I had been working as a librarian for a decade when, in 2001, I joined the staff of Publishers Weekly’s sister publication Library Journal. My plan—as much as I had one—was to maybe spend a couple of years at LJ, learn more about the library profession and the publishing industry from a completely different perspective, then return to work in a library. Seven years later, amid one of the most turbulent periods in publishing history, I found myself as the editorial director of what our parent company at the time, Reed Business Information, had come to call the Publishing Group—Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and School Library Journal.
At their heart, all three publications shared more than just a floor in a Park Avenue building. All three publications are valued book review journals. And all three cover the book business, although from different perspectives. But for years, PW paid little attention to library issues in its news and feature coverage beyond the occasional story. This was in part by design—Reed executives in particular feared that those who subscribed to both magazines might drop one if they thought they could get what they needed from a single source.
Also complicating matters was a belief among some in the publishing world that libraries’ infernal loaning of books was costing them sales. Who can forget some of the classic shade former AAP president and CEO Pat Schroeder would occasionally throw at libraries back in the day? And librarians had to fight for a place at what would become BookExpo, the publishing industry trade show.
But the close relationship between publishers and libraries has always been apparent to PW’s editors. After all, I’m a librarian. So too was my predecessor, PW’s great longtime editor Nora Rawlinson. And the reality is, PW has always had a strong readership and subscriber base among librarians. Because libraries are not only an enormous market for publishers, they marshal hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars every year in support of literacy and reading.
In 2009, when I was named editorial director of PW, LJ, and SLJ, the publishing world was in a difficult place. The aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse—the worst U.S. economic disaster since the Great Depression—was hitting everyone hard. Library budgets were hurting. As if that wasn’t enough, technology was churning the marketplace like never before. The iPhone had put a world of information and entertainment in people’s pockets. Google and the publishers were in court over Google’s mass scanning of print library books. The number of indie bookstores was dwindling, Barnes & Noble was flailing, and Borders collapsing. Meanwhile, Amazon was solidifying its power by selling $9.99 e-books, along with lawn chairs, underwear, flashlights, or whatever else.
The media industry was sucked into this churn. Craigslist and social networks had remade the classified and the advertising markets, and news and media outlets, including local newspapers and venerable national brands, were failing in alarming numbers. So much so, that by 2009, our British-Dutch parent company had seen enough and decided to divest its trade magazine business.
When a serious bidder emerged for RBI’s library publications in 2010, Publishers Weekly was split from the group. I initially went along with the two library publications. By 2011, I was back where I always knew I’d end up, working in a library, this time as director of the White Plains Public Library (where I’m happy to still be working today). My return to library work took a little longer than I’d expected. But I came away with a much, much greater understanding of both libraries and publishers than I’d ever bargained for.
Looking back on my time at PW, one of the things I’m most proud of is the efforts we made to begin expanding PW’s library coverage. To me, this always made perfect sense. After all, if you’re a publisher you need to know about the financial health and political reality of all of your customers. And if you’re a librarian, you already value PW for its reviews, and with its deep industry contacts, who better than PW to provide perspectives crucial to your work?
Today, more than a decade after my departure, it is encouraging to see that PW continues to expand its coverage of libraries and library issues—especially because publishers and libraries today face a host of historic threats. Whatever natural tension there may be in the relationship, the ability of libraries and publishers to work together in service of readers has never been more consequential.
For example, chief among the challenges libraries and publishers must face together are issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. For two largely white professions, this is about more than who is hired and who leads (though it’s certainly about that). It is also about ensuring equitable access to library services—print and digital. Most importantly, it is about representing the full spectrum of our communities in the books and materials we make available.
It’s this last part—our collections—where librarians are especially looking to publishers, and where publishers should be listening to libraries. Our communities are clearly telling us that they want and they need more diversity on our shelves. But there is only so much we as librarians can do. If publishers fail to acquire, support, publish, and promote more authors of color and more stories that reflect the rich diversity of our world, then libraries will in turn fail their communities.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also pointed out the need for key changes. For example, when access to library collections was limited during the initial Covid-19 lockdowns, libraries across the country reported an enormous surge in digital lending. You know what else surged? Consumer sales. So much for digital lending depressing sales. How can we use what we learned during the pandemic lockdowns to better serve the library e-book market?
This is a vital question. The pandemic prompted many readers to try e-books for the first time—and they liked the experience. While many of us in libraries anticipated a steep drop in e-book readership when people returned to their library buildings, it just hasn’t happened. I can personally attest to this trend: e-book and other digital content now account for 50% of my library’s materials budget. And current digital prices and restrictions offered by some Big Five publishers are not sustainable, as librarians have been saying for more than a decade.
Furthermore, I’m seeing evidence that digital is changing the way people interact with books and reading. Most of us grew up believing that reading is a solitary, private experience. But in the digital age, reading has become increasingly social. At my library, online book groups and discussions have surged in popularity. My library now hosts eight online book groups—and we have no plans to move these groups off Zoom and into the building when the pandemic is over. These readers are happy to connect online. And I have no doubt that these online book groups are leading to book sales.
Where else can publishers and libraries work better together? Long underfunded and under threat, school libraries are poised for a renewal. The pandemic has highlighted the role of school librarians not only in terms of academic success but also in fostering good reading habits and reading for pleasure. The sooner we bring back the essential role of school librarians, the sooner these librarians can start building better school library collections, engaging more students, and creating more lifelong readers.
In a potential bellwether this past summer, the District of Columbia—after a strong and savvy advocacy campaign—managed to pass a budget that for the first time will ensure that every public school in the district has at least one librarian. Just think what we might accomplish if publishers were to ramp up their support and advocacy efforts on behalf of school libraries?
Finally, libraries and publishers today must stand up to a chilling reality: schools and libraries are facing an organized and unprecedented effort to ban books from schools and libraries. This is a foundational threat to us all.
Sure, there will always be occasional efforts by parents intent on removing titles like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye or And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. That we can handle. But what is going on today is different, part of a larger political strategy focused on LGBTQ issues and the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Some states have even proposed jailing librarians for making books some legislators don’t like available to young readers.
When I left PW a decade ago, the library/publishing relationship was largely regarded as a marketplace issue. Today, the issues feel more fundamental and the threats more dangerous. We all face questions about basic equity and fairness. Questions about our values, our diversity, our tolerance, and about how we learn and grow individually and as a society. We face a common challenge in dealing with misinformation and our fraying trust in key institutions. And in the wake of the pandemic, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to truly address the cracks in our society, rather than just patch them over.
It is reassuring to see these issues regularly addressed from the library perspective in the pages of PW. As so many librarians have observed, after living through the past two years we simply can’t go back to the old normal. If ever there was a time for publishers, authors, and librarians to come together in service of their common goals, it is now.
Brian Kenney is director of the White Plains (N.Y.) Public Library and a former editorial director of Library Journal, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly.