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(Apologies if this isn't the place to ask, as I'm not a college student or independent researcher).

I am a secondary school student in Ireland currently working on a large project for a history class and the topic I have chosen is relatively obscure. The most thorough of the few books written on the matter seems to be currently out of print. I found a used copy for sale a while ago at an exorbitant cost, but I'm unable to find even that now.

Would it be okay for me to email the author to ask if he could direct me towards somewhere where I could find a copy of the book, or send me a pdf? I would be willing to pay, although I doubt I could afford the full price of the book originally which was upwards of $100.

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  • 39
    I think is acceptable. It might be also a pleasure for an author.
    – Alchimista
    Oct 22 '20 at 9:18
  • 9
    you might start with a librarian Oct 22 '20 at 22:25
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    "Is it acceptable"... this web seems now full of these questions, I am not sure why? I learned that you can ask and tell almost anything, if you do it from the right place. We are humans... if you ask humanly, with good heart and good intention, anything is allright.
    – Tomas
    Oct 23 '20 at 0:00
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    @Sraw don't know what you're talking about. I didn't flag nor close anything nor do I want any clarifications. Question's clear and detailed enough.
    – Tomas
    Oct 23 '20 at 3:01
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    @Tomas - "Is it acceptable" is a variant of "How do I" which is explicitly waiving frame challenge requirements on potential "You don't" and "Why don't you instead" answers. Such questions try to solicit the typical other side perspective on a situation, rather than a third party approval. Oct 23 '20 at 9:15
93

A question like this is almost always acceptable to ask. I cannot imagine that somebody will take offense at this, and I expect most academics appreciate high-school students looking for help and a reliable source, and I expect most will try to help if they have the time. However, time is big limitation for most academics, so do not be put-off if the author doesn't respond, or possibly bluntly mentions they cannot help. This will not be personal.

Make sure to keep your email polite, but especially, make it to the point. They will not really care about your life story, but introduce yourself as a high-school student, introduce your topic/research and mention that you want to use their book, but are not able to find it and don't have the funds to buy it, and ask if there is any chance that they can help you by the means you proposed, but do not outright ask if they can send you a copy for free. Thank them for any time they invest.

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    I would expect the author to be delighted that there remains interest in his book, and he may be using such inquiries to convince his publisher to bring it back, or to justify a second edition. And he may well have preprints or leftover copies at his disposal. But for sure I'd ask in terrms of whether he knows of a way to find a copy, rather than asking outright if he can send one for free. If he's in a position to offer a spare copy, or some electronic form, he certainly would do so.
    – CCTO
    Oct 22 '20 at 20:02
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    I second the advice to avoid outright asking for a free copy. While some authors might have a box of unsold copies to spare, it comes across the wrong way. Authors frequently know of unusual places to find their work, however, such as an "international version" from an overseas bookstore, or a compilation that includes a copy of their work.
    – bta
    Oct 22 '20 at 21:29
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    @bta the strategy there is to leave the solution open. Don't say "I want a free copy please." but say "Can you help me get access to a copy?" and leave it up to the recipient as to what "access" means.
    – Nelson
    Oct 23 '20 at 4:31
  • @CCTO and bta, Excellent point, I've added it to my answer.
    – Jeroen
    Oct 23 '20 at 6:25
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    A small point is that academics don't necessarily make much money from their books or may not care about the royalties. In my case, I don't get royalties but I am legally allowed to give away PDFs of my book, so I specifically tell people on my website to ask me for a free PDF. Oct 23 '20 at 16:32
61

I don't think I can improve on the answer of JeroendeK. It is fine to ask.

But I think it is unlikely to be successful as the prof may not have a copy to be spared.

But there is an alternative open to nearly everyone. If you are in a place with a university, go to the library there. If you are not, then ask your school (or town) librarian for help in borrowing a copy from some larger library. Inter-library Loan is a widely used service provided by large libraries and especially research libraries.

Even my small village library has been able to get obscure works for me from larger places.

