What are the most borrowed books from UK libraries?

Circa 2009, three out of the top four are by James Patterson.  Eventually Ian Rankin and Ruth Rendell make the list.  Dan Brown I believe too many people have bought or already read.  None of the Booker Final Six from the previous year make the list.

Catherine Cookson used to dominate these metrics but she has been swamped by American popular authors and is down to number ten for the decade.  Number one for the noughties is in fact Jacqueline Wilson. That's an odd status to hold: "worth reading, just not worth buying."

A broader point is that non-fiction does very poorly on the "most borrowed" list.  I'll offer up the hypothesis that low-brow fiction is what most people actually want to read, whereas many people will buy but not read non-fiction, for purposes of affiliation with the author or the concepts associated with the book.

Overall borrowers are more conservative than buyers, in the literal sense of wanting to borrow the same authors over and over again, yet in different titles.

Hat tip goes to the always-excellent Literary Saloon.


Popular fiction wears its heart on its sleeve. You can glean all the meaning after a single reading. If this is true, why buy when you can borrow?

Perhaps evidence that these are the kind of books you borrow not buy as they have little long time value?

I'll offer up the hypothesis that low-brow fiction is what most people [who don't have the disposable income to spend on books] actually want to read, whereas people with money to buy books are more likely to read non-fiction (than the average person).

Also, how fast a reader can get through a book will affect its turnover rate. An extremely popular book that on average takes a month to read will max out at 12 borrows a year, while a book that takes a week to read will have up to 52 borrows a year. Non-fiction books are denser, taking longer per page to read, and often less compelling, causing the reader to read fewer pages at a time and fewer times per week. Non-fiction is probably also longer on average, although I can't say for sure.

Finally, non-fiction books are probably far more likely to sit on a borrower's shelf, waiting to be read, while the borrower says to himself "I really should start reading that book" and moves on to the latest romance or crime fiction novel. This type of phenomenon has been documented by Netflix with heavier, more serious movies like Schindler's List or The English Patient.

I suspect the most important factor is the different profile of library users versus book purchasers (as a couple of other commenters have hinted).

Children and teenagers use the library as they are short of money; pensioners for the same reason and because they have more spare time.

However, this does not explain the astonishing lack of JK Rowling books on the list; instead, that is probably because the last one came out in 2007 and everyone has read it now.

I wonder if habit formation plays a role - if people develop a habit of reading a prolific author perhaps they are more likely to seek out low-cost ways of satisfying their addiction.

Worth noting the point of this list: or perhaps the source. PLR: Public Lending Right. Every time a book gets borrowed the author earns some money. Not a lot, to be sure, a penny perhaps per loan. There's also a hard cap (£7,500 a year maybe? per author, total of all books borrowed, not just one title) and a low cut off (less than £100 doesn't get paid....but take all those numbers with a grain of salt, I'm running on memory here).)

As a system it's one I rather like and one of the (few) things I'm happy to pay my tax money for.

I find the conservative comment interesting. I'm far more willing to take risks with books when the only cost is to carry them to the counter to check out of the library. Have discovered all kinds of new stuff that way. But if I'm spending money, it's going to be on things I _know_ I love and want to have on hand to read at anytime.

I agree with the "worth reading, just not worth buying" characterization. In my son's case I can say it with no irony at all: since the end of 3rd grade he's been able to read up to half an age-appropriate book in the car on the way home from the bookstore. In 6th grade he read Dune in a little over a day and Lord of the Rings in just three or four. Based on the per-hour reading-time cost of books it would be cheaper to take the kid to Disney Land or Whistler. So the library gets heavy duty.

On the other hand he'll pour over non-fiction for days (starting, for some reason, with a college-level agricultural textbook called "Managing Insect Pests" when he was definitely too young to read.)

So yeah, barring major financial windfalls Patrick O'Brian's 20-book series will soon go into his reservation queue the same way Brian Jacques and J.K. Rowling did.


Speaking for myself, when I go to libraries I almost never check out non-fiction works, preferring instead to take notes. Unless my behavior is unique that might explain some of the disparity between fiction and non-fiction check-out rates. (Which, incidentally, reminds me of Megan McArdle's disingenuous thought experiment on Medicare and mortality: whether you "check out" probably isn't the best metric for affordable healthcare either.)


I'll offer two different hypotheses. Fiction dominates nonfiction because:

1. Demand for fiction titles is driven by tastemakers (reviews, awards, name-brand authors), whereas demand for nonfiction titles is driven by circumstances (a home repair question, a New Year's resolution, Tyler Cowen). Thus fiction is a "blockbuster" market and nonfiction is a "long tail" market. (This isn't really born out by a casual glance at best seller statistics in PW though.)

2. There are substitutes for non-fiction titles but not for fiction titles. You can choose from dozens of more or less fungible books on Napoleon or dieting, but substitutes for novels by Dan Brown or JK Rowling are fewer and less perfect.

Either of these hypotheses defends library patrons from the charge of literary hypocrisy...

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