Why I love borrowing books

March 30, 2011 § 11 Comments

Ah, digital. You do have the power to send even those of the strongest constitutions into a spiral of anxiety, misery and despair.

I believe it is a well-known fact that libraries have existed for quite some time. Public libraries, I mean, where everyone has a right to get a library card and take books home – for free. People have also been lending each other their books for a long time. This means people have been reading books without paying for them for a long time – at least since the Romans invaded fair Albion. Maybe even before.

There’s nothing like a change in technology to get people in a steam, however. We all saw it happen with the music industry. It’s all been done before, of course; people used to record songs off the radio onto cassette tape, and borrow CDs from their friends without it spelling Doom for All; but now that it’s all digital it’s a huge threat. Free downloads will destroy the music world!

Then it happened with film. People have been recording TV programmes and films onto VHS cassettes for years as well, and lending each other DVDs. There might have been grumblings about this in the past, but it’s nothing to the scale of disaster now being predicted. Because, after all, if people can download a film for free, why would they ever pay for it? We are all ruined.

Neither of these catastrophes have actually happened, that I have noticed. Maybe the Fates have actually marked that for next year? Along with the total destruction of the book industry, courtesy of the rise (and RISE) of the e-reader.

I’ve recently heard a lot of angry debate about Lendle, a group which makes copies of Amazon e-books available for borrowing (under a range of strict conditions, the precise details of which I have not, I confess, inscribed upon my heart because life is just too short). Regardless of the exact nature of the programme, the objection broadly seems to be: if a person can get an e-book for free for a couple of weeks, the author loses the sale! Because why would they ever buy it once they’ve already read it?

Eh. I really don’t know what it is about digital that seems to cause the brains to collectively seep out of people’s heads. For a start, this is no different from the borrowing programmes that have been going on since humans discovered fire. Additionally, even if the worst conceivable thing happened and people were able to hack these e-books and create infinite numbers of copies of them (which, I believe, is not currently possible for most of us), this is not going to destroy the industry, anymore than free music downloads have destroyed music.

Why? In order to illustrate my primary argument against this absurd notion I am going to use the example of Victoria Clayton. For those of my readers who have not heard of her (which, unfortunately, I imagine will be pretty much everyone), Victoria Clayton is a particularly fine writer whose books are sadly unclassifiable. Are they chick lit? Her publisher seems to be inclined, lately, to market them that way; but no, I would say emphatically not. Are they romance? Her books do always include a love story, but they do not fit into the romance genre either; there’s too much other material in there. Are they historical fiction? They’re set from the late 1960s through to the early 1980s (so far), which isn’t exactly the modern world but not exactly historical either.

Who knows. Point is, they’re terrific books but poorly marketed – and I imagine that’s partly because of this difficulty of pigeon-holing them. Until last year I’d never heard of this lady. Then I took one of my random excursions down to the local library and made some totally random selections.

(I love doing that, by the way. Where else do you get the luxury of just browsing for as long as you like, and taking home exactly what catches your eye – without having to count up all the loose change in your pocket and regretfully decide you can’t afford most of them?)

Anyway, now look at this glorious pile of beauties:

Did I really go out and collect almost every single book Ms. Clayton has written to date?

Yes. Yes I did. And what’s more I’m poised over my Amazon.co.uk account just waiting for the moment I can pre-order the next one.

Let’s break that down a little. It’s true that authors are paid a little bit when their books are borrowed from libraries. A very little bit. In comparison to the amount they would make if they sold a new copy of that book, it’s a pittance. (No, I don’t know what the exact figure is, though in the UK at least what was a small amount before is now set to become outright minute).

