anghara (anghara) wrote,

The wheel's come round again -

- and I find myself responding to one too many instances of what who owes whom in the book biz.

Somebody recently put up a link on their blog to "10 things it is better to buy used". The list is... kind of... well, you might make a case for taking their advice for buying a "used" house rather than building new, for instance. But number two or three on their list, quite high, is... books In point of fact, to paraphrase their advice, they seem to think that you get more "bang for your buck" at a used book store. Oh, also, "look for free reading material at your library".

Now, don't get me wrong. I loves me a good used bookstore. They have atmosphere, and they often have books which are long gone from the rest of the world - books that are esoteric, or years out of print, or on subjects which demand a niche audience, or collector's first editions in mint condition and worth a great deal. They are fantastic - for older stuff, for books by authors no longer actively publishing, for instance, or for folks with a backlist from hell which dates back to when the earth cooled and which have (in their time) sold plenty copies new (or else there wouldn't be so many in second hand bookstores).

I've been tickled, although somewhat ambivalent, to find some of my own stuff turning up on a used-bookstore shelf. On the one hand, someone had bought the thing in its turn, probably new - on the other they didn't feel they wanted to keep it...

Oh well. That's a whole other issue. But the point I wanted to make is simply this: buying a copy of the complete works of SHakespeare, or the poetry of Emily Dickinson, or a very much pre-loved copy of some cheap romantic paperback or genre mystery (simply as "something to read in an emergency", even) is one thing. Declaring that you never buy new books because you simply don't have the money, or telling someone else not to do so and directing them to "free" reading material in the libraries (please note, I am NOT talking about borrowing a library book - I am talking about the freebies often found lying around in libraries' foyers under the placard "free books") is something else again.

In a way it's a sister argument to the e-book controversy, which also gravitates towards "find something free to read" kind of attitude. But the fact of the matter is... reading matter IS NOT free. Someone had to produce it. That someone usually gets a handful of cents per new paperback copy of their book sold, perhaps a dollar or so in the case of hardcovers; they are not, trust me, getting rich off it. But when you buy their book used they get nothing at all.

Yes I understand the concept of "used" - I understand that that book has probably already been sold once as new. And that's fine, that's dandy - but that's the only sale that counts for that author's publisher, that "new" sale" for which they have the tick on the record. A used book may change hands a dozen times in its lifetime but as far as the publisher and the author are concerned it's only sold one copy, that original one, and that's the end of it. And mid-list careers have come to smoking crashinng burning ends because the publisher doesn't care how many people READ the book, just how many people BUY it.

Someone in a comment thread on that original blog, apparently a visual artist of some sort, announced that he cared more about saving money than about supporting writers, and anyway, he didn't see any of those writers turning around to support HIM. (Or at least I think it was a him. COme to think of it there was no direct indication of gender).

Here's the thing about visual arts - it's wholly and utterly and viscerally subjective. It's got to scream your name out loud and never let go, or else it's wither "meh" or, worse, a negative response just as strong as that positive one could have been. But it's instant, and it's immediate, eye-to-brain. And here's another thing - visual arts tend to be unique things which kind of take up room to the point of clutter. You can hang so many paintings on a wall before you run our of wall and the crowding makes all of them moot. You can stick only so many statues into a place (and, into an average suburban home, the number is very small indeed). So by definition the market for visual arts is kind of limited by space and decor. And here's yet another thing - visual arts, by virtue of being unique creations, tend to be pricy. Quite a lot pricier, in fact, than an average paperback copy of a contemporary novel. A framed and matted PHOTOGRAPH can go for $80 or $100 or even more if the photographer has a "name". A painting can set you back $2000 or more. Not many people have that kind of spare cash lying around. Art is an investment, and artists of this sort require a patron of wealth and discernment if they are to make a good living at this. Not so with a book - there a multiple copies of the same work out there, ready to be purchased and enjoyed by a much wider clientele. The cost of a paperback is less than the cost of a couple of cups of coffee a week if you like reading, you can stretch to that without TOO much trouble.

