Some time ago the Authors Guild recommended that writers en masse boycott Amazon.com. The organization took this very principled stance based on the mega-online retailer’s policy of selling used books of titles still in print. Ironically, second-hand booksellers on Amazon literally compete with the company for the final sale. But while Amazon receives its cut in either instance, authors only benefit from the sale of a new book. In other words, we earn no royalties when individuals or business entities sell our books as used. In fact, used booksellers frequently harbor titles in their inventories that have never, ever been purchased. For example, books sent to potential reviewers and employed in various promotions often end up in their hands.
Now, I rather like used bookstores in virtual reality and the bright light of day as well. I also patronize Amazon because, foremost, its prices typically can’t be beat, and I am not J.K. Rowling or James Patterson. It’s a poverty-versus-principle thing, and in this book-buying game poverty concerns trump all else. And I might add that Amazon’s seemingly infinite roster of booksellers selling a seemingly infinite roster of out-of-print books—almost any title from the past can be had for a song—is a wonderful thing.
For sure, it’s a brave new world that we live in. Just about every new title from a mainstream publisher is available now as an e-book from the get-go, or very soon after publication. My initial reaction to digital books, and e-readers like Kindle and Nook, was wholly negative. I viewed them as frontal assaults on physical books and brick-and-mortar bookstores, which they are to a great extent. But I’ve come to appreciate that there’s little point in attempting to stem this technological steamroller. And building a bridge to the past won’t work, either.
Author Peter Rubie, the CEO of the literary agency for which I am somewhat familiar, addressed this very matter on the company’s blog. He wondered why so many writers whine—particularly older ones like me—about e-books and such. He pointed out that this brand of book cannot be shared with family and friends; it cannot be passed on indefinitely like the genuine article can. And, yes, this venerable practice among book aficionados—of sharing—amounts to no new sales and no additional royalties to hard-working, struggling writers. I suppose the moral of this little story is to read on in whatever way suits your fancy and fits your budget. And while I’d much prefer that you support an author with the purchase of his or her new book, I’ll certainly understand if you take it out of the library or buy it on Amazon for two cents.