Terry Deary and libraries

Last week Horrible Histories author Terry Deary revealed that he’s not a fan of libraries. He called them irrelevant and revealed that, had the readers borrowing his books in 2011/12 instead bought them, he’d have earned £180,000 compared to the £6,600 he actually earned from the borrows premium. He accuses them of reducing book sales from shops and being unnecessary because of public schools.

This is not an opinion I share. Or, indeed, one shared by children’s laureate Julia Donaldson, fantasy author Neil Gaiman, and, well, quite a lot of others. Deary even went on to defend his comments, claiming that they are only used by the middle classes and that he was talking about access to literature. He also claimed that “no-one is even reading what I’m saying” and accused commentators of spiteful remarks rather than reasoned debate. I saw plenty of reasoned debate in the links provided above and elsewhere, but maybe Mr Deary missed those.

A lot of perfectly valid points have already been made in response to Deary’s comments – a loan isn’t the same as a lost sale, libraries are more than just places to borrow books, libraries encourage reading which often translates into sales later, and Deary himself almost certainly benefitted from libraries himself as a reader. You can read many of these in the links above.

My take on it, generally, is broadly in support of these arguments. I certainly can’t imagine that Mr Deary purchased every history book he used when researching his own books – academic texts, too, being far more expensive than general audience books. Was he as opposed to libraries when he was just starting out as he is now?

I also take offense at a particular comment he made:

“Books aren’t public property, and writers aren’t Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby.”

Books, indeed, aren’t public property – libraries have to buy them and borrowers have to return them; neither can reproduce them themselves due to copyright. But it is Deary’s scorn at middle aged hobby writers I really find unpleasant. He seems to suggest that middle-class women who write for fun are (a) the only writers who really support libraries, (b) not proper writers and (c) not worth listening to; and all this is down to them not needing to write in order to earn money. Deary seems to suggest that another person’s opinion is worth less than his because they’re middle-class, women, and/or enjoy writing.

A quick aside – on his website, Terry Deary claims he’s sold 25 million copies of his books. In his comments in the Guardian, he said he gets 30p per sale. A little quick maths, and that’s £7,500,000 total income from his books (not counting talks, appearances, sale of TV rights, sale of merchandise, and so on). Divided evenly across the 36 years he’s been writing them that’s an average of £208,333 per annum income from books alone. Not what I would call a working class income. So Deary’s scorn of the “Enid Blyton” writers can’t be because they’re middle class.

Perhaps it’s the idea of women writing he dislikes. Or maybe it’s the idea of people actually enjoying writing – of people writing for a hobby. Yes, that must be it (let’s give him the benefit of the doubt over  the possibility of misogyny). People who write for a hobby can’t understand the financial pressures put on writers who struggle to sell books because libraries are lending them.

But that hardly rings true either. Certainly it might be the case for struggling writers with only a few books to their name who can’t yet quit their day jobs to write full time, but Mr Deary is hardly in need of visiting a soup kitchen – or “food library” as he calls it.

And in fact, I’ll deliberate on that point briefly before I continue. People don’t expect to visit “food libraries”, no. Mr Deary certainly has no need of them. But with the economy in the state it is, increasing numbers of families have had to visit food banks to keep their heads above water and their bills paid. I doubt these same people can afford to pay for books, but I’m sure at least some of them are glad for access to free libraries, where they can get entertainment, community space, internet access and education without having to spend any of what little money they have. Mr Deary appears to have lost sight of such people.

Back to the hobby writers. They don’t understand how hard it is for writers to make a living, apparently. Because hobby writers don’t have day jobs to pay the bills and put food on the table… oh wait. Well, perhaps unpublished writers don’t well understand the fickle nature of publishing, or how hard a writer must work to market books and keep sales up through continued publication, or how unpredictable sales and thus income can be. But I hardly think Mr Deary’s income is too much of an issue. Unstable and unpredictable, possibly, but I doubt he has to work shifts at the local supermarket to make ends meet when there have been fewer sales than predicted in a given six month period.

So who exactly is Deary attacking here? And why does he think “Enid Blyton” writers’ opinions are worth less?

I also want to address Deary’s more recent comments, those made in response to the reactions to his initial comments.

The key point he made in his latest statement is as follows:

“I never attacked libraries, I said we need to think about people’s access to literature. I don’t see poor people in libraries, I see middle class people with their arms stuffed like looters.”

I’m at a bit of a loss here how Mr Deary can tell from looking at a person what their income and background is. I can now reveal for Mr Deary’s benefit that poor people do indeed use libraries. While I had a middle class upbringing, my fiancé and I are currently living on my unimpressive salary alone, and finding the money doesn’t stretch so well near the end of the month. My fiancé is not from a middle class background and reads as much as I do. And we use our local library. My most recent borrow was a Stephen Baxter book; his one on computing.

