The Literary Tastes of Book Thieves

According to an article in The Guardian last week, book thieves not only account for a large chunk of cash lost by booksellers each year, but they have distinguished tastes, too.

Bookseller Anna Goodall of Britain observes that in her store, book thefts tend toward the intellectual end of the spectrum, citing The Paris Review Interviews Vol. 2 and Crime and Punishment as a particularly high-brow haul. According to her, New York booksellers report a trend toward beat authors as prime theft targets: Bukowski, Kerouac, Burroughs.

At first site, I found these results rather astounding. Like Goodall, I didn't really consider book theft as a major part of a bookstore's operations. Sure, I'm not naive enough to believe it didn't happen, but to such an extent? At Hard Bean, we had mirrors posted above the shelves so employees could "keep an eye" on customers in the back of the store from behind the computer, but in reality, we rarely, if ever, looked in the mirrors (except to catch some kids making out in the bio section). I don't really recall any major book thefts - chocolate bars from next to the register were a much larger target.

But given the fact that bookstores do suffer from regular thefts - a sad fact, but apparently a true one - maybe it isn't so surprising that it's the intellectual high-brow lit that gets swiped. After all, who but a true booklover would take the time to steal from a bookstore? Aren't there easier - and more profitable - targets? These people can't be stealing for monetary gain; there just isn't enough of a high-profit market for gently used books. So if they are stealing for themselves - either because they can't afford the books, don't think they should have to pay (that seems to ring well with the Beat-theft trend) or are getting a thrill from the theft itself - I can almost wrap my mind around the fact that Penguin Classics and Paris Review titles go before the Jodi Picoults and Nicholas Sparks of the world.

Now, my sleep-deprived and over-worked mind is trying to figure out if there is a link between the fact that most classics are public domain, and therefore available for free (especially electronically) or very cheap (i.e. B&N Editions) and the fact that these same books are the ones disappearing from the shelves. Thoughts?


  1. i just discovered your blog and am so glad i did! i am a historical fiction author (first novel is coming out next feb) and the big concern i keep hearing about seems to be electronic theft. i wonder if this pattern will repeat?

    i would like to think it was wonderfully pretentious, impoverished english lit students wearing black polo necks, smoking gauloises and attempting to subvert the system. that would explain the kerouac .

  2. Priya - Glad you found it! Electronic theft is definitely an ongoing issue, sadly. Best of luck with that on your first book!

    I also love the description of our unknown book thieves... sounds like a perfect fit.

  3. What an interesting article. Like you, I had never really considered book theft to be a major problem. My limited knowledge of book theft boils down to people stealing manuscripts before publication of well known authors (i.e. J.K. Rowling).

  4. Jehara - I heard that the Rowling books were being stolen from bookstores or opened before the on-sale date in some places, which led to some leaks, as well.


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