What borrowing does, however, is give readers the chance to try out vastly more authors than most of us would ever have the chance to read if we had to find the money for our own copy every single time. What that means for authors is increased word of mouth. And word of mouth is, of course, widely agreed to be the best form of advertising. You try a book for free, you like it, you buy it. You tell your friends. You buy more by that author. You lend your copies to a friend. Your friend buys a couple. And so on. Without library borrowing, cheap second-hand book sales and free loans from friends, authors like Victoria Clayton might never have reached my attention (in fact, neither would Patrick Rothfuss, Tamora Pierce, Kage Baker, Liz Williams, Indra Sinha… the list goes on and on). That’s a loss for both readers and writers.

So why the fuss? Many authors are getting the hang of this brave new digital world just fine. Plenty of people appreciate the benefit of, for example, offering their new e-book as a free download, at least to begin with, because it makes it available for people to simply try it – regardless of their level of available income. We find the money to buy our own copies of the books we really love, so we can read them again and again; we don’t scrape to find the money to buy books we’ve never tried.

Therefore! The next person to cry Doom and Gloom over e-book lending in my hearing will be getting a dunking in a vat of rice pudding. Cold rice pudding. You have been warned.

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§ 11 Responses to Why I love borrowing books

  • RFW says:

    Thanks- I plan to find one of her books soon.

    • Charlotte says:

      RFW and Heather – great! I hope you both enjoy them. As a point of interest, they’re all written chronologically, starting with ‘Out of Love’ which takes place in the late sixties. The relevance of this is that in each book, the protagonists from the previous one turn up again in some capacity, usually as friends of the new set of characters. It’s a compelling trick as it feels like bumping into old friends. Reading them out of sequence doesn’t disturb the enjoyment, though – it took me about four books to realise that some of the characters were familiar πŸ˜‰ Thanks for the comments!

  • Great argument! I’m going to check out the author you mentioned btw. Always looking for a good read! πŸ™‚

  • Jessica S says:

    I totally and completely agree with every single sentiment you offered in this post. Well done!!! πŸ™‚

    Thanks for the tip on the great, new author. You’ll definitely have to keep us posted about your own upcoming novel. How exciting!

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Jessica, thanks for the comment! Glad you agree. It can get lonely being opinionated all by myself. (Not that that has ever stopped me).

      Will definitely keep talking about my upcoming novel, probably far too much – especially as I get near finishing it. At the moment you’re safe from the fate of Too Much Info because I’m still in the middle of Slogging Through It, and I can’t even interest myself in this phase let alone anyone else.

      Have to say I’m finding the whole process of writing it quite exciting though. Have to agree with you there.

      Thanks so much for visiting!

  • rowena says:

    Very thought provoking observations. The digital world is here, and weeping and wailing about it will get us nowhere. The most successful people will be the ones who learn to use the technology to their own best advantage. So you’re right, instead of being fearful, we should recognise that, for example. digital publishing has eliminated many of the old barriers to and expenses of entering the print world, and work out how to use it as a tool.

    • Charlotte says:

      True. I think resistance to new technology is age-old, really; there’s nothing new about the weeping and wailing, but somehow we never seem to learn that it’s futile to resist. I suppose the problem is that it forces change; people build up their approach to their lives based on the rules that are in play at the time, and then are forced to adapt when everything changes. It’s uncomfortable, but really it’s only different – not necessarily worse.

  • DarcKnyt says:

    Well said, Charlotte! Brilliantly expressed, I thought.

    You cannot be more right about this. Napster didn’t collapse the music industry, and neither did its successors like Kazaa (sp?) or bit torrent downloads for that matter.

    In fact, nothing will do stop an industry except the people with the money to support it.

    As much as I want to see traditional publishing collapse, I know it won’t; not completely. There will always be a few stodgy codgers out there who demand print books, and for them books will be available at premium prices. But the gatekeeping system of publishing “connecting” writers and readers (HA! that’s a laugh, isn’t it?) must come to an end.

    Knowing that, I can’t imagine writers brave enough to follow the self-epublishing road are afraid of their books being borrowed, for just the reasons you state. The more people know my name, know the title of my book, the better off I’ll be down the road.

