In the UK, we have a free National Health Service. Healthcare is 'free at the point of delivery' (= use). I know that's a bit of an alien concept to some transatlantic readers, but bear with me. We also have a system of books that are free at the point of use.
There are lots of ways books can be free to the reader. Here are some:
- borrow the book from a library
- borrow the book from a friend
- be given the book by a friend
- steal the book from a library/friend/shop
- download a pirated e-copy of the book
- pick up a book-crossing copy
- books bought from Amazon re-sellers
- books bought from charity shops and car-boot sales
- books ordered from a library and incurring an inter-library loan charge.
On the whole, writers are vociferous and enthusiastic supporters of libraries. Many of us were early signatories to Alan Gibbons Campaign for the Book - and, indeed, signed the first scruffy bit of paper that represented its original toddler-steps last summer. We get our 6p, we're happy. Incidentally, school and university libraries are excluded from PLR. For children's writers, this means that probably most of our borrowings generate no income at all, not even 6p. And, of course, we get no PLR on books borrowed from libraries in the US, Australasia, Canada, etc.
Personally, I'm happy about people borrowing books from friends or passing them on when they have read them. It is environmentally sound, and book-giving and -sharing builds strong social bonds and endorses the emotional and intellectual value of books, which are Good Things.
I am not in favour of stealing books from libraries, friends or shops. Doing that deprives others of the book and of its value as a physical object.
I am not 100% anti-piracy. Despite the anti-piracy advertising, it's not the same as stealing a physical book as it does not deprive an individual or organisation of an object they have paid for. (Yes, I know, the publishers have paid to develop the book - the stock of printed books is not depleted by piracy.) Publishers could do a lot to prevent piracy by making more books available as e-books. If someone wants an e-book and there is no legitimate copy they can buy, they are more likely to download an illegal copy. I am not convinced that downloading pirated copies damages sales - how many of the pirates would buy the paper book? Probably very few. If it is not a lost sale, it has cost publisher and author nothing. Sometimes, sales increase when a free (legal or illegal) download increases awareness and popularity of a book. But that's an argument for another time...
Book-crossing involves leaving books in public places - heartlessly orphaning them - in the hope that a sympathetic foster-parent will pick them up, read them, then pass them on in the same way.This can't cost many sales and it's a nice idea. The serendipitous discovery of a lovely book on a bench or train must bring such joy to someone's day. And if they find your book like this and like it, they might buy one of your other books. Gillian Philips has blogged about book crossing already this week, so look there for more info and thoughts.
Charity books selling second-hand books doesn't bother me either: I approve of recycling nd giving money to charity, and people buying from a charity shop would rarely go and look for that precise book in a bookshop. Selling at car boot sales falls into the same category of giving books away after reading them, with the added bonus that someone who is sufficiently motivated to drag their old stuff to a rainy car park at 5 am gets a few pence in return. Good for them. I'd want money to go to a rainy car park at 5 am, too.
That leaves Amazon re-sellers and the like. I can't find any excuse for scumbags who somehow get hold of books that are only just out and sell them for a fraction of their cover price, eroding the market for the book at just the point it should be earning back the investment that the publisher and writer put into it. These copies will sell to people who would have paid full price - they have gone onto Amazon because they want the book, so presumably they would have paid for it. I've no objection to re-sellers selling used copies at a discount, or out-of-print books.
Of these, I use libraries (when they are open - insert grumble here about Cambridge Central Library having been closed for about a decade), charity shops, borrowing, getting presents (:-) - and swapping free contractual copies with friends, but that's a method only open to writers. I have only downloaded pirated copies of my own books and have never been lucky enough to find a book-crossing tome.
I don't buy new books from Amazon re-sellers - except my own. Because I can buy my own books more cheaply from there than I can get them from my publisher, even with the massive author discount.
Oh, there's another new way of getting free books: quite a few publishers with Twitter accounts offer free books as prizes to micro competitions, or even just to people who send their details. I got two books in one day like this last week! I suspect they count as promotional copies, so the author doesn't get a royalty. But if the publishers are doing it right, people who didn't win are made aware of the book and may buy it. So get a Twitter account and follow some publishers for guilt-free free reading. And when Awfully Big Blog Adventure has its first birthday celebration on 10th July, there will be free books to win there, too.
Please tell me which free ways of getting books you use and which you approve of and disapprove of. I'd really like to know where others stand on this. (I suspect I'm a fairly lone voice on the pirate deck.)