Literary larceny is a new ‘trend’ that is normalizing stealing from authors. Stealing from authors—or anyone for that matter—is NOT okay. I know, I know. Some topics I shouldn’t even have to blog about. I mean what’s next for blog topics? “The Great Wonders of Using Toilet Paper,” “Why Kicking Puppies is Wrong” “Top Five Reasons Not to Eat Tide Pods.”
Yet, here we are. I know I just posted, but this couldn’t wait. It’s…it’s a problem.
Some people—not all people—should be deeply ashamed that I even have to post on this.
What is literary larceny? Other than a clever use of alliteration? This is when people believe, for some odd reason, that it is perfectly okay to buy an ebook, read it in full then return it…and just keep doing this repeatedly without ever actually paying for a book.
According to the article Writers riled by Amazon offering refunds — after readers finish ebooks 4/3/22 by Rosamund Erwin and Liam Kelly:
The trend appears to be driven by users of TikTok, the video-sharing platform that has engaged many young readers through the hashtag #booktok. Videos about returning ebooks have been viewed more than 17 million times. Some users provide tutorials on how to return books after reading them.The Sunday Times
I wish I were making this up.
It is bad enough some people are stealing, but then they go make How-To videos to help train NEW thieves?
Did Kindergarten teach y’all nothing?
Literary Larceny & Lending Libraries
Before we go any further, I’m no stranger to this topic. My blog ‘Pay the Writer’ went viral in 2015. I wrote the blog in response to an article claiming that buying used books supported writers.
Eh. Not really. It was part of the whole ‘exposure’ schtick. I asserted that if readers actually wanted to support their favorite authors, to try and buy something NEW because used books didn’t pay any royalties.
If writers don’t make any money, we cannot afford to keep ‘working’ as a writer. When I wrote that article, Huffington Post had all but single-handedly demolished most freelance work that once paid really, really well.
Just go open up your copy of Stephen King’s On Writing where he talks about how much he was making on magazine pieces while he was building his career.
In the 1980s and 1990s, magazines were paying hundreds if not thousands of dollars for well-crafted articles. But, by 2015, major sites like Huffington Post expected writers to work for ‘exposure dollars’ (as in FOR FREE) and be grateful anyone would deign to read our content.
***Meanwhile, Arianna Huffington cashed out to the tune of over $300 million in real dollars.
Why do I bring this up?
First, many of my critics blasted me claiming that, if I didn’t support used bookstores (patently false) then clearly I must also hate LIBRARIES since people didn’t pay money to borrow a book.
So we don’t do this dance again, let’s check out how lending libraries work (pardon the pun).
Buying and returning ebooks nonstop is NOT even CLOSE to the same thing as going to a library.
Libraries can actually be VERY lucrative for authors. Contractually, libraries BUY the rights to the copies of the books on their shelves. The library can only loan out those books so many times before, BY CONTRACT, they must remove the book and BUY RIGHTS TO/COPIES OF A NEW ONE.
Yes, this was why the library charged you $75 to replace the $5 paperback you lost. They had to recoup what they had to pay the author.
The same goes for libraries who lend out ebooks. The library can only loan out that ebook a set number of times. Once they pass this number, the library has to renew this process if they want to keep loaning out the ebook.
Lending libraries are awesome. Writers make money. When writers make money, we can write MORE books.
Literary larceny is not the same as a lending library.
One is supporting authors and the other is a level of entitlement I cannot wrap my head around. Oh, and it’s stealing. There are massive short and long-term consequences for this.
My second reason I bring up this old post?
Normalizing Literary Larceny Bad
Expecting writers to write for free is not new. Like many other creative professions, we’ve been fighting this battle for a long time. But I addressed this entitlement back in 2015. Why? Because I spotted a pattern of behavior we needed to stop.
If people bought used copies and LOVED the book? AWESOME. All I asked was that they then please buy something NEW so the writer could pay her bills. No big deal.
Oh, but it WAS.
The sheer level of entitlement I encountered with that post absolutely FLOORED me. Apparently, I had some nerve. If I wasn’t making any money, then maybe I was a crap writer and needed to get another job. Writers were a bunch of whiny babies who needed a real career.
