If authors love books, then they should set them free

Share this article

ONE of the little pleasures of travel is the books you come across. Hotel suites may not be the best place for literary discovery, unless it is the Gideon Bible you are after, but in any hostel, B&B or holiday cottage you can always find a veritable library of dog-eared, sun-bleached books that other people have left behind: a cryptic guide to former guests that is a lot more entertaining and far less terrifying than examining the stains on the mattress.

A guesthouse in Greece was where I first read Terry Pratchett. I never made it past page 10 before moving on to John Grisham (with similar results), but I was grateful for the experience. In similar episodes of touristic idleness I have sampled Jeffrey Archer and Jackie Collins. I would never normally give 10 minutes of my time to either, but as with nude sunbathing, there are some things you only ever do while on vacation.

Such serendipity has been taken to a new level by BookCrossing.com. Members of this self-styled "global community" leave books in public places with little stickers attached bearing identifying code numbers.

Anyone who finds one of these books can record their comments at the website before passing it on once again. The aim, say the site’s founders, is to "make the whole world a library".

But not everyone is happy. BookCrossing.com has come under fire from British writer Jessica Adams, who says the site’s growth may hit "charity bookshops, which rely on second-hand books for their income".

Adams’ charitable sentiments are undermined by the main point of her objection, which is that BookCrossing.com raises money through advertising, and none of this dosh gets sent in the direction of authors like her. Sharing books generates no royalties, and she does not like the idea of people reading her books for free. It is an attitude which, in all honesty, makes me feel disinclined ever to want to read any of her books, even if I were paid.

I suppose we ought to shut down every library, then find a way of building slot machines into books so that you have to keep putting 10p pieces in every few minutes in order to keep the pages turning. Oh, and redesign the human shoulder so that nobody can ever look over it. That, I suppose, would make the Jessica Adamses of this world very happy indeed, safe in the knowledge that no access to their literary output will ever be possible without a corresponding production of revenue.

Yet as every chocolate bar manufacturer knows, giving away a few freebies does no harm to sales. Instead it creates grateful new customers who might come back for more. Being greedy is bad for business.

A few weeks ago, police in India raided a publishing house that was printing unauthorised versions of Harry Potter in the Marathi language. It is seen as a breakthrough in the fight against piracy in the book world. But I wonder, does JK Rowling really need the few extra thousand pounds she can accrue in royalties from the pockets of Delhi schoolkids?

Both stories exemplify the rapaciousness that is the norm in our money-obsessed culture. All art, it has been said, is a gift to the world. We’ve all got to live, but if writers such as Jessica Adams and JK Rowling truly consider themselves artists, perhaps they might one day consider loading a small sackful of their books on to Santa’s sleigh and getting them dropped around the globe with BookCrossing.com stickers attached.

Their bank balances would hardly notice the difference, and it would do wonders for their PR.

Andrew Crumey’s novels are freely available in libraries