Monday 6 May 2013

No, stealing a book on the internet is not the same as borrowing it from a library.

I was asked today: "Is there *that* much difference between pirated books and those borrowed from the library."

The answer is:
Libraries buy books.
They buy lots of hardcovers.
The author gets paid.

When the library has loaned the book a certain number of times, they buy a new one.
If the book is popular and the library want to be able to loan the book to several people at once... they buy several copies.

In the UK, each time a book is loaned out, the author is paid ~10 cents.

(in 2014 Broken Empire books were loaned out on 18,000 occasions by UK libraries - I got paid £1100, enough to keep my family going for the first month of the year - plus royalties on the sale of the copies the libraries bought)

For many new authors sales to libraries make up a significant portion of their income/livelihood.

Take for example my friend Mazarkis and her debut book The Emperor's Knife

Mazarkis can't tell you exactly how many copies of The Emperor's Knife sold in the US because the publisher Nightshade Books is in collapse, undergoing takeover negotiations, and on the very verge of bankrupcy.

[let's just note that shall we - publishers aren't ripping you off - this one wasn't even charging enough to stop from going under]

However, using bookscan figures she can estimate US sales of 1800 copies in hardcover. Many of these will be at considerable discount, yeilding smaller royalties. lists The Emperor's Knife as being available in 282 libraries in the US.
  - Even if Worldcat listed all the US libraries (and it doesn't - it does list at least 25% of public libraries though)
   - Even if each library has only one copy of the hardcover and never replaces it. 

...that's still around 15% of total sales, and at full price accounting for more than 15% of royalties. And this figure is a significant underestimate.

So, to recap. When you borrow from a library the book has been purchased. If it wears out it needs to be replaced. Only one person can read each book at a time. Library sales count for a significant chunk of many new writers' income at a time when they need it most.

If you steal the book electronically - everyone stealing it can read it at the same time from a single hacked copy. As stealing increases the libraries contract and close, authors find it even harder to make ends meet, more publishers fold, and we steal ourselves into a new world. 


  1. Very well said, sir. Of course, libraries also offer a chance for those of us with not much money to judge a book before we buy. I've bought my own copies of stuff I've borrowed from the library (Mr Abercrombie, Mr Nix, Mr Hitchens) and I've also been responsible for getting the library to buy copies of Anne Lyle's Alchemist of Souls and The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones. I'm lucky enough to live in a local authority area that has closed no libraries but I'm more than aware that there are others in the UK who are not so fortunate.

  2. I didn't know that authors get a little money when their books are borrowed from the library. Geez, you'd think that would have shut up the "libraries are costing us sales" people long ago. :/

    I'm surprised that there are people who try to insist that piracy is the same as just borrowing a book from the library. I mean, yes, a book does have to be purchased by someone, once, just to get the file to pirate, so I suppose there's that comparison to libraries, but beyond that, the whole argument just falls apart. I can't count the number of books I've bought my own copy of because I first found something at the library that I liked and I wanted to be able to read it at my convenience. No incentive to do that with piracy, that's for sure!

  3. I'm a big library person. I go once or twice a week and request books to be released in the future. Without the library I wouldn't get the opportunity to try a book if I had to buy it.

  4. I like library, I used to find some books in library, but now I can read some reviews on blog, then to decide which one to buy!

  5. QuillofArkham18 May 2013 at 09:43

    I'm a library manager and one of the greatest pleasures is being able to buy books that customers want. We can then find innovative ways in which we can promote said authors, espeically new up and coming authors. I certainly buy as many SF and Fantasy authors for my libraries. And it's a brialliant way to try before you buy. What better way for everyone to get access to books, not everyone can afford £15+ for an hadrcover novel.

  6. Very nicely put, Mark! It's a shame that you had to put such a basic concept to post, but I've seen that whole "piracy is no different than going to a library" insanity pop up a depressing number of times in the Reddit threads.

  7. Perhaps online libraries are a potential solution to stealing. Books could be read in a browser not downloaded. Books could be re-purchased after every so many reads, or just the total rental rate minus a percentage for the web-site paid to authors.