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.