I saw this tweet today, and after several failed attempts to come up with a response in 280 characters I figured it was probably worth making it a blog post.
Edit: The tweet itself has since been deleted – apologies if any links no longer work.
The thing that really stood out to me here wasn’t so much the original tweet as the majority of responses to it:
On the one hand, I feel as though these people are missing the point of the original tweet: if nobody supports authors financially, they will not be able to write. On the other, I’m not sure that point was particularly well made in the first place.
Buying books on sale isn’t the same as buying from charity shops, which isn’t the same as ARCs (advance reading copies), which isn’t the same as piracy. I’d like to be able to say “what all these things have in common is that they don’t give the author any money,” but buying books on sale does. The best I can say is “what all these things have in common is that they give the author less money than they might get otherwise, at a time when it’s already almost impossible to make a living from book royalties,” and that’s considerably less snappy.
Basically, this is why I opted for a blog post rather than a tweet. I think Twitter’s demand for brevity is partly why people are (I believe) getting the wrong end of the stick, and why Sarah Bennett felt it necessary to expand upon the charity shops point specifically a few hours later:
If you read through the response to this post, common points raised are:
- New books are expensive.
- Charity shops offer a low-cost alternative for people with little disposable income.
- Second-hand books guarantee that somebody is paying for the author’s work in a way that free ARCs and piracy don’t.
- It’s unfair to lump charity shops and piracy together.
- Not everybody has access to libraries.
These are all perfectly reasonable things to point out. However, a lot of the things said in favour of charity shops could be (and often are) said about piracy:
Some of these I seriously agree with: if a reader prompts someone else to buy a book then it barely matters where they got it, and if they can’t afford to buy it then the same thing could be said. Others are completely ludicrous: money may not be more important than art, but it sure does make it easier for authors to continue, you know, writing books instead of dying in the gutter.
But one point seems to be consistently overlooked: financially, it makes no difference to the author if one reader buys a paperback that gets donated and sold through five charity shops in succession or if one pirate buys an ebook and five readers download it for free. It makes no difference if one person buys a copy and five family members read it as well. Each of these scenarios represents six people reading one book sold.
I think what’s most striking to me about the whole thing is this:
- People seem to care deeply about the value of books, but are largely unconcerned about whether any of their money reaches the author.
- People firmly believe that everyone should be able to read what they want, but if you can’t afford to buy it new then you’ve got to wait for someone wealthier to sell or donate their copy.
- People want everyone to have access to books, but if you want to write them then you’d better have enough money to sustain that as a hobby.
The ideal solution here would be to make sure that libraries were well stocked and widespread, but at this point that’s looking like a very long-term goal. In the more immediate future, I think a more achievable aim would be this: please buy new books if you can afford to. If you can’t, don’t worry about it. Also, and most importantly, please leave reviews and share the things you love – however you get hold of them.
And on that note, if you care about this sort of thing then you might be interested in Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers. Making books available for everyone to read is a worthy goal, but it’ll have much more of an impact if a wide range of people are writing them too.