Our letter to The Guardian

Martin Reed

Martin Reed

Martin leads the SoA's Communications team. He oversees our strategic communications and campaign-based activities, including PR, social media, events and partnerships.
Our letter in response to The Guardian's article How to save money on buying books - or get them for free

07 February 2022 

Dear Donna Ferguson,

Re: How to save money on buying books – or get them for free

We have recently been directed to your article ‘How to save money on buying books – or get them for freeand would like to raise our concerns regarding your recommendations. In particular, through your article, The Guardian inadvertently encourages its readers to infringe copyright. In addition to the legal considerations, we are writing against a background of falling author incomes in which the average earnings of a full-time writer were just £10,500 even before the health crisis, which saw 57% of authors experience a further drop in income. Meanwhile, most writers need a second job to survive, with just 13.7% of respondents making a living from writing alone without a second job, down from 40% in 2006. We would therefore suggest that you make recommendations which help author incomes.

Free ebooks and audiobooks downloading and lending sites

You recommend using free download or lending sites. One of the sites you mention, Internet Archive, offers unlawful content which infringes the copyright of the authors and rightsholders whose work they provide. You can find our position on ‘services’ such as Internet Archive here and here. Publishers and authors receive no remuneration for ebooks downloaded from such sites, and many are fraudulent setups designed to harvest credit card details, harming both readers and the wider publishing industry. We would ask that you do not direct readers to such sites. There are plenty of other lawful alternatives.

Libraries

We are pleased that you recommend that readers make use of their public libraries who lend an increasing number of ebooks and audiobooks. Authors, illustrators and translators DO benefit when books are borrowed from a library, as do the performers who read the audiobooks. As well as the fact that the library buys the original book (which is not the case with pirate sites) the Public Lending Right (‘PLR’) scheme provides authors with a modest payment each time one of their books (whether physical, ebook or audio) is borrowed from a public library. PLR is designed to balance the social need for free public access to books against an author’s right to be remunerated for the use of their work. PLR is particularly important to authors whose books are sold mainly to libraries and to those whose books are no longer in print but are still being read – and still in copyright. PLR provides a significant and much-valued payment for an author’s work and, as you note in your article, public libraries are facing increasing funding cuts (see our position here) and borrowing from them increases the chances of improved funding.

Second-hand books

You say ‘Seek out second-hand: Buying used is better for the environment and, often, your wallet. If you buy from a charity shop, you are also supporting a good cause. (…)”

We agree that second-hand books have an environmental advantage but would point out that authors receive no royalty or other payment from sales of second-hand books from many retailers, including from your recommended site Betterworldbooks.com. Luckily, a solution is emerging. In 2021 we entered into a world- first agreement, creating the AuthorSHARE scheme with ALCS, worldofbooks.com and bookbarninternational.com to pay royalties on the legitimate sale of used books purchased through these sites (see here and here). We would encourage second-hand book buyers to use these sites- and to encourage other second-hand retailers to join the AuthorSHARE scheme.

Charity shops particularly are problematic. We all love charitable giving but as well as authors receiving no royalties, charity bookshops suffer unfair advantages when compared to independent bookshops – not only do they get stock free, but they have volunteer staff and exemption from business rates.

Independent bookshops

We are disappointed that you only recommend supporting independent bookshops as a last resort. High street bookshops stock a huge variety of books, they pay full royalties to authors, and they are full of enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff to enhance your reading journey.

You might want to recommend to readers that, if they want to avoid dominance by businesses such as Amazon, they may wish instead to support independent and high street bookshops when buying books, ebooks, and for posting their reviews, and to consider a different e-reading device or outlet.

Finally, we would like to draw your attention to our guide on buying choices and the impact that these have on the livelihood of flesh-and-blood authors, be they writers, illustrators or translators, and their ability to continue their work (see here). You may also have seen Ethical Consumer’s guide to ethical bookshops which includes online retailers, ebooks and audiobooks (see here).

There is no doubt that, as you yourself have noted, the true benefits of reading, both to readers and to wider society, are immeasurable – and of course all authors want to be read – so do please keep reading! We hope that this information might help inform the routes your readers take to discover the books they enjoy.

Authors, need to earn fair remuneration for the considerable work that they put into writing so that they may continue to produce inspiring and informative books in all genres, whatever their format. Cheap and illegal books don’t just damage authors’ incomes but also the entire chain of contributors who receive an income from book sales Ultimately, low and precarious income for authors’ work inevitably leads to fewer and less diverse books, by less diverse authors. In this climate, to suggest that readers choose free, illegal or unlicensed second-hand books risks a situation where authors can no longer afford to write.

Yours sincerely,

Nicola Solomon

Chief Executive

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