07 March 2014


Sneaky, Sneaky Book Thieves: A Post about YOU!

Did you know that borrowing books is stealing from the author? So declared a certain writer I'm not going to name, since I occasionally swim in the book blogosphere's more barracuda-infested waters and I don't want her to get attacked. But I do want to give the idea itself more consideration.

If an author told you that borrowing books instead of buying them is theft, what would your first reaction be? I was totally rubbed the wrong way, and I buy a lot of books. Perhaps it rubbed me the wrong way because I buy a lot of books.

As you can see from two of my bookcases, the ones named "Francis" and "Benedict," I'm a huge bibliomaniac. I've been adding to (and discarding from) my personal collection for nearly two decades, curating before I knew it was a verb. What I have around now is only a fraction of what I could have shown you, had I kept all of my books since childhood--and I actually think it makes me look temperate in my spending. So let me also mention the time a more financially conservative friend nearly spit her drink all over me upon hearing my monthly reading budget. I also give books away as birthday and Christmas presents--and ask for them in return.

Another point the Authors' Club should consider when making me their Reader of the Year is that I tend to be a little averse to libraries. I've had too many experiences of borrowing a library book, loving it enough to want my own copy, and then being torn between buying the copy for its own sake (which would be extravagant) and deciding to be thrifty (which would break my obsessive bibliomaniac heart). Granted, this doesn't matter too much: the author who inspired this post doesn't consider librarians to be enablers of theft, inasmuch as they have to pay (more?) for the books they put into circulation.

In recent years, I've started splitting my shopping between the stores which sell them new and used bookstores or rummage sales. (Inasmuch as the latter two don't give writers a cut of the resale profits, does this mean I've also started stealing?) After I downloaded the free Kindle app, I began filling it up with exactly two titles I paid full price for and a bunch of free ebooks, which were either classics or on special when I stumbled into them. (Is this also thievery?) What I've never done is to download an illegal copy of a book. (Phew! =P)

In short, I give a lot of money to authors, with only some used books and Amazon freebies blotting my perfect record!

Oh, wait . . . That wouldn't be right if it turns out that all the books I just borrowed from family and friends count as stolen reading, would it?

* * * * *

This whole issue raises questions about ownership and the nature of different possessions. If I buy a jacket, I can lend it to a friend without a designer or retailer saying that there's stealing going on. If I buy a kitchen appliance, I can lend it to a neighbour without an engineer or manufacturer thinking it is thievery. If I buy a book . . . apparently, it's a completely different story. And publishers are already protecting some ebooks the way record companies protect digital music, by making them impossible to lend unless you also hand over the device on which they are stored. (Friends have done that for me, by the way. Were they accomplices in theft?)

Now, I do see why borrowing a friend's book so that you don't have to buy your own copy can be as bad as actually reproducing a copy of a friend's album also so that you don't have to buy your own. It doesn't matter that you don't have the physical book around to reread at your leisure, because we don't enjoy recorded music and written literature in the same way. The reasoning is: once you've read a text, you've become the possessor of something only a rightful owner should have. 

Yet note that there are two ways to become the rightful owner of something: by exchanging your labour or the fruits of your labour for it . . . or by receiving it as a gift from the one who made the original exchange. But what this means is that, theoretically, a book can go through a dozen owners in a decade. Do we say that they are cheating the system of ownership the way serial marriage cheats the system of monogamy?

And what are we to do about the fact that particular physical copies of books are their owner's private property? Should there be a law that anyone who sells a book at a garage sale give must the author a cut of the profits? What happens when the book is merely bartered for something else of perceived equal value? Or when the book is entangled in another business transaction, such as a physician keeping a small book nook in his waiting room . . . or a family-run B&B letting guests have the run of the library . . . or a book blogger letting a lucky contest winner choose a prize from his personal collection? =P

* * * * *

Believe it or not, I am sympathetic to this author's view. I heartily agree that a lot of people these days feel entitled to get stuff for free, just because they're interested in it. This goes for books, music, movies, TV series, and anything that can be cheaply pirated. And that really is unfair to everyone who worked hard to produce media of a certain quality.

And yet I'm still rubbed the wrong way, the main reason being that borrowing and lending books is a great part of the literary culture the author was born into and is writing in. Anyone who likes reading has borrowed at least one book (if not dozens) from its rightful owner; and anyone who has loved one particular book has probably lent it to one other (if not more). This cultural phenomenon is practically a tradition now, having been handed down through several book-loving generations. And it's much older than the author who thinks it is theft.

