Thursday, February 03, 2005

Royalties for secondhand books

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.


Constance said...

Books that are passed about need not be unloved.
Some reader's do not pass or sell books they wouldn't want to share.
If you like a story you do not necessarily hoard or imprison it on your coffee table, isn't that why libraries were built?

Aekta said...

Your final point is very good, and one also wonders that if (lesser-known) authors get such raw deals, doesn't that discourage potentially excellent writers and force them to take up better-paying means of making a living?

But why should an author have to suffer if the paper or binding quality of his book is poor, or if his or her book had been overhyped and now fails to satisfy? Isn't it the publisher who takes the risk of incurring costs on marketing and printing, and since they make most of the profit (or loss), shouldn't the onus of the bookkeeper's ire fall on them too?

Jozef Imrich with Dragoness Malchkeon said...

Sadly, A S Bryant has already been removed from shelves of my favourite second hand book shop ...

In the bloggosphere the Bright Field brightly noted: "As an every day consumer in England ... I welcome the egalitarianism of the net. I buy books on a whim in a bookshop, then when I have read them I sell them on Amazon for about half the original price... The fact that I can sell them when I have read them encourages me to buy more new books on a whim."

Dame Antonnia Byatt lives in the world peppered with pies in the sky .. Has she ever done an accounting course? The cost of the extra accounting and the burden of compliance would outweight any gains. Second hand book dealers generate an amazing appetite for books many of those wonderful desires end up being diverted to new books ...

jon said...

chemistry textbook are so expensive. I agree, We have been looking for chemistry textbook all night for a new chemistry textbook class but havent been able to track down used chemistry textbook that I can afford. Anyway, I enjoyed looking at you chemistry textbook blog...


jon said...

personal astrology info is so cheesy but we were looking at it anyway...why i dont know. I guess it is fun to play around online. Anyway, I saw your personal astrology posts and though it was cool...Alright, well...have a great night, I am back to personal astrology surfing LOL : )