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The Influence of Lending Libraries on the Sale of Novels (1884)

Lending libraries exerted a strong influence on German reading habits throughout the nineteenth century, but, as this document shows, their impact was not uncontroversial. In these years, a typical novel might be published in an edition of 700-800 copies, approximately 90% of which would be sent to lending libraries. The following text appeared in the Börsenblatt für den deutschen Buchhandel [Financial Newspaper for the German Book Trade], the German publishing trade’s most important journal. Author Albert Last tries to defend lending libraries against the charge that they constrained the production and sale of novels. He explains, correctly, that the production of books in the 1880s was higher than ever before, and he musters plenty of statistics in support of his argument. He also notes that novels were becoming more and more important and edging out theological books, which had been the best sellers at mid-century.

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Among booksellers and writers, there is a widespread belief that lending libraries are to blame for the decline in book sales. Based on this error, various efforts have been made in support of the goal of pushing aside or replacing the institution of the lending library.

This goal was frankly stated in the program of the Romanzeitung [Fiction Magazine]. Its lead was followed by the Romanbibliothek [Novel Library], the monthly periodical Vom Fels zum Meer [From Rock to Sea],* various cheap collections, and most recently Ost und West [East and West],** as well as by countless illustrated and non-illustrated weekly periodicals and family journals. Virtually all political newspapers raised the issue of the novel in their columns.

Just as writers had to come to the gradual realization that their daunting descriptions of the [supposedly poor] condition of books in lending libraries failed to direct readers away from the lending library and toward buying, adversarial booksellers who make similar efforts are just as unlikely, as we see it, to encounter even the slightest degree of success. Although we cannot argue that the overall number of lending-library patrons has increased substantially over the last ten years, there is no sign that this number has declined either.

[ . . . ]

From the publishing enterprises, we see that each new monthly journal, each fiction magazine, as well as each family journal and collection of cheap novels, only creates competition within its own group and does not take any territory away from the lending librarian. In fact, the latter is not even reluctant to see these efforts; rather, he uses them to increase the profile of his reading circle even more. Perhaps we will even come to a point in Germany when the lending librarian will profit more from these types of publications than from lending books. Why then should a sensible lending librarian be opposed to these efforts, as many people believe him to be? To be sure, no evidence can be produced to contradict the argument that the clientele of lending libraries would be more numerous in the absence of these efforts; yet, we cannot share this opinion, since we believe instead that they direct more readers towards lending libraries than they take away from them.

* A family magazine established by J[oseph] Kürschner (1881-1905) with a large circulation. [All footnotes are from Max Bucher, Werner Hal, Georg Jäger, and Reinhard Wittmann, eds., Realismus und Gründerzeit. Manifest und Dokument zur deutschen Literatur 1848-1880 [Realism and the Founding Era: Public Statement and Report on German Literature 1848-1880] 2 vols., vol. 2, Manifeste und Dokumente [Public Statements and Reports]. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 1975, pp. 669-71.]
** Also an illustrated family journal, albeit with lower circulation numbers, edited by C. Guerdon and Franz Scherer, Vienna, 1880ff.

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