 You could argue that "everybody" doing something doesn't make it right--and ironically, the "democracy of the dead" would probably agree with you--but I still wonder why this has been made about morality instead of accepted as a reality of doing business. It does seem to me that the entitlement is going both ways.

This particular author aside, however, certain marketing tactics by publishers seem to indicate that others have accepted that reality and have found creative ways around it. Take the cover redesign. Who knew that repackaging what is essentially the same book would be so effective? As far as I can see, readers tend to have mixed reactions toward this strategy: most interestingly, those who are most miffed are the ones who actually bought the books with the original covers! It has led to some saying, "I'll just borrow them now and buy them when the better covers come out" . . . which, now that we see it in the light of this topic, is not the reaction but the cause. (Maybe the author who inspired this post should have a cover redesign clause in her next publishing contract.)

Finally, I can't help putting a Last Psychiatrist spin on this, so please bear with me . . . What if the great cultural tradition of book borrowing has become, in our times, a symptom of a very real problem? I refer to the normalisation of credit--by which I don't just mean economic credit (which lets us have what we cannot afford), but also psychological credit (which lets us feel self-esteem that we do not deserve). Think of a woman who buys an expensive designer handbag with every intention of returning it to the store, just so she can fit in for one day among women who can afford such handbags. She's trying to be one of them, but since she can't back it up with something real, she's just a poser. Perhaps those of us who can't afford to buy books (and aren't lucky enough to inherit them) should just accept our lower socio-economic standing and stop posing as real book lovers. =P

I could go on and on with more of my thoughts on the issue, but I think it's time to welcome others into the discussion. Please let me know your thoughts in the combox!


Sheila said...

As a long-time poor bibliophile, honestly, I can't remember the last time I bought a book for myself ..... it might be never.

And yet I've always felt that one of the wonderful things about literature. Unlike just about every other pleasure you can have, literature is available to the poor too. Since the author does the work ONCE for all the people who are going to enjoy it, the rich subsidize the reading pleasure of the poor. So long as enough people buy books to cover those of us who borrow them -- and they must, or we'd never get our hands on a copy -- the author can still make a living.

When choosing to borrow and not buy this book, my thought process went like this: "Well, I asked for it for Christmas, and no one bought it for me. And it is unthinkable that I would buy this book, because I need that money to buy food and pay my debts. So the author loses nothing if I read it; I wasn't going to spend money on it anyway. I'll repay her by recommending her book to others, if I like it, and leaving her a good review." Because, after all, authors are perfectly willing to give free copies to critics to review, right? She benefits from the buzz I generate for her book.

This whole system works because a print book has a natural limit to how many times it can be borrowed and read. The same copy can't be simultaneously read by many people, and it will eventually fall to bits. You can't get the full enjoyment from a borrowed copy -- you can't reread your favorite passages whenever you want; you can't underline; and you can't lend it to someone else. (This is one my main reasons for wanting my own copy of a book!)

With a digital copy, it's different, so that theoretically an author could sell just one copy that we all borrow, if it weren't protected against that. And so they do, naturally enough. That sort of protection isn't necessary with print.

My general rule is, lending is fine, copying is not. Same with music. I can enjoy it for a week, but if I want to enjoy it at will, I have to buy my own copy.

Brandon said...

C. S. Lewis somewhere has a little piece in which he imagines that we all get libraries in heaven -- but your library will only be stocked with the books you've lent other people. Which would make borrowing exactly the opposite of theft!

Emily J. said...

Where, oh where, would you put all the books if you bought every book you read? One reason I prefer print to ebooks is that they can be loaned! I don't have time to give this argument my full attention right now, but there's a flaw in the author's viewpoint somewhere - I think it lies with the notion that he or she should be compensated by each reader rather than by the publisher. A musician is not compensated each time his song plays on the radio nor an artist each time someone looks at his painting. In order to reach an audience, authors rely on recommendations and reviews - somehow their work has to get into the hands of readers, and free lending libraries and loaned books has a lot to do with this dissemination.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila Despite my penultimate paragraph, I agree with you that reading is not just for the rich. And I like the idea of subsidising other people's reading! =D In my lifetime, I have already donated hundreds of books to struggling school libraries: helping fellow readers out is just what I do!

And I don't think you need to come up with justifications every time you decide to borrow a book. Nor does anyone.

But you've shown me another angle from which to look at this book ownership issue . . . What if you gave the friend who lent you the book a jar of homemade sauerkraut to say thank you? Since you "compensated" the friend, there's a sense in which both of you split the cost of the book! =D Likewise, if a group of friends can't afford to buy a book unless they pool their money, would the author argue that they should all pay full price before she will sell it to them?

