Making the Book Chain Stronger – and Unique

In many countries, the series of actors – and actions – that take a book from idea to bookshelf is known as the ‘book chain’.

The metaphor is attractive because of its simplicity, with a book to be published passed from writer, to publisher, to distributor, to bookshops and libraries, and to readers.

It is also used for planning policy interventions to support culture, with each actor benefitting from different supports – grants, tax reductions, or other tools.

Of course there is disruption. Plenty of authors simply bypass publishers simply by self-publishing. The work of distributors and bookshops (and some elements of the work of libraries) is subject to competition from the internet.

What is more worrying – as has been highlighted in online discussions in Senegal recently – is a tendency to forget libraries. This blog explains both why libraries are essential throughout the book chain, and indeed, why they make it unique.


Support at Every Step: Libraries Across the Book Chain

In the most simple terms, libraries are a market for publishers – in some cases, they are even the predominant ones (notably for scholarly works). However, this is to forget the other ways they provide help.

Authors – who tend to have a very positive attitude towards libraries – benefit from not only form the possibility to carry out research, but also to meet with some of the most passionate readers out there, and to be discovered by new audiences. Given that, alongside the desire to earn a living, simply being read is a high priority, this makes libraries into natural friends of authors.

For publishers, libraries are also effectively free advertising space, and make it feasible for them to produce a wider variety of content than would be possible if only working through bookshops. Libraries are also key players in developing the book-buyers of the future by encouraging literacy and a love of reading.

Similarly, libraries also be a useful source of feedback about demand for individual books, complementing that provided by bookshops. They are also are a vital part of the overall infrastructure for books – through running ISBN agencies, managing national biographies, and ensuring the preservation of works for future generations.

For bookshops, where perhaps the risk of competition can be seen as highest, there is in fact complementarity. Various studies from the US have shown that not only are people using libraries also more likely to use bookshops, but that discovering a new author in a library often leads to buying a second book at the bookshop.



Making it Unique: Why Libraries Make the Book Chain Special

What is missing from the previous set of actors are of course readers – libraries’ primary focus.

Indeed, it is this focus on meeting reader needs, first and foremost, that makes libraries and the book chain as a whole so special. No other sector of the creative industries has such a central focus on ensuring that it is not only about profit, but also about access.

This makes sense. Literacy is a core life-skill, and it is clear that a love of books and reading tends to make for better chances in life.

Arguably, as set out in the UNESCO Recommendation of 2015, the written word has a special role in sharing the thoughts and ideas that animate societies, and spreading the knowledge that drives progress. In this situation, giving everyone an equitable chance to access and enjoy it is essential to ensuring social cohesion, innovation, and compliance with international obligations.

Libraries, then, can be a source of pride for all others in the book chain – the thing that marks it out as being truly democratic, truly a contribution to broader social goals, rather than just a market or elite activity.



Clearly, the book chain is not without its problems, not least the need to hold its ground in the competition for people’s attention with other activities.

Moreover, there are ongoing discussions about how it is most appropriate for governments to support the creation and dissemination of new ideas, how to ensure that authors get a fair deal. As with any activity involving public money (including of course libraries), it’s important to be careful about how it is spent.

What is certain, at least, is that libraries are, and should be, part of the solution.


Find out more about how to support new authors – and creativity in general at session 188 – From Consumers to Creators – of this year’s World Library and Information Congress.

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