Yesterday on twitter, I expressed annoyance with the hundreds of people who send me emails or tumblr messages or whatever to let me know that they illegally downloaded one of my books, as if they expect me to reply with my hearty congratulations that they are technologically sophisticated enough to use google or whatever. (I dislike it when people pirate my books. I know that not all authors feel this way, but I do. As I’ve discussed before, I think copyright law is disastrously stupid in the US, but I don’t think piracy is an appropriate response to that stupidity.*)
I then pointed out that my books are already available for free at thousands of public libraries not just in the US, but also in Europe, South America, Australia, Canada, Mexico, South Africa, the UK, etc., to which many people replied, What’s the difference between pirating a book and checking it out from the library?
1. Libraries are broadly collecting institutions curated by experts. The curation facet of a library is hugely important: We train these librarians to organize information based not solely on what is popular (which is what piracy does), but also on what is good. The truth is you can’t get “anything” via piracy; there are hundreds of thousands of books you can’t get, because they aren’t yet popular. American public and school libraries play a huge role in preserving the breadth of American literature by collecting and sharing books that are excellent but may not be written by YouTubers with large bulit-in audiences.
Libraries improve the quality of discourse in their communities in ways that piracy simply does not. And if it weren’t for the broad but carefully curated collection practices of libraries, the world of American literature would look a lot like the world of American film: Instead of hundreds of books being published every week, there would be four or five.
2. Libraries buy books. Lots of them. And there are tens of thousands of libraries around the country. That is good for me and good for my book. (Like, the average library copy of The Fault in Our Stars might get checked out 100 times, or even a thousand, butsingle files of Looking for Alaska have been illegally downloaded more than 50,000 times.)
3. For the more than 100 million Americans without Internet access at home, libraries are the only free places to use the web to search for jobs or connect with family or buy t-shirts at dftba.com. I am very happy if my books can help add value to institutions that facilitate such important services. I do not feel the same way about BitTorrent.
4. And this is the most important: I believe that creators of books should have control over how their work is distributed. If, for instance, a musician doesn’t want her songs played during Rick Santorum rallies, then Rick Santorum should not be allowed to use them. I don’t want my books to be available for free download (unless you borrow an e-copy from a library, that is). I just don’t. It’s not because I’m a greedy bastard or want to keep my books from people who might otherwise read them. It’s because I believe books are valuable. Right now, on Amazon, my brand new hardcover book costs about $10, which represents 1.2 hours of work at the federal minimum wage. I believe books are worth 1.2 hours of work.
One last thing: A lot of people compare the world of books with the world of music. I think this comparison is unfair. For one thing, CDs were overpriced before Napster. I really don’t believe that books—at least my books—are currently overpriced**. More importantly, most musicians have a secondary source of income: They can charge for live performances. Writers—or at least the vast majority of writers—can’t do this. The book is The Thing. The book is all we have to offer.
And in my opinion, libraries preserve the integrity and the value of the book in ways that piracy simply does not.
Based on how many of you have already seen Season 2 of Sherlock, I realize that most of you disagree with me. And I’m happy to acknowledge that I might be wrong. I welcome your thoughts and responses on these complicated questions.
* The whole argument that piracy is some kind of civil disobedience in response to unfair copyright laws is ridiculous and indicates to me that not enough people are reading Civil Disobedience, or even the wikipedia article about it.
** As pointed out by no less an authority than John Darnielle, CDs weren’t overpriced by many independent record labels. Also, I should add that many books—particularly literary fiction hardcovers published for adults—are overpriced, sometimes dramatically. I think this is a bad and discouraging trend, which is one of the (many) reasons why I like publishing my books the way I do: It’s still possible for a hardcover to cost less than $20, and if you adjust for inflation, it always should be.