Brandon -- I had forgotten that quotation from Lewis! It happens to line up perfectly with what Sheila has said about subsidies. I wonder what the author would say to that, though!

Emily -- There's definitely a flaw in the reasoning! If borrowing truly were theft, the publishing industry would have completely buckled by now. What it has done, however, is find ways to do business around borrowers. I've mentioned cover reveals, and Sheila's comment hints that the terrible quality of mass market copies is by deliberate design: if it won't last forever, then there have to be new editions someday.

There are other holes I was able to think of while drafting the post, but ended up trimming out of the final draft. One of them was the compensation plan. I think that publishers already do take borrowing into account when they buy an author's book and draw up a marketing plan for him. And now it occurs to me that if everybody who is interested in a book bought it the first time around, there would probably be longer periods between the printing of new editions. Wouldn't it be ironic (for this author) if such a set up would actually mean less profit for the writers?

Brandon said...

One of the things that has become pretty clear with free e-book giveaways through Amazon and the like is that the authors who don't benefit from books occasionally being available for free are primarily those who are already guaranteed to sell. Someone like Rowling or James Patterson doesn't benefit from such things, but most authors do. Giving away e-books for free increases the chances that someone will buy print at some point; the more people who have read a book, the better its sequels will sell; and so forth. That's why Amazon does it (although they do restrict it to make sure that they profit in the long run, as well). The hardest part of bookselling for most books is making sure people know the book is there and might be interesting to them; if you just have enough people who do know, there will always be people who will buy it for themselves or others. I suspect borrowing would have exactly the same effect. (Saying that, I realized that this is just saying from a different angle what Sheila already said about buzz.) In that case, authors really should see borrowing as a form of advertising. Borrowers are a significant part of the primary pool of buyers for most books.

While I don't borrow books often, this seems to be how borrowing (and availability of free copies) works for me. I have an extremely long list of books-to-buy already, because of my profession (and academic texts are expensive!); I have to set aside money, deliberately, for certain kinds of books (like fiction), or I don't have any at all for it. Given that, there's no way I'm going to be buying those kinds of books unless I already know that I want them on my shelf. And that means, with anything but classics (where I can trust the general pool of readers) and a few authors I really, really like (because I've read their other works), I have to have already read them. If I've read them and liked them, there's a fair chance that I might buy them. But I rarely buy books blind if they aren't directly within my field of research.

DMS said...

For as long as I have been a reader I have been a book borrower. I love libraries and books from friends because both give me a chance to read books I might not have picked up otherwise. I also LOVE to buy books! Often if I read a book that I have borrowed I will buy another book by that author to check out. Instead of thinking of it as stealing I wish the author you are talking about saw it as spreading the love. Getting more people to talk about your books has to be a good thing and part of the way to do that is through libraries. Lots to think about, as always. ;)

DMS said...

Oh- and I do not agree with downloading illegally (I don't even have an ereader) and of course I don't steal books from bookstores. :)

love the girls said...

Borrowed book theft is the opposite side of those who propose that intellectual property does not exist. And while I'm not certain the error made by each side is the same, I am rather certain the solution to both is the same.

I make my living selling intellectual property, i.e. architectural drawings that are intended for a specific site to be used once. Which is also the societal convention of how they can be bought and sold, and borrowed. It's a societal convention grounded in the natural order that a man is due his just wages for his work.

Books are likewise under societal convention grounded in the natural order that authors are likewise due their just wage. And as a result, society has deemed it proper that books cannot be printed and sold without compensation to the author, but they can be resold and borrowed because the selling of books is sufficient for a just compensation of labor.

One can argue that society has acted imprudently in letting books be borrowed because borrowing precludes an author from earning a just wage, but one cannot claim theft, except as opinion, when the authority of prudential judgement to deem the act of borrowing is theft is within society and not in each member.

Enbrethiliel said...


Brandon -- Borrowing is turning out to be more beneficial to authors than I thought! My groaning bookshelves may have given the impression that I buy pretty much anything that catches my interest, but I rarely invest in a book unless I'm sure that it's going to be worth it. And yes, sometimes that means borrowing one of the author's earlier works from someone who already has it.

Jess -- I guess that this author really draws a hard line between "I loved your book" and "I bought your book." While the second is definitely a more concrete form of support (and the two are not mutually exclusive), I hope that meeting someone who could say the former but not the latter wouldn't be too bitter an experience for this author!

