Friday, October 3, 2014

On Buying Books—Or Not

by Linda Rodriguez

A reader recently wrote to me to praise my new book, Every Hidden Fear, and apologized for having checked the book out of the library. I reassured her that there was no need to apologize, but I know why these readers and others have felt this way. A few authors have been very vocal on Facebook and other places about their disgust at people using the library rather than purchasing their books. When you add in the justifiable distress that most authors feel and express about actual book piracy, which is usually of e-books, it might seem to readers that there are a lot of angry authors out there. I don’t believe that’s the case, at all.

I’m always happy to have readers check out my books from their local libraries, and most authors I know feel the same way. I think the authors who’ve exploded online about library copies cutting into their sales numbers are few—and mostly new to the business. For many of us midlist authors, library sales are quite an important part of our book-sale figures. Besides, most of us were at one time nerdy kids who adored and made great use of their libraries. Many of us are still big library users. Authors tend to love libraries.

I have known experienced authors who became upset at signings when presented with books that were purchased in used-book stores. They usually are gracious to the reader, but complain about it to their fellow authors later. And they have a point. The author and publisher receive nothing from that used-book sale after the initial sale. Some readers are not aware of this. Some are, but can’t afford to buy all of their books new, especially if the book is only available in hardcover.

None of this behavior mentioned so far is piracy. Libraries and used-book stores are legitimate outlets. Piracy, which usually involves e-books, is when copies of a book are made available for free in the millions on sites usually called torrent sites. These sites violate the copyright laws and basically allow people to steal books. Aside from the damage this does to publishers and authors, which can be substantial, it is fundamentally unethical and dishonest behavior.

I don’t want my books pirated, and I don’t care how many people tell me “all content should be free” or “it’s good exposure.” People can die from exposure. My attitude is Don’t steal my books. But used-book sales are not piracy. Those books were purchased once, much as library books are, and with physical books, certainly, there’s a limit on how many times that book can be checked out or sold before it gets ragged and must be discarded and a new one bought. In the meanwhile, people are reading my books and enjoying them and recommending them to friends and eventually, I hope, buying them new. My books are only available in hardcover and e-book at the moment, and I know the hardcover’s a big expense for students and folks on fixed incomes. Libraries and used-book stores make it possible for them to find my books and read them anyway.

However, I do think readers should be aware that used-book store sales count nothing at all for the writer. Library sales do count, though they are not figured in for the bestseller lists. And the way publishing works right now, if a writer’s sales don’t continually climb—at a fairly steep rate—that author will be dropped by the publisher after three to six books. Even if all those books earned out their advances. Even if all those books had stellar reviews and were nominated for awards. So if too many of an author’s readers use libraries only and/or, especially, used-book stores to access their books, that author and that series of books will disappear. The author may be able to start a different series at a different publisher, but usually s/he will have to take a pen name, making it difficult for fans to follow. Publishers today seem to think every author should become a bestseller eventually—and remember, neither library nor used-book sales count for that—and if s/he doesn’t, the publishers lose interest in that author.

So, like the inimitable Neil Gaiman, I’ll happily sign anything from anywhere. But I’d like readers to be aware that their choices will affect whether or not their favorite authors are able to continue writing their favorite books—or at all. But if, like my correspondents, you feel bad because you simply can’t afford to buy a new book by a favorite author, don’t. Just write a brief, thoughtful  review and post it on Amazon or Good Reads or other reading community. That will mean a great deal to the author and cost you nothing but a few minutes of your time.

What are your thoughts on this thorny issue?

REPLIES TO COMMENTS (because Blogger!):

Mary, most of the writers I know are happy to have fans check out their books from the library. The more our books are checked out, the more the library will buy our books, and unless you're a Mary Higgins Clark or James Patterson, library sales are important to writers.

Michelle, I don't think anyone should apologize for using the library. People lending books to friends is not piracy. Most authors love book collectors like you.

Marilyn, I'm with you in loving to have readers buy my books themselves, but I know a lot of folks out there are living on fixed incomes and can't buy all the books they'd like, so the library is their and my friend--since I want them to read my books. I think the pirate sites make every writer unhappy, and readers often don't realize they can play a large part in making a writer's books unavailable. If everyone is pirating one author's books, s/he will have low sales and will be dropped by the publisher. Then that writer's books in that series--and maybe even that genre--will cease to be available each year or so for the reader's pleasure.


  1. Thanks you for writing this. Time and space constraints have me using the library more of the time now, though I do buy some books to help the numbers and sometimes as gifts.

  2. I'm not working so I can't buy new books, just used ones. I do go to the library and you can find new authors by going there. I'd never apologize for using the library. Authors need the library for research, too. I buy used books from the library branch near my house, the main library's gift shop, and their book sales (sometimes I can get a big brown paper bag of books for $6.00).

    When I get an Amazon gift card I do tend to buy used books from the third-party sellers (there are books for one cent, although the shipping is $3.99). In the past I'm sure I spent thousands of dollars on new books over the years. And just because you buy a book new it doesn't mean that you'll ever read it, especially if you keep buying books. Yes, I do have lots of books that were bought new, even years ago, that I never read. I'm just a book collector. I also swap books online.

    Other things that can be sold used are DVD's, CD's, and video games. It's like a used car; as soon as you use the item it loses value. Buybacks sells those items, but no books. People also loan each other books and DVD's, too, but that can't be considered piracy. No one would call it piracy if you recorded a CD to a cassette (then again they do make boom boxes for that).

  3. As a writer, I can tell you that I still buy books, paper and e-books. I love the library, but seldom go--mainly because it's not close by. When I do, it's usually to give a presentation of some sort. I love it when people buy my books and tell me they did. I don't love it when I find out my books are being given away through one of the pirate sites.