Thursday, April 27, 2006

Lecture Me Not

I recently bought a collection of short stories that was published by a small, independent outfit. In the back, after the ‘about the author’ entry is a ‘note to the reader’ that gives me a lecture. The tone of this short letter is non-threatening in an effort to not come across too high and mighty, but it failed, leaving me a bit peeved off. This letter reminds me that I should not buy used books, sell my books to used books stores, visit libraries, and it cautions me to not even lend my books to a friend or colleague – unless they would likely buy that book or others.

The intent of this letter is to remind me as a reader that authors don’t get paid unless you are buying a new book. In the chain of money, when a new book is purchased the publisher is getting money, which eventually makes its way to an author. When a book is bought used, that money is not going to the publisher – they’ve already had their cut for that book. And clearly, no profits are made when a book is lent by individuals or libraries.

Authors generally don’t make much money, most need a day job. This letter implies that it is my duty as a reader to buy new books to support authors and publishers. That somehow I have sinned against an author when I buy their books used, or god forbid, check out a copy from the library.

I will admit that I hadn’t previously thought much about buying used books, and how that money is not trickling back to the author. I do see the point in supporting these authors, especially authors who don’t have big contracts, and are not as widely read. And I agree that authors need money to function in society, just as I do (which the letter was kind enough to remind me of). However, the inclusion of this letter leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Who are these people to lecture me on how I should spend my money. They know nothing of my finances, of how much I spend on books, on how often I buy new books versus used books.

The more juvenile side of me wants to boycott this publisher and to never buy a new book again. The realist in me knows I already spend too much on books, and if anything, I should not be buying books at all at the moment. My tax dollars pay for the library, I should use it more. But things are never simple.

The truth is I want to buy new books – hardback books at that. But this is just unrealistic considering my financial place in the world. I’m relatively secure and should appreciate it more, but can I afford to spend $30 for every book I buy? Now consider that I’ll buy about 100 books in an average year; that’s $3000 per year on books (not counting taxes). Sure, I can cut that down a bit by sales and such, but the point remains whether I’m spending $500, $1500, or $5000 on books in a year. That is just a lot of money – especially considering that all too often the quality of the book binding is just not what it once was. I’ve had books fall apart after two reads, and I’m not that hard on books.

Yet another factor is the already rampant consumerism in the western world and how it relates to the production of books. Not enough books are constructed out of recycled materials, most books require the death of trees and all the consequences associated with deforestation and yes, global warming. Right now, reading a used book (or recycled book in this context) is much more environmentally conscious than reading a new book. I suppose I could always read an e-book, but what that does to my eyes and sanity deserves an article in its own right – let’s just leave it at I’m not a fan of e-books.

So, in the end, I’m quite irritated that some small publisher, whom I did buy a new book from, had the audacity to print a lecture telling me that it is unethical to buy used books and that I need to think twice about lending books to friends. Yes, it’s a bit of an overreaction, but then I’ve never been very good with condescending lectures from anyone about anything. I entirely sympathize with authors, especially the majority of whom don’t earn a lot of money. I too have to work for a living and can certainly relate, but I can’t agree that this justifies the printing of this letter in its current form.

So, has this letter from the publisher managed to alter my buying habits? Only in one small way, I am now less likely to buy a book from them in the future – new or used. Not their intent I should think.
EDIT: Due to popular demand, the name of the publisher: Yard Dog Press


Danae said...

It's just not feasible. I am a student who must pay for food, travel, hygienic necessities, gifts, odds and ends - quite aside from all the books I buy.

In point of fact, these days I have barely enough extra money to buy any books, forget books at second-hand stores - unless I sell books I no longer need to keep.

I get that the Author gets paid if I buy his book in pristine condition in a proper store, and that the author deserves money, etc. I think piracy is horrible and that Authors would earn much more if all the libraries imploded and the nice people who lent books died.

But let's face it: lots of people don't buy books. At all. A significant number of people only read books because a friend put the damn thing in their hands and said, "Read this. You'll like it."

And books are expensive. They cost at least 200 ruppees, which is one-third of my monthly budget. (More often they cost 300+, and I don't want to do the math on that one). A significant number of people would not read books if they had to pay for them.

I sell books to secondhand bookstores all the time. It's how I finance my book-buying (often in secondhand bookstores). Without this system I would sometimes be unable to buy books at all. I may not have paid the Author (for which I am sorry) but at least I've read him/her. Often I've liked him/her. It's the best I can do. I do buy from "proper" stores, when I can. But if I needn't, if I can get more for less (quality stuff, too!) why should I deprive my mind and my wallet at the same time?

And I lend. I introduced my friends to Georgette Heyer, Robin Hobb, Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, Steven Erikson, Guy Gavriel Kay (mixed results), China Mieville, Tad Williams, Jasper Fforde, J.K. Rowling, Le Guin, Haruki Murakami, Ray Bradbury, Liz Dalby, Muriel Sparke, Meg Cabot, Tracy Chevalier, A.S.Byatt, Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Camus, Umberto Eco, Rohinton Mistry, Homer, Tibor Fischer, Vikram Seth... and I wildly recommended libraries and general grand theft from shops*.