LTG -- That's an interesting parallel in architecture, and one that you've actually brought up with me before. Remember, by any chance? ;-)

As I implied in the post, I think the author wants to change society so that it becomes unacceptable to read a book without also compensating its writer--not merely out of self-interest, but because she really does see something as an injustice and wants to correct it. Is there something beyond societal convention which makes her ideal model wrong?

love the girls said...

Miss writes : "Is there something beyond societal convention which makes her ideal model wrong?"

I assume her argument is that if the intellectual property remains owned by the author, and the value of the intellectual property is in the reading of it, in turn each reader has a duty to pay the author.

Which on the face of it seems reasonable. And any author can contract with buyers of his book that they cannot lend it, or even sell it without prior permission by the author, just as other authors like Gary North can contract with buyers of his book that it can be copied without compensation to him.

And while such a view does seem at first blush to be reasonable, it like private property per se ignores that private property also exists for the common good as well as for the private good.

Angie Tusa said...

One thing I don't think I've seen anyone bring up yet is that we now live in a world where publishers aren't necessary to get your book published. They do however help tremendously.

If you have a publisher than you probably have a deal worked out where you got a dollar amount in advance, and get future dollars based on sales. To those authors, someone borrowing your book isn't ideal, but it's not going to ruin you.

If however you are self published, every single sale makes a great deal of difference, and hearing that someone copied your e-book or borrowed a physical book from a friend could be very upsetting. I'd still argue that it will pay off in the long run, that if the person truly enjoys the book they will probably be willing to purchase a copy to support you, but I can see an independent author worrying about his/her bottom line becoming unreasonable enough to start calling it theft.

Belfry Bat said...

It's a fascinating tumble of issues, isn't it?

For instance, the professional novelist is something of a new phenomenon (maybe three centuries old?). I don't know how Sophocles lived, but I think Shakespeare lived more by acting and directing than by selling folios. Music, again: J.S. the Prodigious sold his music, to be sure, but it was usually new music, in some periods a new work every week. He was at least as much a performer as a composer. Nowadays there are record companies that seem to think the purpose of concerts is to drive album sales, rather than the purpose of records being to drive concert ticket sales.

Incidentally, the author I supsect of the instigating proclamation is also on record in favour of public libraries, and would be very happy if every public library in North America were to obtain one copy of her novel, so I think there is some hyperbole as well as author's first-professionally-published-novel anxiety that she wants it to sell well enough to impress the publisher, above the hope she certainly does have that lots of people read and enjoy her work.

So, Sheila! Tell your library to get two copies!

Enbrethiliel said...


LTG -- The idea that private property exists for both the private good and the common good is fascinating! And now that you bring it up, also totally obvious . . .

By the way, I've started Rerum Novarum. What richness! =D

Angie -- The special case of self-published writers is another point I considered in early drafts and ended up deleting because this particular author is not self-published.

Personally, I'd hesitate to borrow a self-published book, for all the reasons you state. I put such books in the same category as artisanal breads or handmade crafts, and understand that their producers can't afford to give us discounts--even the "discount" of letting two people pool their money to buy one book.

But the fact is that borrowing is such a huge part of the literary culture that the publishing industry had to find a way to work around it. And while I'd personally bend over backwards to help a good self-published writer out, I don't think they'll have much success in changing the way we traditionally enjoy books. It's not fair, but "them's the breaks" of not being able to land a publisher. =(

Bat -- I did mention the author's support of public libraries, along with her explanation that this is okay by her because libraries buy books. (After publishing the post, I did extra research and learned that libraries can be charged triple what individual readers have to pay. Sometimes more, depending on the title or the library's popularity. So the author's being in favour of libraries actually doesn't mean anything here.)

The original comment may have been mere hyperbole, but I think the idea behind it is interesting.

Finally, I had to reread the last sentence of your second paragraph a few times because I thought you had accidentally reversed your two points, but I think it says what you want it to say. Which means that it is my sad duty to tell you that what record companies "seem to think" is what is actually going on. But instead of seeing albums and tickets as the two possible drivers of the profit bus, think of albums and musicians. Would you say that the musician promotes the album or that the album promotes the musician? These days, the musician is the product. And if he's smart, he'll leverage it.

I'd say that novelists have become similar "products," too, which is why modern authors make themselves so available online and in real-life promotional events. It does have the effect of selling more copies, but only inasmuch as buyers are brand loyal to novelists. Now, this isn't good for literature any more than it's good for music, but if we're going to make it about money (as the writer in question has), then it's a fantastic marketing model.

Sheila said...

It's funny to have it mentioned, because I've never given it any thought, but I *would* feel bad borrowing a self-published book. I have a friend who self-publishes his books, and he's always offering me discounts. I told him, "Look, you don't make many sales as it is, I am buying this partly to support you so you can write more, I want to give you full price!"

