The Ethics of Buying Books

This essay was written by Amarie Fox.

As a millennial, I often hear from friends that they don’t feel as if they should be forced to pay for art. By art, let me be specific. I am encompassing everything from films, to music, to yes, even books.

Perhaps, it is the false sense of entitlement in the digital age – where everything is free and instantly available for download – which allows for this kind of thought process to dominate. I grew up in an age where I actively witnessed the mentality shift and lose focus.

Music and films became mere things, free domain, ripe for taking, simply because they were hosted on the web. At this point, even books have encountered that sphere. There are websites that specialize in sharing downloads for newly released titles. Of course, this is a legal conundrum in itself, but that should not be the first deterrent for why someone might stop and question what it is they are about to do.

What about considering who is behind the finished product? In a moment of selfishness, fueled by the urge for instant gratification, in the lawless Wild West that is the Internet, no one usually thinks outside of his or her wants or needs, though. For me, that is far more troubling, because the issue takes on additional meaning. It signals a lack of human awareness or connection. Both of which, I deem as contributing factors in choosing to support any type of creator.

Over the years, as a rebellion to this popular and never-ending rapid advancement of rampant stealing (let’s not call it by any other kind name), I have become a strong advocate for upholding the ethics of actually purchasing a physical piece of art. I’ll take the time to say, that yes, I acknowledge that for some people, this may not seem like a life shattering issue, but at the core, I feel it is. Especially if you happen to consider yourself an avid reader or writer.

Writers As Avid Book Buyers

One of the more ineffective arguments I often hear is: ‘All writers should read!’ Okay, this is a perfectly valid (almost obvious), but the truth is, I have known many people who call themselves writers and have not picked up a book in years. That is what I like to refer to as a closed-off, selfish writer, whose motivations are badly misplaced. After all, if you love the act of writing, naturally you should also love other writers. As much as writing is a lone activity, once something is published, it takes on a new communal meaning. It is speaking to a larger audience and begging for feedback and swapped ideals.

However, if you expect your words to be read, but then never absorb any other ideas from anyone else, you’re missing the point. You’re not a writer as much as you’re a lecturer.

In this same line of thought, if you’re a writer and have never purchased a book, or rarely do, you’re not any better than the writer who avoids reading. The two go hand in hand.

In 2010, one of my favorite literary magazines, Tin House, launched a campaign called Buy a Book, Save a Bookstore, which required that all authors to include a receipt for a recently purchased book along with the unsolicited manuscript. The new policy didn’t end there: “Writers who are not able to produce a receipt for a book are encouraged to explain why in 100 words or fewer. Tin House will consider the purchase of e-books as a substitute only if the writer explains why he or she cannot go to his or her neighborhood bookstore or why he or she prefers digital reads.”

Now, this may seem drastic, even slightly dramatic, but let’s consider something vital in this initiative: Tin House isn’t saying they want a receipt of a book you purchased that was published by them. No. They are raising a different awareness and question. Why in the world would any writer not actively be buying books on a regular basis?

The way I see it is if you don’t, you have absolutely zero business publishing a book yourself. Writers should be aiming to support the institution that they, in turn, wish to one day support them financially.

Price of Books

I asked my friend, we will call him Jim for the sake of anonymity, “Jim, why don’t you buy books?” Jim looked at me as if I had grown four heads and said, “I’m not paying twenty bucks for something I’m going to read once.”

Now, I could have said many things to Jim. Most of which would have been curse words. This is because I will never grasp the whole “affordability of books” as an obstacle. Sure, I understand if you are a person who doesn’t write and wants to live a very minimalistic life. I have some friends who just don’t have the space for books, but again, they don’t have aspirations of actually becoming writers. They just love to read and when they can check a book out from their local library, they don’t see the point in buying one and reading it once. That is fine. Different strokes, right?

Humans are smart. When we see an obstacle, the goal is to work our way around it.  The price of a hardcover book should not stop you in your tracks. I have often told people, especially Jim, that I think books should actually cost more than they do. Thirty dollars, tops, for a beautiful hardcover? That is a steal. If you don’t believe me, calculate the number of hours the author actually spent writing the book – probably months and years. Then, add up the art team and typesetting crew, all the people behind the scenes that make a book look the way it does. Expenses of the finished creation hardly rival the amount of time and energy put into producing it, don’t you think?

Personally, a book represents many things. It is a gateway to knowledge, a time machine to the past and imagined future. It is even a mark in my memories, because I associate certain times with whatever I was reading. When I browse my shelf and run my finger across the spine of Milton’s Paradise Lost, I am transported back to a year ago, on the beach, where I was sitting cross-legged in the sand, listening to the ocean and the children building sandcastles.