But here's the thing - this particular visual artist turned a general issue (buying solely used books because he wanted to pinch a penny, and it wasn't his job to support writers as a group) to something utterly personal ("but you guys aren't supporting me - you aren't thronging the gallery buying my art - so why should I spare a penny for the book?") In other words, the writer, who gets pennies for every book sold, is now expected to turn around and purchase large-ticket luxury art items, for the privilege of being "supported" by the artist.

Look, I get it. We are all starving artists together, after all. But here's the thing about reading in particular - yes, I love to read, and I will read widely and on a wide range of subjects, and my tastes are eclectic. But I don't read just anything just for the sake of "having something to read" - it MATTERS to me what I am reading. Quality matters to me. And if I had to wait until I could afford to buy the book(s) I really wanted they would taste all the sweeter when I finally had then - and I do not consider reading a handful of dog-eared cheapie formula thrillers from the used bookstore as any kind of equivalent to that.

No, it is not my duty to support a writer, any writer, by buying their book new. But I do it anyway. Because those people have spent a year or more of their lives on that book. Because it is a book that I want to read, or that I know is good, that I know I will enjoy. I will continue to buy second-hand copies of books which are long unavailable outside of a second-hand market and whose authors I can no longer respect by buying their work in the sort of format that would put a crust of bread on their own table.

I am not suggesting that everybody, even those who can't afford to guy food, should only buy new books by living authors. You can't - I can't - we can't be all things to all people. But please, folks, consider the luxury of buying a new book by a writer you like, occasionally. Your doing so may make the difference between having another book by that writer on the shelves soon, or not at all - and all the used-book sales in the world won't save a career which the publisher doesn't see reflected in what they see as "Real" sales, new sales.

We. the writers, owe you a good story. You, the readers - well, you don't owe us anyting at all. But if you like what we do, then you might consider throwing us those few cents which every new book sold puts in our pockets. You may buy two or three good original pieces of visual art in your lifetime, to decorate your homes, and it is a hard truth that only a handful of artists will reap the benefits of that - but a book on a shelf, after you've read and enjoyed it, also has a decorative value. And it's cheap at the price.

I've a birthday coming up. If any of y'all want to wish me a happy, or to offer me any sort of "present", go out and buy one of my books. New. If you already own it, give it away to a friend as a gift. If you already own it, in fact, then bless you profoundly anyway because you've already given me that gift. And keep reading, whether me or my peers. But... but... I would really love to think that those who are reading me are kind of reading that book because they are enjoying THAT BOOK, because they are enjoying the story that I wrote, as opposed to just picking up any old thing which had printed words in it, and allowing it all to wash over them without any meaning or value in it. If you go swimming in the river of my worlds, I owe you the experience of having swum in a river like no other - a river full of its own scents and light and sound, a river whose droplets cling to your skin as you step out of the water at the end of your dip, something you will take away with you when you leave. I would like to think that when you step into the waters of my worlds it's from a place that's mine, and unique, and one which you sought out... rather than a McBeach like any other McBeach, and if you didn't have the towel with the name of your hotel woven into it clutched under your arm you would have no clue whether you were swimming in the Amazon or in the Volga in winter.

Keep reading. But keep in mind that even though there ARE always new and eager scribes popping up like mushrooms after the rain... it is in your hands to nurture the sapling that's taken root by the wayside. The mushrooms will always be there, generic, almost interchangeable, some poisonous... but the sapling, in order to grow into a tree which will shade the path for many years to come, will need you to pour a few drops of water from your drinking canteen into its roots as you walk by. It doesn't demand all the water you've got, but if you put in a drop or two, and the next person, and the one after that... well, it's cumulative. And the tree thanks you for it all, freely. Keep reading.
Tags: writing life

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