All Writers Considered: An ethical argument for buying new books

BY Andrea Uptmor  //  Photos taken at Magers & Quinn

Last week I was browsing my most reliable news source,—a website that allows my friends to become the Diane Sawyers and the Scott Pelleys of the world, reporting the most important world events of the day—and noticed that the most frequently trending article was an open letter to Emily White from Cracker musician David Lowery. It’s long, but here’s the gist: Ms. White mentioned on an NPR blog that she and her friends typically download free music or burn discs to swap, and Mr. Lowery blasted back with a post about how the Internet has disrupted our ethical continuum, making us think that because we can steal we should, and that this is a major problem for musicians, who are simple folk who want to both be loved and pay the bills. 

A few thoughts scooted through my mind immediately after reading this article:

  1. I am so glad I am not Emily White. I don’t have the guts for this kind of pointed criticism. Just last week the bus driver told me to step back from the yellow line, and I burst into tears.
  2. Who would have thought that alternative rocker David Lowery (who also got really pissed a few years ago, you’ll remember, when he was fictionalized in Camden Joy’s novel Boy Island) is a lecturer at the Terry College of Business?  
  3. Remember that time that I torrented Star Trek at my parents’ house, only to receive a registered letter from NBC Universal the next day, stating that if I ever illegally downloaded another movie, they would arrest me? I cried then, too.

So let’s say you read the article and you kind of agree—“Hey, I want to be more conscious of my music purchases, like super ethical and principled and whatnot.” That’s great! But don’t forget that there is another kind of artist who has long been quietly affected by the free culture movement: writers.

Typical, run-of-the-mill novelists get a $5,000–10,000 advance for their manuscripts. And before you cluck your tongue at me and say, “Now that’s really a lot of money, it could buy this 1984 Slipper Sailboat on eBay” let me remind you of this: the average publishable novel takes about two years to write. (I am basing this figure on an unofficial survey I took that included myself and my MFA cohort, Jack Kerouac, and Junot Diaz—but you can trust me, it’s pretty accurate). And these are two really rough years. (I am basing this statement on my own experience of weeping openly over my laptop, wind scattering papers all over the floor). A healthy $10k advance, spread over two years, is $13.70/day. (I am basing this figure on a calculator.)

What can you do with $13.70 a day? Certainly not pay your rent and utilities and feed your poodle, that’s for sure. “But hey,” you might say. “Don’t authors get royalties on top of that advance?”

That’s where you come in. Authors only get royalties after they earn back their advance, and they can only earn back their advance if YOU BUY THEIR BOOKS and you BUY THEM NEW.

Let me repeat that: BUY YOUR BOOKS NEW.*

Not at a used bookstore. Not from a shady seller on Amazon (“slight yellow stains on cover”). Not from the dollar bin on Better World Books or the Able Book Exchange or—hey, stop writing these down!

If you want your beloved writers to pay their rent so that they can write more stuff for you to gorge on before you fall asleep at night, then you gotta buy your books new. Best-case scenario: buy directly from the writer’s website, or from their own stash at a reading. Second-best-case scenario: get it new from your local bookstore. My partner and I make it a point to only buy new books from independent bookstores in Minneapolis; it supports the writer and our hip-and-literary community. Not to dip too far into sentimentality here (I warned you I cry a lot), but it’s this kind of pay-it-forward attitude that will score you major karma points and make you feel super self-righteous because you are directly supporting the arts.

“Hey,” you might interrupt me again. “But if I buy a used book, it was new at one point. Which means the author got the royalties for it already!”

Well played, friend. But let me ask you this: remember that time your boss came into your office and asked you to stay late to copyedit the company’s annual report without extra pay because it was cheaper/easier to take advantage of your salaried position than hire a real editor, who would have insisted on being paid what the work was worth? And then on the way out your boss dipped his hand into your wallet and stole $10,000?

Wasn’t that day just the worst?


*If you can. Of course, if it’s between that crisp new Dave Eggers hardback or putting mushed carrots in your baby’s mouth, then by all means hit up the library. But for the majority of folks who regularly throw five-dollar bills at the Starbucks barista but groan about paying twenty-five bucks for a piece of literature that will shape your soul the way that the waves gently soften the rocky precipice of the coast: COME ON, BRO. 

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