Readers Respond: Author Royalties and Used Book Sales

Readers continue to respond to this post, and its follow-up, about whether authors should get royalties on used books. Colleen Mondor, Children’s Book Review Editor at Eclectica, and who worked in a used bookstore in Alaska for two years, weighs in on the logistical problems raised by a subsequent-royalties system of the kind that A.S. Byatt wants:

In the larger stores (Powells, Strand, etc.) [employees] inventory by title, regardless of new or used, but in most used stores the used books are all lumped together by the “Used” category….we had no idea what we had by title as far as the inventory system was concerned. So in order to compensate authors we would have to inventory every used book by title as they came in, keeping in mind that a large number of them do not have ISBN codes, and then what? Notify publishers that we have the book? Or do we notify them only after we sell the book? When purchasing new books, it is all done up front, when the store buys the book from the wholesaler (like Ingram). But how would this used process work? As I check out the new and used bookstores in my town now, I see various displays of books from 100 years old to six months ago…and some are sold by hand receipt that merely states “books” under the description. How do you keep track of that by title? And who keeps this whole mess honest? (…)

Quite simply, the system does not exist for most stores to accommodate the sort of tracking that some authors (Byatt) seem to want. And that is how it is in the used world. Do you think Ford gets a cut from used trucks sold at the local street corner car lot? Do fashion designers get money from thrift store sales or record companies from the used record stores? It doesn’t happen because it would be insane to try and do. I’m not even going to start on how chaotic the pricing standards would be. A book that sells in Florida for $10 might get only $1 in AK…same condition, but the subject matter demands a higher price in one locale as opposed to another. Would authors be happy with such haphazard pricing?

Powell’s David Weich is similarly skeptical of subsequent-royalty schemes.

New books get sold, not leased. The implicit contract of such an exchange transfers ownership to the buyer; whether it’s a book or a painting or a couch or a dog or a rock that has been sold, the purchaser now *owns* it. At that point, the artist or toy maker or craftsman has ceded control over the product. I don’t buy into the idea that a writer’s product is any different, or more valuable, than that of any craftsperson. It strikes me as self-righteous and belittling of others’ work.

If a publisher were to resell a book’s content — the issue has come up in various forms over digital republication rights –then the writer may very well have a legitimate claim to additional compensation. However, if a writer were due compensation every time his/her book is resold, the value of the item would immediately decrease; in effect, the original bookstore customer is paying for a different product: a product with no resale rights. And this arrangement isn’t particular to the book industry; it’s the basis of our economy. Should the maker of my desk lamp get a cut when I resell it at a yard sale?

Comparisons between books and other products also form the basis of reader Ken Bronson’s response:

I first heard this argument that content originators should get compensation for sales on used items when Garth Brooks made the case that musicians and songwriters should get money for used CD’s. I don’t get how a book or a cd or a movie is different from a car or a toaster. I can sell my car and Chrysler won’t get a kickback. I never really researched why artists think they are selling something different than toasters. Sorry but no one has ever explained it in a way that makes sense to me.

Since books have been compared here with used trucks, CDs, desk lamps, and toasters, I feel compelled to point out a couple of things. There is a difference between books as art objects and books as products.

When taken as art objects, books don’t have a monetary value and cannot be quantified in the same way. Books are not written according to a specific set of independently verifiable features. Our reactions to them are entirely subjective–we may love them or hate them. They can make us laugh or cry; they can reshape our views of life or leave us thoroughly untouched; they can make us happy or so angry that we issue fatwas over their authors.

However, when a book is sold to a publisher, when it has an ISBN, a nice cover by Chip Kidd, a fancy author photo by Marion Ettlinger, and a price tag, it becomes a product, indistiguishable from other products on store shelves. The expectation that it should be treated any differently strikes me as a little absurd.