A Moral Quandary
The argument goes that, with the advent of high-tech, high-volume Internet booksellers, used (or remaindered) copies of books can compete side-by-side with new copies—even from the very moment of the book’s official release date. Thus, if a consumer sees a listing on Amazon.com of a book for $20 new, along with “7 used copies available starting at $13,” he is more likely to buy the $13 used book instead of the $20 new, and the author and publisher lose out on royalties. (The Authors Guild kicked up a fuss back in 2002 when Amazon first began offering used book sales on the same page as new.)
Some people consider this to be a serious (or, conversely, a tongue-in-cheek) moral issue. However, the Doctrine of First Sale, enshrined in American law these last hundred years, states that we can resell anything we buy—including books—without limitation (provided we don’t violate some other law by doing it). This applies not only to consumers, but to stores.
A number of people with relatively low budgets make much use of used bookstores. (My parents almost never buy any book new, for example.) Tacking a royalty onto used book resales would increase the barriers to book ownership for these people, making it harder for them to buy books in an era when many already lament that reading is dying out.
It would also mean that bookstores that don’t have to worry about tracking used books now would have to retrofit inventory tracking systems, increasing their costs considerably (and guess who would end up eating those increased costs? Hint: Not the bookstores). Some stores, such as charity stores or flea markets that simply don’t have the time or money to devote to keeping track of used sales, would either have to get an exemption or stop selling books altogether.
“Spillage” and Exposure
In the LiveJournal entry mentioned above, Steve Miller notes:
From a practical standpoint, for me and us, when one publisher gave up on us, it was the used bookstores that hand-sold our used books and kept us in front of readers, and when we went to conventions we autographed thousands of used books … for readers who wanted more. So, we support used bookstores, we sign used books at conventions, bookstores, and fleamarkets. Readers deserve the opportunity, especially in these times when jobs and cash are at a premium, to buy a used book. Yes we need to sell new books, too,but used book dealers are not taking food out of our pockets.
Eric Flint makes a similar point in his Salvos Against Big Brother column about “Spillage”—the idea that letting customers “try before they buy” ends up leading to greater sales:
What I like to see are copies of my books available all over the place in editions that bring me no direct income—whether that’s in a library, a used bookstore, a remaindered table, or simply being passed from one person to another. Because I know that that "spillage" is simply the necessary lubricant for this very opaque market that my livelihood depends upon. It’s that spillage—that penumbra of free or cheap copies, if you will—that makes everything else possible in the first place.
What I don’t want to see are those books piling up, because they aren’t moving. (Or the library equivalent, which is not being checked out.)
Flint notes that the death knell for authors is when libraries, used book stores, and remainder tables won’t stock an author’s books because there is no demand for them. He adds:
It’s the author’s job to write books that are good enough—at least, in the eyes of enough people—that no matter what form of sale or distribution any given copy of a given title winds up having, it will have enough turnover to keep making it attractive to the distributor.
The E-book Angle
These arguments over fairness of authors getting paid versus getting broader exposure echo very similar arguments over the harm that e-book “piracy” does to authors by “stealing” sales. In fact, Eric Flint often compares them directly in his Salvos and Baen Free Library Prime Palaver columns. Both of them serve to increase exposure for authors, leading to a greater chance that the person not paying the author now will buy something that pays him in the future.
And in both cases, if the used-book buyer or illicit downloader had been prevented from buying or downloading the book, it would probably not have led to a new sale for the author instead. Rather, they would probably have bought used or downloaded illicitly something else instead, and checked the author’s work out of the library—another use that would not have led to the author getting paid (at least in America; the UK and Canadian library systems do both pay royalties for library book checkouts).
I wonder whether used book sales might end up being an issue that drives publishers further toward e-books. As I pointed out a few days ago, the prospect of a second-hand sale market for digital media such as e-books is considerably dimmer. While not very exciting from the consumer’s standpoint, it is highly likely publishers and authors could see this as a feature.
Regardless, there should be more awareness of—and opposition to—Novelists Inc.’s attempt to amend copyright law to require used book sellers to collect royalties. The last thing we need in our current economic situation is to place even more burden on people who are not well-off enough to afford anything but used books—and on an entire sector of business that isn’t doing too well as it is.