A distribution dilemma

Many books are never borrowed
Swedish public libraries have been able to benefit from the government literature subsidy system since 1999. All municipalities and nearly 100 selected booksellers receive a copy of every book title that has been awarded literature subsidy. In total this amounts to an additional 700 – 800 titles a year.

The following is an interim follow-up report on the Swedish distribution subsidy system.

Swedish publishers have been able to apply for state subsidy for their publications since 1975. At that time, a grants system was established whereby a publisher could receive a printing subsidy based on the number of printed sheets used to produce a copy of the title in question. These subsidies were originally intended for new Swedish adult fiction, adult fiction translated into Swedish, children and young people’s fiction, non-fiction for adults and literary classics.
In the years that followed, several adjustments and additions were made to the system: in 1977 subsidies were introduced for fiction written in immigrant and minority languages; in 1978 the ordinance was redrafted and made permanent; in 1981 a subsidy was int roduced for children and young people’s literature in immigrant languages; in 1985 subsidies started for children’s comic strips; in 1993 the ordinance was once again redrafted and subsidies for picture books and illustrated works were introduced.

Despite all these modifications, the basic principles of the subsidy system have remained largely unchanged. The idea has been to provide a production subsidy to enable a publisher to produce a broad range of titles with a high level of quality.

The literature subsidy was a product of the 1968 government survey on literature, the main conclusions of which were published in 1974 under the title Boken (The book). The 1997 official government report on books, Boken i tiden (The book in our age), proposed an extension of the subsidy so that it would cover not only production but also distribution. The Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs received the task of providing municipal libraries and a selection of booksellers with subsidised books. The first deliveries were made during the first six months of 1999. According to the distribution subsidy, publishers receive a grant equivalent to half of the usual net price (i.e. the price at which the book is sold to the retailer) for 385 copies of the title that has been awarded a subsidy on the grounds of its literary excellence.

It is then the responsibility of the publishers to send these copies (intended for the 289 municipalities and almost 100 booksellers plus a few supplementary copies) to a distribution company, with which the Council for Cultural Affairs has a contract, who then arranges distribution to the recipients.

In order to examine the effects of the distribution subsidy, the Council for Cultural Affairs has commissioned an inventory of selected libraries’ stocks and borrowing rates of those titles receiving the literary subsidy. First of all, research was carried out regarding the availability of and demand for those titles that received the literature subsidy between 1997 and 1998; the first two years immediately before the distribution subsidy came into effect.

Every year the Council for Cultural Affairs provides support for the publication of almost 800 titles. The additional acquisition of so many books per year varies greatly in significance from one municipal library to the next. In one of Sweden’s smallest municipalities, Nordmaling, one year’s supply of subsidised titles corresponds to almost 40 per cent of the libraries’ normal annual acquisitions, whereas in Västerås, one of the country’s larger municipalities, it is equivalent to only 4 per cent of annual acquisitions.With an estimated average price per copy of SEK 175, receiving an additional 775 copies amounts to in the region of SEK 130,000, which in Nordmaling is equivalent to almost 35 per cent of the libraries’ media costs, but in Västerås amounts to no more than 3.5 per cent of the equivalent costs.

Purchases of subsidised titles appeared to be unequally distributed, both among different municipalities and among different support categories.

Densely populated municipalities had purchased a larger proportion of subsidised titles between 1997 and 1998 than those municipalities with a low population density. Children and young people’s literature was the support category where the highest number of purchases had been made in all municipalities. The median was about 85 per cent in both the two years prior to the introduction of the distribution subsidy. This figure rose to 95 per cent in 1999. As regards adult fiction translated into Swedish, the level of purchasing was just below 50 per cent in 1997 and 1998, whereas in 1999, stocks had risen to 85 per cent. As regards the three support categories – new Swedish adult fiction, comic strips for children and adult non-fiction – median stocks were approximately 33 per cent during 1997 and 1998, rising to median levels of 83 per cent, 61 per cent and 77 per cent for each of these categories respectively in 1999. It is clear from these figures that the distribution subsidy has had the desired effect. – more titles receiving literature subsidy are available for loan at those lib raries included in the survey.

Loans of 1998 and 1999 subsidised titles in a selection of municipalities

Number of loans
Borrowed titles
Number of zero-loans
Number of loans
Loans/per copy
  98 99 98 99 98 99 98 99 Ale 77 138 7 28 633 1183 5,2 3,8 Härjedalen 65 108 12 44 1040 1329 5,6 3,9 Motala 76 108 0 5 989 1661 9,9 8,9 Nordmaling 59 106 11 40 298 398 4,1 1,6 Ronneby 115 185 1 8 1317 2169 7,4 3,0 Skurup 54 129 10 30 639 971 7,6 4,0 Västerås 164 182 8 16 7443 7412 12,4 10,2

It may appear strange that stocks of subsidised titles do not amount to 100 per cent in all the categories. There are at least two possible explanations for this. First of all, not all subsidised titles were included in the first year of distribution, due to the fact that several of the subsidy applications which were dealt with at the b eginning of 1999 were titles which had been published at the end of 1998. The other reason is that not all the lib raries in the survey had given priority to all the subsidised titles. Certain libraries choose from among their titles and register the most popular ones in their catalogue immediately, leaving the others to be registered when time allows.

In order to analyse the extent to which subsidised titles are borrowed, one particular support category has been examined in more detail: new Swedish adult fiction. Both encouraging and disappointing results come to light.

Due to the increase in stocks of subsidised titles, the number of loans of such titles has also risen at all the libraries in the survey. For the same reason – the increase in stocks – the proportion of titles that are never borrowed has also increased. At two of the libraries, (both belonging to the smallest muni – cipalities in the country),as many as 40 and 44 per cent of the catalogued titles in the new adult literature category, which had received literature subsidy in 1999, had not been borrowed on one single occasion when the survey was carried out in autumn 2000. Both these municipalities are nevertheless those with the lowest number of 1999 subsidised titles in their stocks. The total number of loans of all copies of subsidised titles has increased between 1998 and 1999 at all the libraries except one,however the number of loans per copy has decreased at all of them during the same period.

231 titles received a subsidy within the category of new adult fiction in 1999. Of these 231 titles, 38 were excluded from the distribution subsidy at the beginning of the year. Of the remaining 193 titles included in the distribution subsidy, 37 had either not b een borrowed at all or at most three times at the 10 libraries in the survey. No less than 28 of these 37 were poetry anthologies, four titles belonged to some other kind of fiction category (short stories, diaries/causeries) and the five remaining titles were different biographies in the fields of art, music and literary history.

The implementation of the distribution subsidy has once again brought the issue of the role of public libraries to a head: do they have an educational role and should they be a ctively recommending titles to library visitors, or should they simply satisfy the requests of their customers and not waste valuable shelf space on titles which are not being borrowed? Naturally the two alternatives are not mutually exclusive, and no one is suggesting that all municipalities should have the same policy as regards their libraries. Nevertheless, when it comes to how the distribution subsidy is to be designed in the future, it is important that these issues are dealt with in future evaluations.

During 2001, data on the titles available and the borrowing rates of subsidised titles will be collected. In addition these facts and figures will be complemented by interviews with the staff at the libraries in the survey in order to ascertain what needs and wishes there are. The final report should be ready in the autumn of 2002.

Administrator at the Department for Literature, Libraries and Cultural Periodicals Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs.