Anyone who has or wants a career as a writer has come up against the question of new versus used book sales. We know that not supporting writers means less slots for the kind of books we like. We know that midlist authors get drummed out of the business because their books didn’t sell enough copies. We also know we can’t buy every single book new, but we know we have to support the system we want to be a part of and buy authors at retail when we can.

So why doesn’t the general public seem to realize this? I read a great post over at The Lipstick Chronicles today that talked about this very thing:

“I’m so upset,” a mystery lover told me. “My favorite series has been cancelled. I love his work.”

She named a writer I’ll call John D. Christie.

“I have all his books,” she said. “Now there won’t be any more. It’s so sad.”

“Where did you buy his books?” I already knew the answer.

“At that cute used bookstore near the tea shop. Why?”

“You killed him,” I said.

She looked shocked.

“I know you didn’t mean to, but every time you bought a used book, you put a nail in his career coffin.”

I sent the post to a non-writer friend, one who doesn’t buy books but who does use the library quite often (also a good way to support writers since the library buys the books it lends). His answer shocked me. Perhaps I misunderstood, but I don’t think so. (And if he reads this, I’m not picking on him; this is a topic that is both interesting and frustrating to writers and he is representative of what we don’t understand about the reading public.)

I think he’s a good guy who doesn’t quite get that writing is a business for a lot of people and that they deserve to be paid for the entertainment value they provide. He looks at it like television or movies (though he pays for both of those, of course, but only because he has to in order to gain admission to the images on the screen) — quick entertainment that is meant to provide him with an escape for a little while, but not necessarily intellectual property that someone somewhere worked hard to create. It’s just words, after all, and words are free. As we writers know, however, what takes a day to read can take months, if not years, to create.

We all justify things to ourselves all the time. I’ve shopped used bookstores, of course. These days, I’m looking for out of print books mostly, or new to me authors to try, though I will most definitely pick up a bargain if I see it. (I always buy Rachel Gibson new, but when I ran across one of her books I hadn’t yet read on the library sale rack for a quarter — well, can you blame me?) I also use the library, though not as frequently because I really, really like to make notes in the books I read. The library frowns on that sort of thing, so I’m forced to get my own copy.

My friend reads a lot, but he rarely buys books. And when he does, he doesn’t usually pay retail. He also reads at the bookstore, usually short things that he can read in their entirety in one visit.

Living requires money, of course. And most of us have a limited supply of it. Some people choose to save money by skipping the luxuries. Books often fall into the luxury category for people. Why pay $7 for a paperback when you can pay $3 at the used bookstore or get it at the library for free?

But a book lasts longer than a movie or a television program. You pay $7 or so to see a movie once. Plus the gas to get there, and the food if you eat out. Cable television costs $40 a month minimum, right? So why not pay the $7 for a book that you can read again and again? (My friend rereads some of the same series because he likes them so much and there’s nothing new that strikes his fancy. Hmm, could that be because the publishers don’t feel the genre has enough sales to justify putting out more new series?)

In an ideal world, we’d all pay for everything we used at a fair market value. The truth is that we cut corners because we have to. I shop Amazon all the time. I use my coupons in Borders. I hit the UBS when I want something I can’t find elsewhere, or don’t have time to wait for. I even, gasp, buy repeat NYT bestsellers at the UBS, or books that have been on the list forever.

I lend books, but not frequently. I hate it when someone borrows a book and I don’t get it back. I trust few people with my books. I discovered the pleasures of Elmore Leonard and James Lee Burke via a friend who loaned me books (a signed HB copy of Get Shorty, no less! Talk about pressure!) so I think loaning is a viable option. But, I’m a writer, I GET it that writers need to be paid and I do my level best to make sure I’m contributing. I’m not perfect, and I can’t buy them all, but I do what I can.

So what do you do with all those books you read and no longer want? I take them to the library, usually, though I have been known to send them to friends (I have a box for you, Cyn, that I’ll mail eventually — and yes, I know you will read them and then go out and buy the authors you like again and again.) I know that the library often puts them in the Friends sale, but the money benefits the library so I’m not complaining.

What’s your opinion about supporting the authors you like to read? Think they’re all so rich they don’t need your dollars? Or willing to give them their cents on the dollar for the entertainment value they provide? Should you always ride for free, or maybe pony up the fare once in a while?