Thursday, February 16, 2012

Borrowing vs. Buying Books: the Numbers

CC BY-NC by O'Reilly Conferences
I had many stimulating discussions and met many interesting people at this week's Tools of Change for Publishing Meeting in New York. I'm much too busy helping with development of to do a proper review. I'm obsessed with bug-fixing at the moment. So I just had to write and fix a minor bug in a presentation I heard.

Tim Coates, of Bilbary, made the statement that "twice as many books are borrowed in the US as are sold by booksellers". This factoid made it into at least one report of the session, on the role of libraries moving forward. I recently worked on compiling some data about this, and while the effect of the statement is still valid, it's not accurate. And for all I know, Coates may have misinterpreted something I wrote, so I feel that I should participate in fixing this data bug.

In 2009, the most recent year for which real data is available, US public libraries circulated 2.44 billion items, according to data from IMLS. That's a lot. But not all of them were books. In Ohio, 40% of the public library circulation that year was non-book material, or in other words, audio and video. If we assume the same fraction for the entire US, we're left with a book circulation of about 1.45 billion. US public libraries spent $889 million on print materials in 2009, or 61 cents per book circulation.

The BookStats 2010 survey reported publisher net unit sales of 2.57 billion. Trade books comprise about half the dollar volume, $13.94 billion. So if we compare public library circulation with trade book unit sales, they're roughly equal in units. If we compare the public library spend with the trade book total revenue (offset by one year), we see that public libraries make up about 6.4% of the market. If you add the K-12 education sector to the total (34% of library circulation is "juvenile" literature), the library share drops to 4.6%

These data-based numbers are worth keeping in mind when we think about the economic impact of library lending on book sales. We shouldn't single out Coates; I've heard un-sourced numbers quoted that are all over the place. There's so little hard data available that these real numbers are all that more precious.


  1. Thank you for clearing that up. I've heard Coates say that and wonder what he was basing his numbers on. My other issue is that he's implying that each of those circs is a lost sale for publishers which is equally misleading, but that's another issue

  2. In the Netherlands the 2:1 ratio actually (2010) holds true: ca 93 million books borrowed from PLs vs ca 44 million books sold. More info here:

  3. Frank- Thanks for the contribution! Does the 44 million sold include imported books? Is there data for the amount spent?

  4. Eric - yes it includes imports, however not the copies finding their way into the country from foreign sellers (notably,, No numbers about these. Amount spent in 2011: 589 million euros, that is excluding school and academic books

  5. Eric

    Many thanks for highlighting these figures. You are right that I wasn't aware of the portion of library circulation that is books - so thank you for that.

    However the other factor that I had tried to estimate was the portion of books that are sold that are trade books and out of those, the number that are actually read.

    So firstly I would distinguish trade from academic out of the 'publisher net unit sales' (in the US) and then I would distinguish those which are read from those which are bought. As a retailer (who follows market research), I would have estimated that about 2/3 of books are trade books and about 55% of those are actually read within a year of purchase - or at all - the remainder are given as gifts and not read.

    I know that in the UK my ratio of 2:1 holds true, approximately - in fact it is slightly higher than 2 :1

    Bobbi -- in no sense would I imply that these readings are lost sales-- I don't believe that, nor would I want to suggest it. My sole purpose is to highlight the important role that public libraries play in reading overall.

    If one divided the demographic I bet we would find that the ratio for both children and older people is even higher than 2:1.

    Tim Coates

    1. Tim, thanks for the followup.

      I think the important conclusion is that the public library and bookstore channels are comparable in volume. We can try to sift out the proportion of trade, juvenile literature and academic books in the two channels, and for each category the ratio will be somewhat less or somewhat more. Booksellers no doubt dominate the "coffee table book" market, for example. I agree that 2:1 probably holds for children's books.

      The "reading" (as opposed to buying or lending) numbers get speculative. Gifted books get read, some lent books don't. Many lends are non-trade, but the available circ data doesn't break down that way. And we've not considered used books at all, or bought books that are read by multiple people. (I often read books my wife buys, but never the books my wife gets from the library.)

  6. Eric

    No problem with any of that. What would be interesting would be some market research /anthropology asking, 'Where did the book come from that you are reading now? ' so we would have some quantified information.

    The point I was trying to make at ToC was that publishers should look more widely than just at their sales data - and that much of the information they need about reading habits, and how people respond to authors, lies in the library management systems of the public library services. This, I was trying to suggest, gives a basis for discussion between publishers and libraries of the kind that everyone is calling for.

    I had the privilege of being able to suggest these steps at the recent Dallas midwinter convention to officers of the ALA and I have also had the opporunity to elaborate on the same subject with the New York public library service. They are looking for common ground with publishers and this is one fertile field in which it may lie.

    Very best.. Tim