Neither a borrower nor a lender be

If she wants to, it's all right

This is a deja vu post taken by popular demand (and thank you both) from the disappeared blog.

What is the harm in sharing books with your friends? Isn’t it a good thing to have more readers?

It’s not the same thing. Yes, it is a fine and wonderful thing to have more readers. But this is the harm done when you let others borrow your books —

I am a professional novelist. Writing is not my hobby or my therapy or an excuse to avoid getting “a real job” or an avocation. It is my profession, no different from being a professional professor, a professional lawyer, a professional architect, a professional physician, a professional gardener, a professional name-it. Details vary, incomes vary, training varies, but professional means the specific work one does and from which one earns income, distinguishable from amateur or hobbyist, who “work” for nothing, rather, for no income (some have the gorgeous luxury of working for simply the love of the doing).

Many professional novelists also teach or pump gasoline or sell property or something else, because they are not able to make a survivable income from their books alone. A part of the reason for this is because not everyone pays for the books they read. It is no more reasonable to expect to utilize the work of a professional novelist than it is to expect you do not have to pay a lawyer or a doctor’s fees, that you can expect the mechanic to get your car running again as a favor, or that you can borrow your neighbor’s clothes to wear because you don’t want to pay for your own.

This is not different from stealing pirated CDs or DVDs or software. It is not different from shoplifting. There are probably some of you, I hope not many of you, who do not understand the harm in this sort of “petty” stealing. But in fact we all pay more for almost everything to compensate for what thieves take. An educated guess would suppose that the prices for most of these things would drop by half if everyone actually paid for what they use. So all the rest of us are paying a double premium so thieves don’t have to pay at all.

Since when is simply borrowing a book from a friend stealing? Because you did not pay for the work you are enjoying, the producer of that work earns less; that money is taken from him or her. In general, a hardbound book that retails for $25 will earn the author something between $2.50 and $3.00. That doesn’t seem like much to steal from the poor writer. Three bucks? Come on! But studies that are not so old have shown that on average, one purchased book is read by six people; really popular books see one to ten, on average. So one person buys the book, nine people don’t. That single book sale earns the author $3, but loses $27. Next time you see a professional novelist spending time away from his work while teaching somewhere, or mopping floors, or selling shoes, you will know why. You might take the time to say thank you for entertaining, enlightening, or educating me for nothing.

But it’s not just about the money lost.

There is a more seriously insidious aspect of this. Authors, and they are almost always writers of literary fiction, who are not in the popular blockbuster group, continue to be published at all based entirely, exclusively, on reports of their sales. The bean counters at a company called BookScan are deciding what gets published in this country; don’t think these decisions rest ultimately with editors and publishing houses. Accountants make these editorial decisions now. (It’s the same in television, for example; Nielsen determines what you will be able to watch on TV.)

Non-genre fiction, which essentially means literary fiction, is difficult to promote and sell, because there is no marking hook for it. And the sales and marketing departments for most publishing houses show little evidence of the kind of creative thinking it would require to sell books that do not have an obvious and easy hook. (I am inevitably asked by people what kind of novels I write, and if you cannot answer mysteries, adventure, romance, thriller, etc., then they don’t know what to make of it. There is no precise descriptive term for it, which is why literary fiction is not genre fiction.) This is precisely the problem faced by marketing and sales departments. If you can’t tell a bookstore what this is and what shelf it goes on, they are nonplussed.

All the foregoing is to say that literary fiction already faces a built-in handicap in the publishing industry. On average, a literary novel sells about one thousand copies, some with connections that can be promoted, might sell two thousand. Five thousand copies for an unconnected literary novel by someone not famous for something already would be wildly successful. Now, back to the 3 bucks a book. A wildly successful literary novel might earn the author $15,000. Average sales: $3000. Most literary novelists never earn out of the advance.

BookScan counts copies sold. They report these numbers to publishers. Publishers then have to decide what to continue putting into print. They are not going to keep printing books by an author whose sales figures never go above average. (Publishing houses, as I have written previously, are not charities, they are businesses.)

So you and ten others have borrowed this really good novel from your neighbor or the guy at work, who praised it so highly that you wanted to read it, too. Maybe you pass it along to your cousin, who passes it to his brother … . One book purchased, unknown number of readers, but probably at least ten per one purchased. It is easy to see that maybe ten or a dozen people have read that one copy of a novel you all keep passing around because you think the author is so good.

BookScan counts the beans. Sends a report. Good author’s sales are 1000 copies. Now he likely had 10,000, maybe 12,000 actual readers, but BookScan reports just the copies someone paid for. Good author puts out a new book. Same story.

You have just seen the end of Good Author’s books, and what you enjoyed will not be repeated, because no publisher wants to keep printing books that don’t make money, or at the very least break even.

That is what is more important than the loss of income to the author. All of you “borrowing” books you don’t pay for are helping to make sure that author will not be able to publish more books in the future.

This is not speculation. I have a number of ex-author friends whose sales were not consistently high enough for them to see future work published. They wrote fine books, and they had readers and fans. But thanks to all the “borrowing” going on, they cannot get new work published.

That is the path you take when you borrow books.

PS: This is not about libraries. Libraries are often a literary novelist’s last best hope, and commonly half or more of a literary novel’s sales numbers are due to library purchases.