How Large Is The Library Market?

by Nancy Humphreys on November 14, 2011

The answer to this question is that we don’t really know. At present there is no central source of statistics on the number of books libraries buy or on how much money they spend on books each year. However, here are two other ways of estimating the importance to you, as an author, of libraries as a market.

First, Publishers Weekly, the chief journal for the publishing industry, has just featured an article with the title “Survey Says Library Users Are Your Best Customers”. This is how the survey came about. RR Bowker company’s PubTrak Consumer gathered the data used in Library Journal’s (LJ) new quarterly publication, Patron Files. Here’s what Publishers Weekly reported about public library users:

LJ editors have been amazed by the strength of the findings so far – including the degree to which libraries are boosting book sales. ‘Our data show that over 50% of all library users report purchasing books by an author they were introduced to in the library.’”

That was a total surprise to me. But then I thought about the times I’ve bought books, both fiction and non-fiction, by authors I came across at the library. It makes sense. And the support of libraries for book-buying extends beyond print books to ebooks as well!

Believe me, this wasn’t always true. The first American college library at Harvard began with a collection of four hundred books, sent to Cambridge, Massachusetts by a clergyman in England, named Harvard, in the mid-17th century. And here we come to a second way to guesstimate the size of the library market.

A longitudinal look at library book-buying

When the library opened (for a short period each week) Harvard didn’t have a librarian; instead the books were chained to the shelves to keep them from “walking off”. 200 years later, book circulation at Harvard was still a hot issue when the famous American essayist, Henry David Thoreau, a former student, complained in his writings about being unable to get a library card from his alma mater.

I came across these anecdotes about our early libraries while working as a research assistant for Dr. Wayne S. Yenawine, Dean of Syracuse University and later, of my alma mater, the University of South Carolina School of Librarianship. Dean Yenawine had published a well-known book on library design. When I met him, he was pursuing two of his favorite topics: the history of American humorists, and the history of American university libraries.

The Dean himself began his library career at the Air Tactical School at Maxwell Field in Montgomery Alabama. This was the Army Air Corps center for military education. Later it became the Air University for the Air Force when the Air Force was created before World War II.

When the name changed, the library at the Air University was charged with developing professional leadership for the entire US Air Force. The library collected research materials: books and journals, and maps and microfilm. In 1946 Dean Yenawine was brought in from the University of Georgia to build the library. The nucleus of the Air University library consisted of 10,219 books and bound journals. Within two years, Dr. Yenawine increased that number to 12, 551 books, an increase of 20%.

By 1980, a year before Dean Yenawine died, the Air University had nearly half a million (i.e., 485,000) total items in its library catalog, and it was having severe space problems in housing them. (Source: Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science: The Air University, Volume 32 United Kingdom.)

Today, the Muir S. Fairchild Research Information Center at The Air University is the premier library in the Department of Defense. It currently holds over 2.6 million items, including 429,000 monographs (i.e., books) and bound periodical volumes.

That was an increase from 12,551 bound volumes to almost half a million bound volumes in just 60 years! That is an average acquisitions rate of nearly 7,000 new volumes every year. The majority of these bound volumes would be books.

How large is the library market?

Going back to Harvard, the tiny college collection with just a few hundred books back in the mid 1600s – Harvard now has the largest university library in the world. It is the fourth largest library in the U.S. Currently Harvard libraries house 15.6 million volumes. During the academic year, 2008-2009, the Harvard library spent $27.5 million on books and other library materials.

Over the 375 years since Harvard was founded, that would be an average acquisitions of 41,600 volumes a year. Nearly forty-two thousand bound volumes a year, the majority of which would be books, is quite a market!

Of course, the average number of books bought each year by the Air University’s Library and Harvard is a very rough figure. Book buying has grown exponentially over time, not by a set amount each year. But a few years ago when the statistics were available, they showed all US libraries combined were spending around 15 billion dollars each year on books. Given that a million book titles are published in this country each year, it’s no surprise our libraries spend billions of dollars.

The library market is clearly bigger than Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all of the other online bookstores combined.

Librarians buy all kinds of books, new and old, published and self-published, print or digital. Librarians buy whatever they think their patrons will want to read. Because libraries serve all kinds of organizations and different local communities throughout the US, every library is a bit different than any other.  The trick in selling a book to libraries is to identify the right libraries and the right librarians to sell your book to. Then make sure they know about your book.

This is the objective of my new book, Marketing Your Book to Libraries, and Barbara Techels’ new guide, Sell More Books Through School and Library Author Appearances, both currently on sale as a package on this site.

We had such a success selling our books together in October that we are continuing the sale for the rest of the year. If you are ready to sell your book to the largest book market in the United States, please check out our Sell More Books page on this site.

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Marketing Your Book to Libraries Marketing Your Books to Libraries: An Insider's Guide for Authors by former librarian Nancy K. Humphreys includes: 
  • How to tell what kind of library to target
  • Types of librarians and books they order
  • Strategies to get past the "gatekeepers" who influence librarians
  • Right ways to approach librarians most likely to order your book

Learn more »

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