Sadly, I lost count of all the justifications for why it was totally appropriate to expect writers to work for free.
Far too many people utterly missed the point. Readers DID value what the writers created. They valued those books enough to buy them…used. My contention was simply that writers had to make money if readers wanted them to write more books. If readers wanted more books, then please buy something new.
Not rocket science. And not unreasonable.
***Creative professionals already give a ton of stuff for free (YouTube videos, memes, images on places like Pexels, blogs like MINE).
The problem, however, was this. The Internet had already started normalizing FREE and had unwittingly cultivated a culture of entitlement. I saw the writing on the wall. If we didn’t educate readers and allowed the entitlement to thrive, eventually it would be a monster raging out of control.
And here we are.
Btw, please don’t eat Tide Pods.
Don’t believe me? What IS stealing?
If I walk into one of the few remaining Barnes & Nobles and put a stack of books into three giant tote bags and walk out, that is STEALING. Oddly, if I walk into a used bookstore, load up a pushcart full of books, then walk out without paying, guess what that would be called? Again. STEALING.
In fact, I’m pretty sure if I strode into a library and loaded up bags full of books and just left? Probably considered stealing as well.
But, if I buy and return ebooks to my heart’s content and never actually pay to read any of those books. This is, oddly…NOT STEALING?
That’s bull sprinkles! Where did we get this math?
For people who are on a budget, check out books from a library. Sign up for Kindle Unlimited where you can read or listen to thousands of titles for a small fee paid monthly. Writers might not make as much but at least they’re not being flat out ripped off.
Look for titles the authors are willingly and knowingly offering for FREE. Writers are some of the kindest, most amazing people in the world. Generous to a fault. Ask me how I know.
Amazon, Step Up on the Stealing Stuff
Jeff Bezos all but declared open war on NYC Big Six publishing (Re: Amazon Publishing: The Road to Conquest & How Bezos Razed New York). Sure, Bezos began Amazon selling everything online but books, but he always had his sights on taking over big publishing.
Which, you know what? Fine.
As far as I can recall, he wanted publishing to be more egalitarian. He dreamed of a system where authors could be paid fairly. Those writers who produced a lot of content the public loved would be rewarded accodingly.
I’m all for that.
Amazon has done some great things. Not denying that. On this book stealing stuff though? Uncool. Seriously uncool.
Great, Amazon dismantled Big Publishing and crippled Barnes & Noble. That was part of the plan. But, after single-handedly burning our industry to the ground, I feel Amazon has a responsibility to all the authors they’ve displaced.
You don’t get to overthrow the literary leaders and take over the pack, only then to throw the pack under a bus.
Amazon wanted to remove a system with agents, editors and publishing houses—institutions that had traditionally fought for author rights—and that’s all well and good.
Now step up.
Amazon, I am NOT totally hating on y’all because that is just low-hanging fruit, not to mention largely erroneous.
I get it has not been easy. I’ve been here for the entire rodeo. I understand how much fraud y’all have had to discover and disrupt. From bots ‘fake reading’ KU books to bait-and-switch scams, to locating Chinese counterfeit books, y’all have done a lot.
But that’s the price of admission into the digital world.
Literary larceny is NOT okay.
Protect Your Writers from Book Theft
Yes, there are still publishers around and a smattering of bookstores. This said, by and large, most everything else book-wise has to be run through Amazon. This is why I feel this company has a moral obligation to protect their authors.
I get it. Bezos didn’t like Big Six publishers.
Amazon’s core arguments for bulldozing traditional publishing was because the Big Six were so ridiculously bad at business. Granted, that is a sound argument. But fast forward to now—where authors really have no other viable option where to sell their books—and Amazon’s brilliant plan is to enable people so blindly entitled they actually believe stealing is a friggin’ ‘life hack’?
Under the current guidelines, readers can return an ebook within 14 days even if they have read the entire book. Then, Amazon deducts the royalty from the author.
Granted, I like a solid return policy. I’ve been with Audible for almost four years and I’ve returned books. That is a privilege that comes with my membership, but one I rarely use. I’ve completed almost 340 titles since joining. Trust me. Writers are making a LOT of money from me.
