Toronto Public Library Pulps Used Book Buying Program

kennedy-eglinton-library-01[1]Citing author complaints and lackluster results, the Toronto Public Library announced yesterday that it was ending an unpopular cost-cutting measure.

For the past four months the library has been running a controversial program where it would buy used books from the public.  It was paying $5 a piece for a select list of hardback titles. Only the most in demand titles made the list, which was updated on the first of each month.

While this sounds like a good idea in general, once implemented it proved to be impractical. The Toronto Star reports that the library only bought 127 books by the end of February, at a total cost of $2,246. That works out to about $17.68 per copy, and according to librarian Vickery Bowles it would have cost less to buy the same number of books through the library’s regular acquisition process.

It’s a pity that this program failed, although I can see why that happened. As much as I liked the idea, the fact the effort was limited to only buying hot titles doomed it from the start.

The books which the library would most want to buy – the books people most want to read – would not so coincidentally also be in high demand in the used book market. That means that a seller could get more than $5 by selling the book online.

Or at least that is how the dynamic would work here in the US; I don’t know that the Canadian used book market works the same way.

In spite of the similarities, Canada is a different country with different laws. For example, in Canada libraries pay annual royalties each time a book is loaned to authors foreach title carried in a libraries catalog. The US has no such requirement, although other countries, including the UK, have similar programs.

On the other hand the US and Canada are similar in how authors would respond to the program. In the US we might have JA Konrath launching eBooksAreForever in order to sell ebooks to libraries on friendly terms, but we also have the Authors Guild, which would likely have responded with hostility on the same level as The Writer’s Union of Canada, which objected to the program.

Similarly, both countries also have no shortage of authors who would choose to respond with histrionics. In Canada, that would be Noah Richler. Writing for the Toronto Star, he argues:

This innocuous sounding program is but the latest manifestation of the so-called “culture of free” that has ravaged the media, music and book worlds. Without the FBI threatening quarter-million-dollar fines or five year prison terms for copyright infringement — as it does on DVDs — the value system that supports the prospect of just reward is eroded. Individuals and companies used to paying nothing for artists’ work now do so without compunction.

Yes, sound fiscal conservatism is the exact same thing as wanting something for free. He’s right.

He goes on to add that:

All writers think of libraries as friends, in no small part because of the payments doled out by the Public Lending Right that compensates the author every time a book is borrowed. These payments are helpful in their own right, but also because they do that other thing that money does, which is to honour writers’ hard work and craft.

If you’re only the friend of people who give you money, sir, you’re not much of a friend at all.

Nate Hoffelder

View posts by Nate Hoffelder
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills weekly. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.


  1. Susan Caron26 March, 2015

    Canadian authors are not paid each time their books are borrowed from a library. The Public Lending Right bases annual pyments to authors on the number of their titles (not copies) held in large libraries across Canada.

    1. Nate Hoffelder26 March, 2015

      Thank you for the correction. I misread the article.

  2. […] Toronto Public Library Pulps Used Book Buying Program (Ink, Bits & Pixels) […]

  3. Jen4 September, 2015

    Also, as the link in the previous comment clarifies, not all books are eligible for the royalty program. The PLR has decided to provide royalties to authors of some types of work and not others (e.g., non-fiction).


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