By the Book: Keeping up as the book world changes

Birds do it every year, this spring migrating thing, with its accompanying twittering racket. Public librarians do it once every two years at the Public Library Association conference, this year In Philadelphia. And what are the librarians twittering about this year? They are Twittering, tweeting, Facebooking and blogging about tweeting, Facebooking and blogging as tools for communicating with colleagues and library patrons. And they’re talking about the trends and forces that are changing books, reading and the ways librarians do their work.

As is often the case, there are two divergent trends that are either pulling in opposite directions or balancing each other out. One trend is toward more computers and automation: self-service checkout stations in the library and digital downloads of e-books being made available to patrons. The other trend is toward even more “high touch” customer service, which means more personalized and interactive conversations with more of our “power patrons,” those who come to the library frequently, borrow the most and attend programs regularly.

For years libraries were on an epic quest to capture the elusive non-user. It was thought that if we were attractive enough and nice enough and offered stuff for free, people couldn’t stay away, so we kept trying to be more attractive and nicer until we were going cross-eyed from the effort. And still the non-users were not using us.

Meanwhile, we were taking for granted our most loyal users, forgetting to ask them what they wanted, what they liked or didn’t like, what they were reading, who they were. It turns out that she, the national generic power patron, is about 46, makes around $61,000 per year, has children living at home and when she comes to her local public library she takes out multiple items in different formats: books, movies, music, magazines and downloads for her e-reader.

That last item, e-reader downloads, continues to be an issue. As of 2011, one in six Americans were using e-reader devices, more than 67 percent of libraries were offering access to e-books and patrons were checking out over 35 million digital titles. New studies are showing that a person who checks out an e-book from a public library often buys that same title and sometimes another book by the same author, and that the people who borrow e-books are the same people who buy e-books, just like the same people who borrow books are those who buy books.

Libraries do not put bookstores, publishers or authors out of business. We enhance their businesses. So why are some of the publishing houses acting so peculiar? Random House just upped the price of e-books to libraries by 300 percent. They change their pricing structure midstream, they limit how many times a title can be borrowed and they are so intent on squeezing every dime that they are losing sight of the big picture. Maybe their accountants and financial officers should look into the recent history of the music business.

It seems that when there is a shift in distribution format or system for an art form, the artists survive and continue to make art; a good percentage of them are starving, of course, but that’s normal for artists. Not good, but normal. Musicians are still making music and people are still listening to it, usually as a digital download. Or they go to live concerts. The people who didn’t survive the shift were bean-counting dinosaurs who, while the world was changing, were trying to squeeze dimes out in the narrowing space between the musicians and the listeners. And now there are bean-counting dinosaurs trying to get between authors and readers, writers and libraries.

There are many things changing about the world of books. One of them is that more and more books are being self-published and there is no longer the stigma around self-publishing that it’s for amateurs who couldn’t get an agent or be published by Random House, etc.

One title that has been on many lips was ‘50 Shades of Grey,’ a pseudonymous self-published e-book trilogy by a British author that started life as something called “fanfic,” a subgenre in which people write their own fiction using characters first created by other authors. According to what I’ve read about it, this particular fanfic is based on characters from “Twilight,” Stephenie Meyer’s popular vampire series for teens. This author has taken this relatively chaste world, changed the names and turned it into another sub-genre that is being called “mommy porn.” Is it homage or plagiarism? Admiration or desecration?

There are many delicately shaded nuances of opinion about all of these issues, but the incontrovertible fact is that “50 Shades of Grey” is a publishing phenomenon. It has sold more than 250,000 copies and the first volume was recently No. 1 on both and Vintage, Random House’s paperback division, will be printing it for distribution in early April.

Meanwhile, back at the library, March has been a good month for reading Irish authors. I discovered a new author, Declan Hughes, whose ‘City of Lost Girls’ travels between Dublin and Los Angeles with great verve and excitement. Our book discussion group enjoyed Peter Carey’s ‘Parrot and Olivier in America,’ which could be seen as a sort of fanfic about De Toqueville, or at least an homage. Now we are reading ‘The Piano Teacher’ by Janice Y. K. Lee and next month we will participate in the Long Island Reads initiative by sharing ‘The Lost Wife,’ the debut novel by Long Island native Alyson Richman, with other Long Island readers. I look forward to sitting outside in the sun to do some of my reading, while listening to the twittering of actual birds.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.