Today's Times carries several letters on the question of whether authors should receive a royalty whenever a copy of one of their books is sold secondhand.
The third letter makes it clear that this issue was kicked off by A.S. Byatt, and the only Google reference I can find suggests that Byatt was apparently miffed that used stuff was being offered on Amazon, side by side with the new edition, for considerably less money. And what's more -- shock horror -- the author doesn't get any royalty on the used book sale.
Well now, as usual I will try to refrain from ad hominem -- or in this case ad feminam -- criticism. Let's just say that the idea that you can somehow arrange for authors to be paid a royalty every time one of their books is sold on a market stall strikes me as being one of the most wildly impractical schemes that I have heard of in a long time.
It would, presumably, require legislation, and given that we have an eminently sensible government, renowned worldwide for its sagacity, there is no chance of that coming about. Everyone would realise that the police have got far more important things to do with their time than go round checking whether Mr Bloggs at the Used Books For U emporium was keeping proper records. For a start, Mr Plod has to stop all those wicked people hunting foxes, so he's much to busy to worry about books.
One way and another, therefore, it seems to me that the lovely Antonia's scheme is a bit of a non-starter.
The Times correspondents certainly think so. One bookshop proprietor goes further. 'During 30 years of new and second-hand bookselling,' he says, 'I have fended off the hordes of customers trying to sell back to me last year’s over-hyped, second-rate bestsellers. Authors should refund their royalties on books so soon unloved and discarded.'
And he adds more abuse: 'As it happens, publishers, with their cardboard “cloth” covers, yellowing paper and unyielding bindings, have nearly perfected the book that disintegrates before it can be resold.'
Right on, brother. A friend of mine recently showed me a marvellous copy of Burckhardt's Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, dating from about 1935. He had bought it on abebooks, and was mighty impressed with the speed of delivery. And the point about this book, of course, is that it was beautifully designed and printed, heavily illustrated, a pleasure to look at it, and in pretty near perfect condition after 70 years. It is clearly good for another 70 years. You can't say that about most books being printed today.
Another Times correspondent is even sniffier about the Byatt proposal. 'I have already removed Dame Antonia Byatt’s books from the shelves of our second-hand bookshop. If she does not want us to sell them without giving her a cut (again), she is welcome to come and collect them from us free of charge.'
Oh dear. If I might offer a comment: Authors would be better advised to campaign for a proper royalty on first-time sales from their publisher's warehouse than to worry about royalties on secondhand copies. As I have pointed out more than once (see my post of 21 October 2004), some of the wonderful cut-price offers that are made to readers are so structured that, under the terms of a typical contract, the author will get nothing at all.