“Cannibals & Bibliophiles”

The following essay is copyright 2002 by Matt Ruff:

As a published novelist who does not (yet) earn huge sums of money from his books, I should probably be supportive of the current Authors Guild protest against Amazon.com. The Guild claims that by aggressively marketing used books on its web site, Amazon is “cannibalizing” new book sales, depriving authors of their rightful share of royalties. While I appreciate all sincere attempts to defend my livelihood, I see an obvious flaw in the Guild’s moral logic: If the buying and selling of used books constitutes stealing, then authors themselves are among the biggest thieves.

Every author I know shops at used book stores, many on a weekly or even a daily basis. Authors love books, and when offered a bargain on the thing that they love, they naturally make the most of the opportunity. Nor do they limit their bargain-hunting to books that are out of print, or books that have been in print for a long time: Given a chance to buy new hardcover releases at resale prices, they don’t hesitate. Bibliophilia beats solidarity every time.

The only thing authors love better than bargain-price books is books that are free. Every visit to a publishing house includes an obligatory trip to the stockroom to load up on free goodies. More cost-conscious publishers put limits on this sort of pilfering, but most are only too happy to share their wares—not only do they let you take whatever you want, they’ll even ship the books home for you so you don’t strain your back trying to carry them. Publishers’ largesse does not extend, however, to paying royalties on the books they give away.

In addition to the free books they ask for, authors also get a lot of unsolicited free books: advance review copies sent by publishers hoping for a jacket blurb (“John Grisham’s new thriller is so amazing, I would have paid full price for it!”). These review copies are marked “not intended for resale,” but a lot of them end up in used book stores anyway. Did I mention that authors are bibliophiles? Given a choice between throwing a book away and trading it for another book they’d rather have, which option do you think most bibliophiles go for?

You can see why I’m reluctant to wag a finger at Amazon. The problem is not that I feel guilty; it’s that I don’t. I’m proud to live in a society where books are a glut. I think a thriving resale market in literature is a sign of civilization, not something to be ashamed of.

And yes, of course, I want to be paid for my writing. I’d like to get rich off my royalties. I’d like my publishers to get rich, too—they’ve been very kind to me! But I also want my work to be as widely read as possible. When I hear that someone’s bought a used copy of one of my novels, or borrowed one from the library, I feel flattered, not ripped off. If they like what they read, maybe next time they’ll buy new; maybe they’ll recommend me to their friends. As for the folks at Amazon.com, if they want to make used copies of my books easier for people to find, then I say God bless their little black corporate hearts.

The real culprit here, if that’s the right word, isn’t Amazon anyway. It’s the Internet as a whole. As long as used book sales are legal—and a plague on the house of anyone who says they shouldn’t be—book-lovers are going to use the ‘Net to track down the bargains they crave. If Amazon.com won’t help them, they’ll just go to EBay, or abebooks.com, or Powell’s, or any of a hundred other online resellers—and when they arrive, they’ll find the members of the Authors Guild there ahead of them, grabbing up all the best deals.