Sea of Reads

Peripatetic, itinerant, eclectic musings about books, politics, history, language, culture, and anything else that interests me.

Stealing Books

That title is neither a recommendation nor a confession. It’s a descriptive phrase about a major problem for both writers and booksellers that I was unaware of until I ran across this July, 2002, letter to the editor responding to an op-ed in the New York Times:

As a book lover and a book thief, I found your article about book theft (“The Best Stealer List,” Making Books column, July 18) riveting.

My habit started when I self-published a spiritual autobiography about my experiences at Union Theological Seminary, only to discover that it was virtually impossible to get bookstores to carry it. That’s when I start stealing in reverse (that is, stocking the shelves with my own book).

While some steal for drugs, others for money, some of us — and I’m sure that I’m not alone — steal from ourselves for a broader readership.

Here is that essay (“The Best Stealer List”). And here is a much more recent New York Times op-ed connecting a rise in book thefts to the recession:

… With the recession, shoplifting is on the rise, according to booksellers. At BookPeople in Austin, Tex., the rate of theft has increased to approximately one book per hour.

David Hewson — a writer based in Kent, England — considers book theft to be “the biggest threat to writing.” And he says it has nothing to do with the high cost of books:

Looking at the prices of printed mass market books on Amazon US and in the chains it doesn’t seem to me that books are extortionate. I won Best Mystery of the Year from the American Library Association for The Garden of Evil. You can currently buy that in paperback on Amazon for $6.99 and on Kindle for $5.99. Less than a similar paperback would have cost five or ten years ago.

The same thing has been happening in the UK where book prices have been steadily falling too. My latest paperback here, The Cemetery of Secrets, is listed at £6.99 but discounted to £4.86 for the paperback. This is a reissue of Lucifer’s Shadow and Amazon still lists that original paperback from 2001 at its original price – £9.99, then discounted down to £9.46.

Books are considerably cheaper than they were ten years ago. So how exactly is the reader getting ripped off in the US and the UK? Are we really supposed to believe that people who currently steal books online will one day see the price fall to a level where they say, ‘Oh now I’ll buy it.’ Oh, come on. People steal because they want to and they can get away with it. Pricing books at 99p won’t stop them.

Paul Constant, who works at an independent bookstore in Seattle (or did in February, 2008), writes amusingly about chasing book thieves down the streets of that city:

In my eight years working at an independent bookstore, I lost count of how many shoplifters I chased through the streets of Seattle while shouting “Drop the book!” I chased them down crowded pedestrian plazas in the afternoon, I chased them through alleys at night, I even chased one into a train tunnel. I chased a book thief to the waterfront, where he shouted, “Here are your fucking books!” and threw a half-dozen paperbacks, including Bomb the Suburbs and A People’s History of the United States, into Puget Sound, preferring to watch them slowly sink into the muck rather than hand them back to the bookseller they were stolen from. He had that ferocious, orgasmic gleam in his eye of somebody who was living in the climax of his own movie: I suppose he felt like he was liberating them somehow.

To work in an independent bookstore is to always be aware of shoplifters. It can devour you; you can spend all your time watching people, wondering if they’re watching you. Every shoplifter caught is a major victory against the forces of darkness; every one who escapes is another 10 minutes kept awake at night with gnashing teeth.

And the hands-down number one book that book thieves like to steal?

The Bible.


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This entry was posted on June 3, 2010 by in Book Biz, Bookstores, Writers and Authors.
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