(You can buy them here, by the way: http://www.debellisstellarum.com/ They are excellent -- Catholic fantasy/mystery aimed at around the teen age (I'd say) but I enjoyed them too. My 12-year-old brother says they are "some of the best books he's every read.")

Enbrethiliel said...


NB: It turns out that I cut the author's thoughts on borrowing from libraries from the final draft of this post. #facepalm

* * * * *

Sheila -- Thanks for the recommendation! =) Would you know if he has also been shopping them around? Good Middle Grade Fantasy/Mystery books should get a lot more distribution . . . especially if they're Catholic! ;-)

Sheila said...

He's rather elderly, so after shopping them a few places, he made up his mind to at least get them in the hands of a few readers before he died. It's a bit of a shame, because I think a really good editor could make them even better. But I do get it -- Catholic fiction is notoriously hard to sell, and the publishers make it worse by being extremely cautious and picky. Basically only Ignatius publishes any, and I can't for the life of me figure out what standards they use to choose what they publish.

Belfry Bat said...

And here was me, all ready to apologize for my atrocious inattention... ;-) There, there, En, it's all good.

Now, I don't want to give the impression that I think record companies doing what they do as record companies is the wrong way so much as it is foolishly fighting the tendency of the medium (as opposed to as vigilantes for their rights under copyright); mostly, I think it's a fascinating development.

Another thought that occured to me is how much rapid facsimile is an integral part of professional novelism... (that's Bat's minting of the day) way back when most books were compiled sheepskins, the economics of poetry must have been hugely different. It occurs to me to wonder whether it would take longer to eat the underlying mutton or to fill up the pages it produced? Time for a real historian to interject.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila -- What about Wiseblood Books? I can't make any guarantees, of course, but I know the publisher! =P

Bat -- I'm as fascinated by the developments in the music industry as you are! Maybe more . . . ;-)

mrsdarwin said...

I wonder if this author thought that borrowing books was stealing before she herself had skin in the book-sales game? As a matter of fact, I received her book as a Christmas present, enjoyed it, and told my husband that he should read it. Was that stealing, or does the book belong to the household? If the person who gave it to me read it before she sent it, was that stealing? One of the hallmarks of borrowing is that the object is out of your possession. You give up the benefits of ownership for a time (including the ability to re-read) to someone else, and when they give the book back, they relinquish the same benefits. And if the borrower wants to read it again, then he get his own copy.

But once a reader has bought a book, the book is her property. If I lie about what the book contains, I wrong the author. If I plagiarize the text, I wrong the author. If I lend out the physical object of the book, I lend what is mine because I have purchased it. An author disseminates her text with the express purpose of having it read, and there is a certain amount of relinquishment in that. You can't control your readers' perspective, and you can't control what readers do with your books once they own them.

I, like Brandon, rarely ever buy new books, or books I haven't read, or indeed books that I am not sure I will want to read more than once. Life and budgets and bookshelf space are too short, and too be honest, not every book that's worth reading once is a keeper.

It is true that the biggest part of selling a book is making the potential audience aware that this book exists and that they want it, which is why I've been handing out (legitimately bought) copies of my sister-in-law's book to just about everyone, regardless of the fine publicity the publisher is doing. And I'd lend my own copy too, not to defraud my sister-in-law, but so that the reader might mention it to the next person who might buy it.

Enbrethiliel said...


NB#2: Oh, look . . . The author's thoughts on libraries are here after all. Please see paragraph 4 while I #facepalm again. Or while I #headdesk.

Mrs. Darwin -- I don't know about what the author believed in the past, but after a statement like that, it would be hard for her not to stick closely to it going forward.

You ask some more good questions. (If I had included all those which came to mind when I first read that author's post, this one would be ten times longer than it is! =P) I think the idea of a book belonging to a household is reasonable. It reminds me of when I was writing for a magazine which had monthly raffles: the editor-in-chief was thinking of instituting a similar "one entry per household" rule because some subscribers were entering up to ten times by using the names of extended family members under the same roof! She thought it was unfair to subscribers who lived alone. LOL! But it's true that there are benefits to living in community that just can't be forbidden or stigmatised, just because we want to level the playing field for someone.

I also like the idea of relinquishment, which happens whenever we let something go, whether we are lending a physical copy to a friend who might not be as careful with books as we are . . . or entrusting a manuscript to a publisher who might not make the best decisions about marketing it.

Belfry Bat said...

... and I'm sorry I missed them. What is it with me?

Excuse me, I've got some reading to do.