Stealing is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
I like companies with liberal return policies. It makes life easy when I don’t have to fill out a stack of paperwork, submit a DNA sample, a horoscope and three letters of reference just to get my money back.
Amazon, you have been too nice. Walmart, Target, Sam’s and Costco all went through this, too. You give a generous return policy, but then there are those people. Those people are why we can’t have nice things.
Eventually these companies started taking down people’s driver’s license numbers. Return too much and too often? Banned from returning stuff….cuz it is a form of stealing.
Why am I calling out Amazon? Because this is a problem of SYSTEMIC PROPORTIONS and changing the return policy is a stopgap measure (until these @$$hats find a new way to steal books).
In 2015 I wrote post after post after post trying to make people wake up to the growing sense of entitlement in our world. We have entire generations who’ve grown up on memberships and streaming services and being entertained 24/7 via the internet and social media. I don’t know if the people on TikTok even understand what they are doing.
I mean, in 2015 Salon dot com did a hit piece on me in response to ‘Pay the Writer.’ Used bookstores around the world vowed to ban my books. Readers vowed to never buy my books from used bookstores.
Um…huh? Wait no. Um never mind. *throws up hands*
People failed to grasp that writers didn’t make money off used books. Maybe the folks on TikTok don’t realize that returning ebooks is seriously hurting writers. I like to give the benefit of the doubt.
I believe in education.
For those who didn’t know any better before now? Please stop. For those who now know better and don’t care? Shame on you. Don’t complain when your favorite authors stop writing because they couldn’t afford to work for free anymore.
And, FYI, karma’s a doozy.
If anyone reading this is active on TikTok and sees these videos? Speak out. Report them. Let them know that literary larceny is NOT cool.
Know Your Worth
This is a conversation I have had many times on this blog. This starts with us…with writers. We have got to start valuing what we do and what we contribute. If we don’t value our books, who will?
This is why I have a very specific way of teaching how to build an author brand. Ideally, we want to use social media and blogging to cultivate an audience of fans. I teach HOW to do this in my book.
Fans would never even think of stealing from their favorite authors. In fact, fans will shut down stealing from their beloved scriveners. I know, because many of you guys have messaged me over the years to tell me when my books were being pirated.
Just know that it is okay to ask for the sale.
FREE is a legitimate marketing strategy. It is why I encourage writers to write series. Offer the first book (the loss leader) for free and, if you’ve written a good book, odds are good that people will then feel much more confident buying the rest of your books.
This is how authors make so much off me on Audible. I’ll listen to an audiobook, find out it is part of a series, then be willing to donate blood to buy credits to finish out the entire series.
All in all, just know you deserve respect. The world is NOT entitled to take all they want at no cost. You matter. Your work matters.
Literary Larceny & the High Cost of FREE
Returning ebooks might not seem like a big deal, but with most bookstores now shuttered, this is it. The end of the line. If we (fans, readers) fail to support the books and authors we love, they will go extinct.
Right now it seems there are so many writers and so many books. It seemed that way to sailors and Dutch settlers who wiped out the Dodo bird. At one time, hunters thought buffalo were as numerous as the stars, until they nearly obliterated them. Same with the whales, the wolves, the rhinos…and now the writers.
We should all be careful what we take for granted. It would be a sad day to wake up and there are no teachers, no dreamers, no thought leaders. All are like the Dodo bird, relics of a bygone era.
The future is now. Which way this goes is up to all of us.
To Do More About Literary Larceny
If you’d like to do more, please sign this petition to get Amazon to change their return policies. I know this is a MUCH larger problem, but right now we have to stop the bleed.
Literary larceny hurts everyone. In fact, creatives as a whole are really struggling. Some things I do to help support creatives? Pexels allows you to donate to photographers. I also support some of my favorite content creators by donating to their Patreon and I buy downloads of favorite songs.
If you do read a book (free or not) leave a review. Even if your review is short this jukes the algorithms and helps our sales.
And, because Harlan Ellison is AMAZING and this never gets old, you’re welcome (FYI there is language in this, as is to be expected)…