...and similar patterns can be seen in a lot of the books that I started reading. I was lent to.

I am a lender and a borrower, and I am grateful because without this system I and my friends would likely never have read these books - or read as many as we did.

And lastly: I don't live in a vast castle. I have a Book Population Explosion. I have to take care of those books, protect them from moths, cockroaches, make sure they get air, sunlight... I'm not joking, you know what I mean. I buy paperback, I need to take care of these darlings. Therefore, if I want to read more, if I buy to continue that reading, then I need to ensure that I always have space for them. What happens to the books I am not as fond of? (This I need not defend, and shan't.) Must I keep them forever because the Author needs to not let other people earn money from his/her books? Or, lessee, should I throw the books away? "No one must earn from ziz book, mwuhahahahaha!" The secondhand system, the library system, are good things here. The book is cared for. Brecht's poet need not weep.

I get it, truly I do. But if I had read that note I think I would have felt hurt. I made the effort, you know? It seems harsh. Should I have not read the book at all, if I could only have picked it up second-hand/at a library? Would they have preferred to be ignored if I could afford them the traditional way?

The Reader-Author relationship is not about obligation. The Author does not have to produce what the Reader thinks s/he wants. The Reader is not the Author's rich relative. (And if s/he was, s/he could still pick a favourite grandson as opposed to the talented-but-in-need-of-money-because-bread-costs Author.)

Anyway. If this note is what you make it sound like, I am sympathetic for the publisher, but think that s/he needs to be more sympathetic towards me. That is an obligation: that we recognise that there is a relationship, and that there be, at the very least, respect for the fact that circumstances in which each side is received/acknowledged/recognised is more than merely commercial.**

p.s. At some point, I am going to ask you, Which book/publisher/author?

*Nobody ever followed that last recommendation. I'm not sure why.

**I may not like Dan Brown, but I cannot accuse him of stealing my money.

Legolas said...

I'd react much the same way. Who the hell do they think they are to try stopping people from visiting libraries? In my case, I'd say something like 80-90% of the books I read are from the library. I think I've probably bought less than 20 books all together in my entire life (though in the past my parents bought me books and I've "inherited" tons of them, so it's not like my book shelf is empty), and borrowed even less. And yes, some of the books that I do have are second-hand. Even when I love a book - like Kay's Tigana - why would I go and buy it brand new when I've read it already? I'll go with a copy from a second hand sale, thanks.

And I happen to live in a city with rather awesome libraries (plural, yes), so I really don't need to buy much books...

They were going to invent some kind of reward to authors whose books are borrowed in public libraries in here, though. Not that that would ever amount to much, considering the very low library fees (I'd estimate that I check out something like 50-60 library books a year, for a yearly fee that would barely get me one second hand book, nevermind a new one. That's the public library; there's also a private one of which I'm a member that doesn't ask any fees at all.) Anyway, I don't know what happened to it... in the end, libraries DO cost authors a lot (while I'm at it, not only authors: in many libraries I know, you can rent music CDs or movies, though then you do pay a (very small) sum for every item you check out), so I can see how publishers are peeved at them.

Perhaps they should come up with rules that only allow libraries (or for that matter second hand bookstores) to carry books that have been published for a certain amount of time, so as not to harm the book's initial sales.

Neth said...

Thanks for the comments...I'll probably comment in more detail later, but I should mention something.

To be fair, the letter did not mention libraries specifically, only lending personal copies to friends and such. I made the rather obvious extension to libraries who are much greater lenders. I think the point still stand strong since the entire premise of the note was that you are doing harm if you are reading a book (or allowing someone else to) that you did not purchase new.

Danae said...

To be fair, the principle is the same. Libraries are a larger scale, they automatically fall under the same category as the lender. Only they do it more, better, and with panache.

Anonymous said...

Not only is it rude, it is crazy and a little bit naive I would say. For starters, who is to say that the author deserves to make money more than the used book dealer? That person also needs to feed his/her family. By the same argument, should we never buy anything used at all? Never buy a used car because auto workers don't get paid for it?

The market will come to bear here, books that capture the public's fance will sell well. Those that do not, will not. Just like any other product.

Another thing, there are probably thousands of libraries in this country. Do they get their books for free? I tend to doubt it. That means that there is a known entity out there buying books. I am using my library more and more. If I really like the book enough to read it again, I might buy it.

One more note. This lecture you found is also technologically very outdated in some ways. It does not take into account that the purchaser might review the book online in some form, perhaps encouraging other readers to buy it. If you want to get them back, hold back your review of those works, or at least recommend that we borrow them from the library.


William Lexner said...

Craziness. I really enjoyed the editorial, and agree with you.

Even though I am a collector who buys a signifigant amount of books each year. This publisher is looking at their current bottom line and not considering what word-of-mouth can do for their branding -- or what it can do to destroy them.


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