In early May, the Trump administration proposed placing 25% tariffs on a range of products, including books, imported from China. We believe that the tariffs on books are not in the public interest of the United States. They will drive up the prices of all books and have unintended consequences adversely impacting millions of children, parents, public and school libraries, and the livelihoods of book retailers.
Our concern about book tariffs is based on a combined 70 years analyzing the U.S. book industry, including an extensive review of pertinent import data from The Bowker Annual (covering the years 1980–2007) and the Library and Book Trade Almanac (2008–2018). These books relied on U.S. International Trade Administration import data and are used extensively by the Library of Congress. Both books show that China is an important source of printed books.
Though books imported from China include various book categories, a large percentage were illustrated books for children between the ages of one and 14. Research published in Access for All: Closing the Book Gap for Children in Early Education shows that within the first year of life, “children will begin to imitate sounds, recognize familiar voices, and engage in shared communication with their first books... the roots of early literacy”—making it critical to get books in front of the very young.
In 2017 there were more than 61 million children between the ages of one and 14, many of whose illustrated books come from public and school libraries or are purchased by families from retailers. Both libraries and bookstores face financial challenges.
In 2017, there were 16,862 public libraries in the U.S. These are pivotal institutions in the communities that they serve, and yet they tend to be underfunded. New York City’s public libraries are an example of the impact of underfunding. The City, a nonprofit news organization in New York, reported that there are 220 public library branches in the city with, in total, an estimated $896 million in unfunded repairs, which include “everything from leaky roofs to defective air conditioning units and boilers to decrepit bathrooms.” Children also obtain illustrated books from the nation’s underfunded 66,768 elementary school (pre-K through eighth grade) libraries.
Bricks-and-mortar book retailers are another source of books, but they too face economic pressures, including higher rents and wages, that would, in all likelihood, force them to pass along to consumers whatever price increase publishers make to account for the cost of tariffs. Though there is one national bookstore chain, the vast majority of bookstores are small, privately owned enterprises. Although independent booksellers have experienced a revival, there are still fewer bookstores today than there were in the past. In 1995, there were 28,510 U.S. bookstores, which together generated an annual $11.2 billion, according to the Library and Book Trade Almanac. The almanac reported that by 2017, the number of bookstores had declined to 11,432, with sales down almost 10%, to $10.11 billion.
The average suggested retail price for an illustrated juvenile book in 2017 was $20.01, according to the Library and Book Trade Almanac 2018. With resources for public and school libraries already stretched thin and booksellers operating in a market with small margins, passing on the cost of a 25% tariff would make it difficult, if not impossible, for many libraries to purchase new books (or buy replacement copies of books that are damaged or lost) and for families to buy books. Therefore, we believe that the Trump administration should exclude all books imported from China from proposed tariffs, because tariffs would have a detrimental impact on American readers and, in particular, would restrict children’s access to books.
Albert N. Greco, a professor of marketing at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business, has written extensively about the U.S. book industry. Jim Milliot is PW’s editorial director.