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    Inter-library loan is the right answer. It is possible, maybe even likely, that the library at your secondary school can help. If not, Buffy's right, a university or town library can help.
    – Bob Brown
    Oct 22 '20 at 16:11
  • Worth nothing that an inter-library lone for a particularly niche book may be short. Last two textbooks I borrowed that way I could only keep for under a week due to having been shipped overseas. A pity really.
    – Clumsy cat
    Oct 22 '20 at 18:07
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    @Clumsycat I've known people in that circumstance to spend some extended time with a photocopier...
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 22 '20 at 19:03
  • @BryanKrause might work for OP if they know what part they are looking for. It would take a very long time to do the whole thing.
    – Clumsy cat
    Oct 22 '20 at 19:10
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    Libraries also track things like number of requests and use that to justify things like general funding and specifically maintaining that work. So a similar argument to asking the author, letting people know that there is an interest in that work is beneficial. Oct 23 '20 at 10:55
2

A question like this is always acceptable to ask. I don't think any body will take offense or be angry with this question. However if the author feels like he doesn't want to, send him a thank you email.

Make sure to keep your email polite but about the topic and straight forward. Say that you are a high-school student and tell the author what you will use the book for. Mention that you were not able to find it and don't have the budget or money to buy it.

PS: Also, many book places like better world books, and ebay, and craigslist might have your book. Check those websites out, maybe your book will be there for $50.

1

Asking for a book outright will likely come across as quite rude - it sounds like you are asking for his work for free. Some authors won't mind, others will be very offended (example of a similar case).

Asking where to find a copy is much more acceptable. If the author's willing to give away their work for free, and they have access to a PDF, they might just give you the electronic copy. If they don't have an electronic copy, chances are they have some hardcopies, but it will be difficult for you to purchase them because you will probably need to pay for postage. If the book is out of print and you can't purchase one from them, they probably can't help you locate a copy, although you might still learn if a second edition is being planned.

You might want to ask your local librarian for help in locating a copy of the book. There's a good chance they can help you.

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    I wouldn't find it rude, if a bit odd. But I'd be unlikely to have a spare copy and unwilling to give up an electronic version.
    – Buffy
    Oct 22 '20 at 12:54
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    Academia is very different from the music industry. Academics often make very little or nothing from their published works, and certainly from my experience, limited as it is, asking for otherwise inaccessible works hasn't been received as rude. Oct 22 '20 at 22:32
  • @curiousdannii that directly contradicts my experiences with book authors who regularly ask for more royalties. Academics might say they don't care about the money, but their actions speak otherwise.
    – Allure
    Oct 22 '20 at 22:54
  • Both can be true - you can ask for more royalties from your publisher while still being happy to give your out-of-print books away for free to others. Oct 22 '20 at 22:56
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    @Allure an author isn't going to get royalties from a book that's out of print, so that seems irrelevant in this case.
    – Kat
    Oct 23 '20 at 3:50
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I think so. For some reassurance: I once emailed a well known mathematician that left the field for another one, around the year I was born, to his new professional email. So I asked if he knew any way I could get the book. My exact phrasing was this:

Many times I tried to find a copy of the book, but sadly I failed, and it is currently quite difficult to access the university library to get a copy (if they have any). I was wondering if you happened to have an electronic copy that your publisher may allow you to share with me?

He sent me a signed copy that he had in his house (I presume he has many more from the publisher) with a nice message all the way from the US to Ireland.

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You can ask. Is it acceptable - well sort of; BUT is is polite and proper? Offering to pay helps negate the asking issues.

It would be silly as the author would not have copies of the book to give out unless it had been self published.

He probably has no pdf and may not even have WP files.

Your best bet is to look at worldcat.org and see what library has the book nd then contact them to borrow it.

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    There's a good chance the author will have copies of the book actually, because in most book contracts the publisher provides the author with several complimentary copies (although the author might have given those away already, if the book has been out of print for long enough). The author probably also has the source files, although those might not look pretty.
    – Allure
    Oct 22 '20 at 23:05

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