Back in February, I wrote a post about why I love second-hand books — something that I didn’t see as particularly controversial, but which did generate some oppositional comments. One commenter wrote the following:
Worthy points, however i have in the last 5 years begun buying new books in order to support the authors, they don’t see a penny off of secondhand sales, and i want them to stay in the business of writing! think of it as voting with your dollars, or tipping a musician.
Another chimed in,
the one great tragedy of the used book is that the author will never receive recompense for it. Sure, the book was bought once, but to never buy a new book? I hope you write your favorite authors so they at least know they’re being read.
Since my answer to both was rather incoherent at the time, let me now explain why I think it’s also important to not support authors directly. (Not that it’s a bad thing to do — but it’s not the only thing to do. This post probably should have been titled something like Why It’s Important that Non-Author-Supporting Literary Outlets Exist, but that’s a little unwieldy. You’ll just have to deal with it.)
There are two main literary establishments that don’t really support authors directly: libraries and used bookstores. Both of these are essential in a literate culture, even though they don’t pay royalties. Why? I’ll tell you:
Libraries and used bookstores keep reading accessible. Earlier in the spring I had a $50 gift card to spend at a big-box bookstore. That $50 only bought three new novels, and I still had to pony up some change to cover the tax. It’s not so bad, really — I had fifty bucks, I got to blow it on books, and all was well. But what if I only had, say, $10? You can’t even buy a mass market paperback with that these days: most of the ones I see are $10.99 or $11.99, plus tax. Having literary havens established where books are cheap (used bookstores) and/or free (libraries) ensures that those who can’t afford to purchase many/any new books can keep reading.
Used bookstores support the local economy. (Well, locally-owned ones do, anyway.) I like going to the handful of used bookstores in walking distance and knowing that I’m spending money in my own community. When I buy books in a local shop, I’m supporting my neighbours as well as my reading habits.
Libraries and used bookstores are essential in fostering a literate/literary society. This definitely touches on the whole accessibility thing again; books should not be a privilege of the educated or moneyed elite. But it’s more than that: used bookstores and libraries, by making books accessible, are better able to foster literacy than the big all-new chain stores.
Used bookstores and libraries let to try out new authors risk-free. Sometimes we all want to try a new author or series, but aren’t sure if the books will be good enough to justify new-book prices. A used bookstore or a library lets readers try out new authors with very little financial risk or outlay — but doesn’t obligate them to continue to buy that author’s books at discounted prices. All of us have a few authors whose books we love so much that we will buy anything they ever write, and probably in hardback to boot. Being able to widely sample authors at a low cost will allow more authors to become those super favourites — perhaps authors whose books wouldn’t otherwise get picked up in a big box bookstore.
Libraries and used bookstores make good use of resources. Remember the three Rs? There’s nothing that libraries do better than reuse books.
Used bookstores and libraries support authors in ways other than with royalties. Both establishments help to maintain a generally literate culture, and more readers means more books bought and read at all levels of the literary food chain. Libraries and used bookstores encourage readers to try new authors whenever they can. They also provide venues for readings, signings, and other aspects of the book promitional machine.
Should you buy new books if you can? Absolutely. But if you can’t, don’t get your knickers in a knot over it. Libraries and used bookstores may not pay royalties, but they support a culture of literacy — and, indirectly, authors — in several very important ways.