Readers Respond: Author Royalties and Used Book Sales

Several readers wrote in to Moorishgirl in response to this post, about whether authors should get royalties from used book sales. Chris Beha wondered why some people are shocked by the idea of charging royalties on used books.

Why is it selfish for authors to want to get paid for such a labor intensive project? And why do the used booksellers who turn these books around with enormous profit margins get off the hook? If I come to The Strand in NYC with a box full of two hundred used books, they might pay me twenty dollars for the lot. They’ll mark each one up to four or five bucks, knowing full well that most will just sit on their shelves forever. These places have essentially no overhead costs whatsoever–they have to pay rent on the space and they have to pay their surly employees. 95% of dollars spent in the Strand go to the Strand. We take this part of the used book trade for granted. Now, if they had to pay the publisher some small amount for each book they sold, why couldn’t that money would come largely out of their profits, not out of the consumers pocket?

Maybe books should be given away for free, but they’re not. Given the fact that readers are going to pay money for books, why not try to insure that more of that money goes to the people who wrote the books, rather than to middlemen?

A few people put the blame of authors’ losses on online retailers, which make it exceedingly easy to buy a used copy of a book that has just barely come out. George at Bookninja, for example, explained his reasons for continuing to link to Amazon thusly:

I have to jump in here and say that the reason we continue to link to Amazon (even though their American arm donated primarily to the Bush campaign during the election) while most of the other lit bloggers have moved to Powell’s, is because, as I understand it, Powell’s will sell you the cheapest copy of a book by default. This means if there’s a used copy of your book sitting beside a new copy online, the used copy gets sold first, and you, the author, get what the French call “Jacques Squatte”.

I am one of those who’ve made the switch a while back, and so I was curious to hear what Powell’s would have to say about this. I posed the question to David Weich, Director of Marketing and Development at Powell’s. Here is his response:

Depending on the type of link a partner uses or the search terms a customer keys into our site, we may display a sale-priced or used copy first. As a rule, we want to show the customer the best deal; our display depends on available inventory. But we would never sell a used copy in place of a new one if the customer wants a new book. We don’t hide new books and we certainly don’t substitute used copies for new; we give customers a choice, just like in our stores.

That said, it’s kind of a funny argument to make that Amazon represents authors more respectfully than Powell’s. I won’t get into the dozens of surreptitious and self-serving ways that Amazon blackmails publishers into even displaying an author’s titles (it’s the only bookseller that proudly promotes its pay for placement system, and that system doesn’t just affect the Home page – every inch of the Amazon web site has been bought). But to stick to the subject of new versus used: consider the scope of Amazon’s Marketplace section, where used sellers worldwide post their inventories, and which allows Amazon to offer used copies of virtually every book in print right alongside new ones.

Blink — new for $18.16; out of stock used
Amazon — new for $15.57; 51 used copies starting at $13.73.

Max Tivoli: — $9.80 new; out of stock used
Amazon — $10.50 new; 57 used copies starting at $7.76

I could go on, but I’ll spare you. Keep in mind, however, that Marketplace is by far Amazon’s fastest-growing segment and to date the only part of their book division that has registered profits.

So, do you agree? Disagree? Send reactions to llalami AT yahoo DOT com.