Or perhaps Mr Deary is a victim of confirmation bias – perhaps he believes poor people don’t read and that they’re all yobs more interested in smoking and engaging in anti-social behaviour, and thus the people he sees in libraries must be middle class, because they’re not smoking or drinking on the bus or playing their music loudly on their phones.

But perhaps I’m veering too close to the spiteful remarks Mr Deary has been accusing people of making. If so I apologise. Still, what Mr Deary claims he is seeing in libraries is not the whole picture. Poor people use libraries. And why shouldn’t middle class people use libraries anyway? They’re not means tested, middle class people aren’t lying about their income in order to enter. Why shouldn’t middle class people borrow books? Because they can afford to buy them? Well, sure, they can, but would they if there was the choice between buying and not buying, with no free read option? There’s often free cake in the kitchen at work when it’s someone’s birthday, and on such occasions I have cake. But if there wasn’t free cake I wouldn’t go down to the cafeteria and buy a cake. Most days, anyway. I’d just not have cake.

Let’s move back to Mr Deary’s statement above, to the segment not addressed yet. He wants to provoke thought on access to literature. There aren’t enough poor people in libraries – they’re used exclusively, he seems to think, by the middle classes. And so should be shut down.

I really struggle to follow Deary’s reasoning here.  If the poor don’t use libraries as much as you think they should, then your logical course of action should be to promote campaigns to get people from disadvantaged backgrounds to read more books and use libraries more. These are the people libraries benefit the most, those who otherwise would not have access to books at all due to the cost of buying them and the fact that you can’t eat them or use them to pay bills. You shouldn’t campaign for libraries to be shut, because that means those who now have some access to free books but don’t use it enough, no have no access to books at all.

Am I being thick here? Am I missing something? Is there some really obvious way that closing libraries will improve access to literature? Or perhaps that is exactly Mr Deary’s point – he wants to discuss access to literature because he thinks there is too much of it? Middle class people shouldn’t get it for free? I honestly don’t know. I don’t follow.

Or perhaps Mr Deary is backpedalling furiously, trying to sound reasonable when he realises that everyone has seen right through him: it’s all about that £180,000 he says he would have earned last year if every book borrowed from a library had instead been bought.

But as I hope I explained above, and as many people have pointed out before me not just in relation to books but also in relation to pirated films, music and so on – a borrow is not the same as a lost sale. For some it might be. For others it represents a risk-free way of trying a product before buying either the product itself, or other products by the same creator. And for others it represents nothing more than free entertainment they otherwise would not have enjoyed at all.

Perhaps Mr Deary will come down hard on those children who lend their books to their friends, too – because that’s a lost sale by his logic, someone reading the book without paying for it. Or families who buy one copy of Rotten Romans and three kids read it – two lost sales right there. Or parents who, when their children are a little older, take their old books down to the charity shop so someone else can buy them for 50p (none of which makes it to Mr Deary’s bank account). Lost sale! And the charity shop profiting from his work, too, can’t have that.

A final point. When I was in primary school, I read a lot of the Horrible Histories books. They were so often borrowed from the school library that I even went to my local library for some. And occasionally, at an English Heritage site or in a bookshop, I’d see a Horrible Histories book I’d not read yet and I’d say “Muuuum, can I have this book pleeeease?” and she would buy it (if I’d been good). There were other books on the history of the period aimed at children my age on sale right next to the Horrible Histories one, but I knew Horrible Histories because I’d read them at school and the local library, so I picked that one instead of the other one, which I didn’t know.

So how many sales has Mr Deary had precisely because his books were available in libraries? How many books might he have sold if he banned his own books from libraries, never exposing children to them? Perhaps as many as those books which sought to compete with his at places like Wroxeter Roman City and Kenilworth Castle. I don’t think I ever asked Mum for one of those.

So in short, it seems to me that Mr Deary is just being selfish over perceived lost money, when in fact libraries have probably helped him earn more than he otherwise would have by being a source of powerful marketing for him… and paying him 6.2p per loan up to a cap of £6,600 a year for the privilege.

What do you think of Terry Deary’s comments on libraries? Does he have a valid point on anything? Am I being too harsh here?

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3 thoughts on “Terry Deary and libraries

    1. Yes exactly; that’s what made me so confused and angry about Deary’s comments, they just don’t make sense because of that benefit they provide. Though reading through my post above now, a day later, I’ve just realised how long it is and how ranty and angry I got.

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