ago and I was swept away by that book, and devoured the next two, long before they were reprinted in one volume. In many years of being in a book club (12 Christian women), we rarely all 12 loved the book we read each month. It made it all the more interesting to hear others' opinions, and we were all good natured about our differences of course. In all the years I was in that club (over a decade), there were only two books we read that each woman LOVED: Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, and The Hawk and the Dove by Penelope Wilcock. I have since then recommended it every chance I get, and still buy copies on a regular basis so I can have them on hand to give as gifts. I've shared about it on my blog. I have not been a huge fan of Christian fiction because so much of it has seemed too tidy for me. Flawed people in terrible straits, then they say the sinner's prayer, then all is well for the rest of their lives. I know that's a bit of an exaggeration, but your books are not like this. Your books tell of real life, real pain, learning to live with difficult people and our difficult selves, and your books always make me cry with hope and gratitude. I will always try to be your American Secret Agent.....I'm very grateful for you, Ember. Now, for any of your readers who have not read The Hawk and the Dove - they should run out (or go to their computers) and buy it right now. And then loan it to friends, read it out loud to their family, have it ready as a gift, etc. :) Have a wonderful week....

Ember said...

Heh heh - I think possibly you *are* my US publicity agent! Thanks hon - you're a star and a real encouragement!

Magdalena said...

I buy very few books, but the only secondhand books I will buy are ones out of print. I do friends' books because I was once a writer, and the only way a writer can make a living is if people buy the work. As for Christian books - the last few books we have bought have been by Christian authors - yourself, Chris Armstrong, Erik Wesner, N.T. Wright.

Gerry Snape said...

always a great thought provoking post Ember.I suppose it's a lot to do with the priorities of the day or the moment.I still receive my p.r.o. monies every year although it's a long time since I was published or singing professionally. and that would never have happened outside of the forethought of those caring about me and my future many years ago. I too love second-hand but you are right that if we only think that way, artists of all types will suffer. Thankyou.

Ember said...

Thanks, Gerry and Magdalena :0)

I know that is real prioritising for you Magdalena, and a commitment to the future of writing. And Gerry, you are so right - the artists, the musicians, the milliners, the seamstresses, the blacksmiths, the potters . . . we want them to have a tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

As a librarian, I applaud the fact that we can borrow books as many times as we need to, without the expense of owning the books.

It is so wonderful isn't it?

By the way, I am truly enjoying your simplicity book. It is such a good read and so much thought.

I know that you are probably not in the same place you were when you wrote it, but it is very encouraging and inspiring to others that want to begin this way of life!

By the way, fish and chips sounds scrumptious :-D

Tony Collins said...

Another fine post! Buzzfloyd is quite right about Public Lending Right - some authors receive a lot of money from this. And keeping libraries going is also a really good thing ... and keeping publishers going too, of course ...

Hawthorne said...

A timely post, Ember - I've been thinking about this a lot recently as I often buy 2nd hand bargains for a penny from Amazon, particularly texts I need for school but want to have my own copy rather than get school to buy it. Hmmm...some changes to be made there methinks!
Buzzfloyd - thank you for the info about UK libraries and paying royalties. That was another thing that worried me! I mostly use my library as a kind of 'try before you buy' and have weeded out several books that I would have regretted buying.
As for Kindle and the likes, I would far rather have a proper book in my hand with print on a page than some electronic thing which requires power - and anyway I might drop it when I read in the bath!!! ;-)

Ember said...

:0) Hi Lavender, Badger, Hawthorne!

Yes, a prosperous publisher is a reassurance to my heart!

Lavender, it's a while since I wrote the simplicity book, but not much has fundamentally changed - just a practical rearrangement of externals. I run a car now, because my present circumstances have greater emphasis on community/family than when I wrote that - I don't personally need a car, but others need me to. We have realised a dream in installing solar panels for both heating our water and providing electricity for ourselves & the national grid. We no longer have lodgers or live in Aylesbury, because we live in Hastings now, in community with three family members - growing veggies, planting fruit trees, composting, replacing tarcts of concrete with green and growing things. Sharing a home allows us to live with very low overheads, which in turn enables us each to live in response to our sense of call rather than driven by primarily financial imperatives - our household costs are astonishingly low. Our food bills are kept down by eating mostly vegan food.
In our household we all try to live responsibly and ethically - buying 2nd hand or from small local businesses, growing our own, looking for organic and fair-traded goods, aiming for fewer transport costs. This latter is interesting: I buy many clothes from seamstresses in the US. So the garments fly across the world to reach me. But as the ladies work from home in the first place, the overall mileage is probably less than clothes sourced in local shops that have travelled to remote locations around the globe for different stages of manufacture.
We continue to work together to try ad wisely balance priorities, but taken all round I think things are pretty much where they were when the simplicity book was written - certainly in terms of aspirations and principles to live by.

Hawthorne - yes, I find that getting this stuff right is about continually balancing and rebalancing - aiming t get most things right most of the time, but accepting that sometimes ideal choices are too expensive or difficult, and one has to settle for the best one can do. Libraries and Amazon penny books are a blessing - it's just about remembering to buy a full-price book every once in a while.

Bless you friends xxx

Linda said...

I couldn't get into Alexander McCall Smith, my friend recommended it to me a couple of years ago I think. I liked reading about your childhood. My children have been to about three different mobile libraries over the years. My husband goes away for work sometimes, so different to my childhood. We like our fish and chips. My Mum bought me books in a bookclub at school which still operates. As a teen we moved into a town that had a Christian book shop. I bought some heavy Christian books at that time which I still have. Koorong books sometimes turn up on ebay, I love the stickers because as yet I haven't been to Koorong in Canberra, though my husband and my son have I think. Have been to Word when we go to the regional centre, which is necessary in the isolated place I live. Spent way too much money there, they were gift for my daughter's friend(s).

Ember said...

:0) I don't know about the stickers, Linda. What are they? x

Linda said...

Just a sticker on the book where it was bought. I find it special to get a second hand book with a Koorong sticker on it, I guess because it is 4 hours to the shop.

Ember said...

OK! Koorong should feel both humbled and proud that you find them that special!

AbiSomeone said...

...sigh -- I made my "book" comment in with another comment. LOL! I've got your posts mixed up in my head, I guess ... catching up on your thoughts this morning. ;^)

Ember said...

Yes, Abi - caught your comment. What she said, folks, was this:
"I am with you on the books ... and am glad to be part of the reason your books are still in print :) Looking forward to the ones coming out soon!"

Thank you Abi, and everyone else who has read and loved and bought my books. Obviously we are a partnership, and I am always aware of this, and more grateful and appreciative than you can imagine.