Friday, June 24, 2011

Libraries, E-Books, Indies, and Piracy. Oh my.

I wasn't poor growing up, but I wasn't rich either.  Money was often tight.  When I hit puberty and graduated from kid shoes to adult shoes, my mom tried to buy me women's sneakers and tell me that they were men's because it was during the time when Nike was trying to rape consumers with $200 shoes, and we couldn't afford anything near that price.  Sometimes we had breakfast for dinner because it was cheaper.

But the one thing we always had money for was books.

Both my mother and my father nurtured my love of books.  Going with my father to Waldenbooks on Sundays or down to the outlet bookstore where I could find hardcovers of my favorite authors for $5 were some of my best days.

I was lucky.  I know that.  I didn't utilize libraries frequently because I loved owning my books.  I read them over and over and over.  But I loved the idea of libraries and I visited them often.  There was something romantic and exciting about a whole building devoted to books. About a place filled with people who cared about books.

When I was in middle school, I went to a Catholic school.  It was a pretty progressive Catholic school that had a great library and an even better librarian.  I wish I could remember her name.  Despite my failure of memory, I do remember that we talked about books and computers and she guided me to some books that I'd have missed otherwise.  Like the works of Robin McKinley.

Again, I was lucky.  I know that.

Indies are closing and big we-have-it-all bookstores are becoming less relevant.  These are sad, terrible, shameful things.  Each has its place.  Large chunks of Deathday were edited in a Barnes & Noble.  Having access to all those books while I was working helped me.  A friend of mine from high school worked as a kid in an indie book store.  I remember a few times, him sharing his passion for books with patrons.  Passion is one thing you can't find on Amazon.

You can't hand your best friend a dog-eared Nook with notes written in the margins.

 I sometimes wonder what I would have done if I were a child today.  If I'd been too poor to afford books.  If the libraries in my area were shut down or under-funded.  If I lived in an area that had no independent bookstores.  Or any bookstores at all!  (As a matter of fact, when I was promoting Deathday, I struggled to find a single indie bookstore in my area.  The only one, about an hour drive away only had the time/funds to deal with "big" authors.)  What would I do if I'd lived in a house where reading wasn't encouraged?  With parents who didn't treasure books the same way I did?

I'd have stolen them.

I can say that with certainty.

There's a lot of doom and gloom surrounding the publishing industry right now.  A lot of pessimism about books.  Let's be honest:  keeping libraries open is expensive.  In a time when governments are in crisis, when the federal government is squandering our tax dollars on foolishness that could have been avoided, libraries are an easy target.  Except that reading is vital.  Here's a really fantastic page full of startling statistics.  Libraries are essential to our continued growth.

A couple of years ago, Guys Lit Wire ran a charity call for books to be donated to a youth prison in California.  Apparently, they had a library with no books.  None at all.  Which is ridiculous.  How can you rehabilitate youths at risk without books?  Without the ability to learn?

I support indie bookstores and I love my local Barnes and Noble.  I love buying books on my Kindle and my Nook.  I love collecting books and sharing them with friends.  I love buying e-books and staring in wonder at this little device that can hold more books than I could read in my lifetime.

But I wonder if the problem of e-books, the same e-books that are bringing bookstores to their knees, is the solution for libraries and kids who are too poor to afford books.

For a second, forget the notion of piracy.  Forget that this is a utopian idea that disregards the rights of the artists.  Just for a moment.

E-books are cheap.  They only need be produced one time.  Copying them costs nothing.  Storing them next to nothing.  Shoot, you can buy a 16Gb flash drive for $20 (the cost of one hard cover book) and put tens of thousands of books on it.  More books than my middle school library had.  You could copy all those books onto one device and give it to a library or a child or a prison, and instantly solve a problem.

E-books aren't a problem, they're a fucking solution.

I have about 400 e-books saved on my computer.  With one click, I could duplicate them all and send them into the world.  I could burn them to a CD and flood the world with them, like AOL used to do with their discs.  I could go to a school and give the files to a librarian, who might not be able to afford books otherwise.

But I don't.  Because a lot of the books on my e-device are by people I know.  And I respect them too much to do that.  I respect all the authors.

What I don't respect is the system.  The restraints in place.

It's idealistic of me, yeah.  It's idealistic to think that we can solve all the problems so easily.  But can't we?

Listen, I sure don't write books for the money.  If my publisher came to me today and said that they were giving away e-book copies of Deathday to every library, school, prison, and child who wanted one, I'd high-five them.  I might even do a fist pump.  Hell, I might even raise the roof.

I feel like reading has become that thing that only people with money can do.  Libraries are evaporating, bookstores (realistically) cater to those who can pay.  Books are getting pricier.  Even e-books are pricey.  When a parent has to decide between money for food or bills and money for books, books are almost always going to lose.  

I'm just going to say it:  Kids have a right to read.  And we have a responsibility to get books to them.

Idealistic?  Unrealistic?  I think not.  I could give away hundreds of books with a click.  A publisher could fill a library to bursting with the same click.  All the libraries.  All the schools.

I wasn't kidding when I said that if I were a kid today and there was no library around me and I was poor, that I'd steal books.  I'd steal all the books.  And maybe I'd feel bad about it, but at least I wouldn't grow up unable to read.  Unable to comprehend basic instructions.  Unable to read to my own child when I had one. Kids who read are smarter.  It's just a fact.  They test better, they learn better, they do better in life.  Reading really is fundamental.

Libraries and librarians and parents who encourage reading are a child's greatest resources.  But those things are disappearing.  Sadly.  It's a war and we're losing.

Reading by any means necessary.

*Note:  This rant applies to specific situations.  I'm not condoning taking down the entire publishing machine and making all books free all the time.  The authors of said books work hard and deserve compensation.  I'm talking about books for kids, for libraries, for children who can't afford them. If you're an adult and you have money and you steal books, you're an asshole.


  1. wow, i love this much.

  2. This is a really great post, Shaun. Everything you say here really rings true.


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