Charity vs piracy: my take on the second-hand books question

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As usual, I’m late to the controversy. As usual, I only have a hazy idea of what actually went down. But I think it was something like this:

  1. A site went up which shared pirated ebooks in PDF format
  2. Authors and publishers protested
  3. Users of the pirate site protested in turn
  4. Conclusions were jumped to (authors do not want people to read their books for free!)
  5. Assumptions were made (authors do not want people to read their books in any way that doesn’t involve buying the book new!)
  6. Somewhere in the middle of this, the site was taken down
  7. But the controversy kept running

If you happened to look at Twitter at the wrong moment, you might well be forgiven for concluding that authors disapprove of: libraries, charity shops, jumble sales, second-hand bookshops, those shelves you find in cafés and staff rooms and railway stations.

(Although if you looked a bit harder you’d find plenty of authors who’d disagree.)

There simply aren’t enough hard copies of my books out there in the wild for this to affect me. If there’s somebody currently scouring the charity shops of Britain in the hopes of picking up a paperback of Speak Its Name, then all I can say is, good luck to them. They’ll spend more on the petrol or the train fare than they would just buying the thing new.

So really, I’m talking as a reader here, as a browser, as a purchaser.

I’m talking about charity shops here, and about libraries, and about bricks-and-mortar second-hand bookshops. I’m talking about places with actual shelves. I’ve spent a lot of time in that sort of place over the years. And I have picked up books by authors I’d never heard of. My eye has been caught by a title, a cover picture, a half-remembered name.

And I wouldn’t have spent nine pounds ninety nine on this whim, but fifty pence, two pounds, seems like a decent gamble. Because it is a gamble. I might abandon it after one chapter. On the other hand, I might end up devoting the next five years of my life to finding everything else that author wrote and buying it – yes! perhaps even new!

And I have never felt remotely guilty about any of that; nor do I intend to start now. I am pleased to support a small business or a charity. (Well, most charities – but that’s another story.)

If I like a book, I might keep it and re-read it. If I don’t like it, am I expected to throw it away? Because I certainly don’t want it around my house. No. I will pass it on to a charity shop, or leave it on a swap shelf, or BookCross it, and if someone ends up selling it for fifty pence or five pounds, then they’re welcome to it. And, if I’m honest, the implication that all books should be new books (because that’s where the other way of thinking leads leads) appalls me on ecological grounds, quite apart from anything else.

Many of my clothes came from charity shops, and many have gone back to others. I don’t see the difference when it comes to books. Nobody apart from me can wear the dress that I am wearing. (They can wear a dress very like it, but that’s another story.) But I can lend, give, or sell it to somebody else without the manufacturer having any reasonable grounds for complaint. Likewise, nobody except me can read (for example) the particular copy of The Birthday Party (Veronica Henry) that’s currently on top of my chest-of-drawers. But I could lend, give, or sell it to you, and then you could read it.

And I don’t think that’s depriving Veronica Henry of any income that she could reasonably have expected, because I’d never heard of her before a BookCrosser sent me that book. On the other hand, if I were to start making and handing out copies of it to anyone who asked – people who were actively looking for her book, say – then that would be illegal and immoral. And that’s what the PDF distribution site was doing.

But the existence of any physical copy of any book implies that at some point, perhaps way, way back in the dim and distant past, the author (or the author’s estate, or whoever managed to get the rights off the author**) has been paid for that copy of that book. That is what makes the difference for me between the second-hand trade and piracy.

Incidentally, if you do happen to want a free ebook, then my Speak Its Name is free on Kobo, the iBookstore, Barnes and Noble, and Lulu until the end of September. And if anyone tells you off for downloading it, well, you can tell them that I wrote it and I published and I’m the one who gets to set the price. My apologies to Kindle users: I’m waiting for Amazon to catch up. If you don’t want to wait, you can get an EPUB copy and run it through Calibre with my blessing.

 

* I also make extensive and enthusiastic use of Project Gutenberg, on the grounds that the authors represented there are far too dead to care, and for the most part, so are their heirs.

 

4 thoughts on “Charity vs piracy: my take on the second-hand books question

  1. It seems like book twitter seems to be jumping from one uproar to another (I am thinking of the recent bookish subscription box selling fan fiction! – which is obviously a complete no-no! Though that was covered up by the drama about the rather interestingly shaped soap which was also included in the box.)
    But back to the second hand books shops, I think it’s amazing that we can try out authors and if we like the book we will probably end up going and buying more of their books for new. And there is a huge difference between buying second hand and piracy.

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  2. I did see this doing the rounds on Twitter, and whilst I would never promote or use a pirate site, i do buy second-hand books regularly, from the places you mention, will continue to do so and have no problem with it, for all the same reasons you say. When funds allow I also buy a LOT of new books – the most expensive this year, for a paperback, cost me £16!! Great post!
    #TalkoftheTown

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  3. I must have my head buried lately because I miss all the ruckus (no bad thing!). When people’s emotions are involved it’s difficult for rationality and it sounds as if it was heated with misconceptions …

    I love to browse charity shops/scout fairs etc for second hand books. There’s often a little gem to be found for my husband or something obscure I wouldn’t have picked up before. As you say Kathleen, often going on to buy other works by the author. I also donate books to my local MIND regularly – both those I’ve bought and those received unsolicited through the letterbox. Awful thought that once read they would be thrown in the bin. 😦 MIND send us regular updates on how much they receive for the books. Others have gone on to enjoy the books (and might buy more in the future from the author) whilst a small contribution has been made to their funds.

    I do think piracy is here to stay and that all the arguments in the world don’t have the power to stop it. Just as there are hacks for streaming films, playing games, playing music etc. I do think the sites should be shut down as soon as they’re spotted. But I don’t think you can compare piracy to charity.

    Thank you for linking #TalkoftheTown

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