With every good reason, a reader writes to chide me for "equating buying with reading" in a recent column--using sales figures for trade books as the sole index of American reading habits. As she quite accurately points out, "serious readers acquire books other than through buying them--they read them at the library, rent them at the library, purchase them at second-hand stores, and also borrow them."

That I failed to take into account these important but less visible means by which books are circulated was a serious omission--though even library circulation, which is greater than book sales, does not alter my conviction that to describe the United States as "a nation of readers" is fanciful and self-deluding. The omission was pure oversight, one almost certainly explained by my own habits and biases: I use libraries solely for research, I long ago quit loaning or borrowing books--and I tend to forget that others do otherwise.

These habits, which perhaps are more truthfully described as crotchets, are in substantial measure explained by the obvious: I don't need to borrow books, from libraries or from friends, because in my line of work I receive free review copies in overwhelming numbers. They are explained by my background: I grew up in a family that regards books as precious possessions, as much a part of the permanent household as curtains or flatware. And they are explained by experience: I don't loan books because people don't return them.

But the principal explanation is a prejudice that has intensified over the years: I loathe the free circulation of books, through whatever means, because it produces no significant return for the people who write them. In this respect if no other, it is entirely true that writers in America are thoroughly and outrageously exploited, the victims of a national belief that because books contain knowledge they should be circulated as widely and cheaply as possible. It is a belief from which, for reasons that require no elaboration, dissent is well nigh heretical; yet it is a belief founded, however unwittingly, upon the backs of the very people whose mission it is to disseminate knowledge.

The novelist Stanley Elkin, who is not given to mincing words, put it best some years ago in a Paris Review interview. "Whatever happens to me in my career I hope happens before I die," he said. "And screw the libraries." It is a sentiment with which virtually everyone who has written a book most surely would agree. Libraries and other borrowing systems may be greatly appreciated by the writer whose sole interest is in having his ideas or sentiments reach as large an audience as possible; but the writer who is trying to make a living from his craft, as most writers are, can only regard them as thieves that have stolen the fruits of his labor.

That this is so probably never occurs to those millions of Americans who routinely use free public libraries or who regularly swap books among neighbors and friends. Yet in all innocence they are doing to others what they would never permit to be done to themselves; they are using those persons' work without paying for it. Americans seem to believe that they have a "right," though it is nowhere to be found in the Constitution, of free access to other people's words; they put it into daily practice without giving it a second thought.

But consider for a moment the way the system works. For, say, three years a person slaves away on a book, supporting himself in a marginal fashion by doing magazine articles and other free-lance writing. At last the book is completed and published, in a printing of 7,500 copies. The list price is $12.95, and the royalty rate is 10 percent. About 1,500 copies are distributed for review and/or promotion, 3,500 copies go to bookstores, and 2,500 are sold to libraries.

From those that go to libraries, the publisher pays to our author's agent a royalty of $3,237.50, from which she deducts her own 10 percent commission--and sends him a check for $2,913.75. That is it. Yet a funny thing happens to those books in the libraries: people read them. Over a decade, those 2,500 books find 250,000 readers--10 readers a year for each copy. If those quarter-million readers had been buyers, our author would have made an additional $26,223.75--a respectable, if not exactly sumptuous, reward for his time and effort. His publishing house would also have received a substantial additional return on its investment.

Not for a moment would I argue that, had our author's book been unavailable in libraries, it would have found another quarter-million purchasers; a few hundred, if that, is more like it. The argument, rather, is that the payment he received for those 2,500 library copies is ridiculously out of proportion to the audience they actually reached. Put it this way: 2,500 readers paid their way and 247,500 got a free ride. This is free enterprise?

Of course it's not; in the name of all things good and holy, it's rank exploitation. Reading a person's written work without paying him for it is the moral equivalent of taping a performer's work off the air--in a word, stealing. It happens hundreds of thousands of times a day; when it comes to books and the people who write them, we've manufactured a nice double standard that enriches the reader's mind and impoverishes the author's bank account.

This is not, need it be said, quite as simple a matter as I portray it. Not for nothing has the free public library become a treasured American institution; the principle that knowledge should be available to all, regardless of means, is utterly crucial to the health of a democracy. It is no mere cliche' to say that libraries, whether as great as the Library of Congress or as insignificant as the Bookmobile, are the repositories of our heritage.

But they need not also be exploiters of the men and women without whose work they would disappear. In England, where writers enjoy rather more standing than they do over here, a law based on a Scandinavian model was passed not long ago under which writers will be paid by the government, under a somewhat complicated system, for the library use of their books; with its suggestions of "socialism" that system probably couldn't be approved in this country, but the principle is absolutely sound. My own preference is for a user fee paid directly by the borrower, perhaps 50 cents a week, half to be paid to the author and half to go to the library for bookkeeping and overhead--a fee from which the poor, students and pensioners would be exempt.

Yes, I know it would make for a considerable bureaucratic mess and would impose an additional burden on our already overburdened librarians. But an injustice of substantial dimensions is being done, to a group of workers who cannot afford it, and by a country that holds, as a piety of the very first order, that a person shall be justly rewarded for his labors. How odd, and how revealing, that it makes an exception for writers.