I didn’t tell Jim this. It is my own personal connection with reading; he wouldn’t have cared to hear it. Instead, I brought up the idea of a book as art. Obviously, not many of us can afford to actually go out and buy an original piece of art. But, with a book, you’re getting that – the artist’s original visual interpretation of a text.

A lot of people refer to this as “book fetishism,” but in all honestly, people should care how a book looks. I condone judging books by their covers, because I have always believed that if anything is going to save the publishing industry, it is the ideal and promise of an attractive cover. Of tapping into our materialistic culture and working with it, instead of against it.

Plus, the publishers should owe us a certain amount of  accountability. They should be held to a standard. A high one. The consumer should not tolerate sloppy work, such as a blurred typeface, due to horrible printing job, or a binding that falls apart after several sessions of reading.

As for the innovation of the e-book and e-reader, yes, it does have its advantages. I won’t downplay the encouraging factors. At the same time, I won’t get into the debate of digital v. traditional: it is a dead end. Something that has certainly been discussed enough.

All that I would ask of you is to acknowledge the lower standards that come with producing e-books. A publisher and bookseller can choose to sell a certain product for a few dollars less than the actual book. This is the equation of robbery and seems outrageous to me, personally. I don’t see the point in paying $12.99 (or higher), when I can go out and get the hardcover for a few dollars more. Convenience? Probably. But, to what end?

No Perfect Reader

Don’t mistake this for something it is not. I am not claiming that there is a “perfect” reader. My real aim is to allow for us to examine our actions when it comes to a human creation. Ask: why did I do this something and not that something else? There is no free lunch, we all know that by now, but there is also no free art. There is a man or woman behind it, who labored away.

If you haven’t been a bookshop in a while, I beg you to go into one. I’m not saying lazily click your mouse and snag something off of Amazon. Leave your house and really browse.

As for the fear of buying something you won’t enjoy, you have to let that go. Take some chances in life; support something that is bigger than you or me.

If you’re interested in seeing some of my favorite “Beautiful Book” starter collections, I have included several links below, if available:

1. Penguin Drop Caps Collection (2012 – ongoing)

2. Penguin Clothbound Classics (ongoing)

3. Penguin Threads

4. Word Cloud Classics

5. Virago Modern Classics

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Amarie Fox is a writer and artist. She recently graduated with a BA in English Literature. She plans to make an origami swan out of her diploma. Her recent fiction work has been published by Little Fiction, NIB, and Literary Orphans. More information at amariefoxart.wordpress.com.

 

6 thoughts on “The Ethics of Buying Books

  1. Amarie,

    I really enjoyed this post and agree with you that people, writers especially should invest in books. Books should be regarded as art, and my Barcelona apartment is crowded with them. That said, I think e-books are important not only because of their convenience, but because of their comfort (larger print, lighter weight, portable) for readers, and the opportunity they present for independent authors that may not otherwise have an opportunity to reach so many readers.

    1. Chris, I am glad you enjoyed this. It is something I am passionate about, definitely. Since I made a conscious decision to put more of my funds toward books, I have the same problem – a bedroom overflowing with books! (Which is definitely not a bad thing, in fact, people who have very few books sort of freak me out, a bit.)

      As for e-books, the points you made are fantastic. I had a professor who had eye problems and with his iPad (choice of e-reader) he could enlarge the text to a much larger size.

      Supposedly, Amazon is introducing a new program in which you can receive ebooks (for around $1.99) of print books you have purchased in the past, dating all the way back to 1997, I believe, when Amazon started. I am all for this. Having duplicates is great and something I wish more publishers would explore, instead of the consumer only having that choice through a book seller. Anyway, it is a good balance, I think, since more and more people are using devices to get their reading done.

      Again, thank you for reading and taking the time to respond. I appreciate it.

  2. I love this post. My rule, as a writer wishing to contribute to others, is simple: Borrow/buy used books written by deceased authors. Buy hardcovers of books written by living authors.

    1. That is a great rule to have, definitely! However, I have to say, I am guilty of collecting some of the beautiful new editions of classic works. One of the collections I regret mention in this post is the Penguin Ink editions, which aren’t to everyone’s taste, but something I’ve become obsessed with.

      Usually, with newer authors, I only buy the hardcover if it is an author I’m familiar with or am willing to take a gamble on. I tend to wait for the paperback edition.

      That said, I am glad that others feel the way I do about supporting the writer (and even the publishing business.)

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

  3. Great article. I am a student of the Artist’s Way and use a trip to the bookstore as one of my “Artist dates” It is like a mini vacation to revisit past friends in print and discover new acquaintances that would, hopefully, become beloved companions. Besides, it seems to me that any writer must, at some level, hold words as sacred or things to love. Why would someone not want to read as much as possible if they do, in fact, love words?

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