    Thank you for being a voice of reason in the wilderness.

    • Charlotte says:

      Thanks for the comment, Knyt (or should I call you Sir Darc?). You stated that… ‘I can’t imagine writers brave enough to follow the self-epublishing road are afraid of their books being borrowed, for just the reasons you state.’ Sounds logical, indeed, but actually I’ve heard some of the self-published authors crying the loudest over it. The fixation seems to be on the idea that every book borrowed is a lost sale, and sales can be hard enough to get if you’re self-published (I’ll ignore for now the fallacy of assuming that sales are any easier to get if you’re ‘traditionally’ published because that’s a whole topic by itself). Really short-sighted all round.

  • mapelba says:

    Every new thing causes panic–fear of the unknown. I’m quite familiar with this feeling too. Digital books also allow for more readers in other ways. Paper books require space. Those libraries. Now, libraries ought to be everywhere and I value them, but not every place has one. Digital books can bring many more books to an isolated reader–because surely the isolate places will have WiFi before they have a library.

    I’m not saying this well, I think.

    I’m stodgy in my way, in that I love paper and ink and having a book on my shelf. I like looking at books. But digital books are here to stay. Surely the world and our lives can stretch around them.

    The problem with the money has less to do with the format the books come in and more to do with our attitudes towards the creative arts and paying creative people. We don’t as a culture value the arts all that much, so why would we expect people to pay them? We want everything free. Few people seem to want to pay for this ephemeral thing called a story.

    But now I’m thinking more about this, I need to really think more about this. (That make sense?)

    Anyway, excellent points. Thanks for the discussion.

    • Charlotte says:

      There are certainly so many advantages to e-books; I suppose that’s why the whole thing is taking off so well now. The thing that bugs me about the discussions circulating about this is the idea that e-books replace paper libraries: not so, of course. You’re right: paper and ink and books on the shelf still have great value. The advantage lies in having both types of library.

      I’m not sure it’s true that everyone wants everything free. There will always be people who’ll rip off everything they can get hold of; but I think for the most part people understand that artists have to eat, too. People will support writers they like, and bands they like, and so on. (Sometimes this is out of an essentially generous impulse to offer support, and sometimes it’s more essentially selfish than that – if the artist isn’t paid today, there’ll be no more books or music to enjoy tomorrow. Either way, the outcome is the same). Of course, this has to be balanced with the problem of the expense of everything; most of us don’t have a steady stream of cash trickling out of our ears so we have to weigh everything up. That’s where cheaper books and music hold appeal. It isn’t always about refusing to pay for art because it isn’t valued; it’s often the opposite in that we love it and need it and therefore most of us are happy with an opportunity to make our limited funds stretch a bit further.

      On the other hand, for my ‘day’ job (so to speak) I run a small craft business and there I have run into the problem of people expecting to get everything for cheap. That’s a cultural thing. We live in a time of discount everything, where many of the goods we consume are made on the other side of the world under circumstances that allow for extremely low prices. As such people expect to see the same prices for everything, perhaps out of a lack of understanding about how much time it really takes an individual person to make a good quality dress, or song, or book. There’s certainly a lack of understanding about what you (usually) get for your very low price: cheap materials and poor quality.

      Then again, the arts seem to be different. Everyone wants cheap jeans and t-shirts but we all accept the high prices slapped on CDs and books and films – even though there’s plenty of evidence to tell us that the prices are often inflated more than they need to be. A novel that’s sold for Β£18 still doesn’t pay very much to the person who wrote it. We expect to be charged those prices for anything ‘artistic’, so there’s still a tendency to assume that a self-published ebook that’s being sold for 70p must be rubbish. This is where self-published ebooks are proving interesting, though: they aren’t necessarily rubbish. Well, hello to the brave new world. Let’s see where it goes.

      I think I just wrote another entire post in response to your comment, sorry about that. It was interesting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

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