Monday, 18 May 2009

Guest Post: The Implications Of Second-Hand Book Sales

My thanks to Nicola Morgan for this post.

Second-hand books—what’s not to like? The ultimate in recycling, they raise money for charities and independent second-hand bookshops, and offer cheap reading material for those who can’t afford the full price.

At which point, allow me to draw some deep breaths, because I’m trying to be moderate and not mount my hobby-horse for a full-scale rant. Nor would I like you to think that I would steal the food from the mouths of starving babies who are helped by Oxfam and the like. Thing is, I know that at some point I am going to mention Amazon Marketplace....

Let me start by being incontrovertibly reasonable and stating What I Have No Problem With:
  • The genuinely second-hand trade in out-of-print books (even though you’ll often have difficulty in determining whether they are, so let’s rephrase that to “books which you can’t buy or order new”).

  • Ditto out-of-copyright books (because the author has been dead a long time—seventy years in UK law—and they can’t use the money).

  • The argument that one’s book being sold in a second-hand shop may create new readers, who may buy or recommend your other books.

  • The giving of used books to schools, libraries (if only they would accept them, but thereby hangs another gripe), hospitals, prisons or any other such organisation where the books will be read on-site.

  • Any scheme which offers good reading material for people on low incomes or reluctant readers.

Thing is, the second-hand book trade poses a specific problem for authors because of how we earn from our work. The advance + royalty system means that we earn when a new copy of our book is sold, but not if it’s sold second-hand (you may know that in the UK now, visual artists DO earn a second royalty when their work is re-sold in a gallery or at auction).

So, any second-hand purchase which replaces a full-price purchase is lost income. This wasn’t a big deal when second-hand book-selling was small business. But now, it’s HUGE.

Take Oxfam. From figures I could quickly find, each Oxfam bookshop would expect to make around £175,000 per year; and bearing in mind they don’t pay most staff and don’t pay business rates, they have an advantage over “ordinary” second-hand bookshops, many of which are complaining about unfair competition. In 2002, Oxfam sold 12 million books in the UK, and with many new shops opening every year that figure must have grown. Forgive me if I don’t search for that info for you—I’m trying to write a book and earn a living at the moment....

Now, I’d hate to knock Oxfam. But I do argue for an informed choice. And my choice is to give money to my favoured charities (which may include Oxfam), but to buy books from a proper shop and support authors and literature.

But what about people who can’t afford full-price books?

  • It’s not only just the economically deprived who use charity shops. People on all incomes use charity shops, for many good reasons.

  • But, if you want to save money, use public libraries, where books are free AND the author earns money each time. So, don’t throw the poverty line at me—libraries are the best levellers of all.

And, er... Amazon Marketplace?

Thing about Amazon Marketplace is that the word “second-hand” takes on a blurry hue. Every author I know has found their books listed, sometimes for absurd prices (one of mine is currently available for 1p—apart from the HUGE postage charge) as being second-hand before publication day. Where do these books come from? Back of a lorry? Returns to publishers (which means they’ve already had the royalty payment DEDUCTED from the author, sometimes at a higher rate than the royalty paid to the author in the first place—oh, don’t get me started on that)? I once had a consignment of books go completely missing between warehouse and a school where I was doing a talk. I’d love to know precisely who ended up making money on them—it sure as hell wasn’t me.

Amazon Marketplace is a stunning business model: three parties make a profit—Amazon, the seller, and the postal service. Never mind the author, eh?

Look, don’t get me wrong: I’m all for free trade; I’m all for people getting a bargain; I’m all for charities making money; I’m even all for businesses making a profit. But what I’m most for is every customer making an informed choice. And if you don’t care about the author, fine: that’s your choice.

I call the concept Fair Reading. It’s explained in detail on this Facebook group. I am not telling people not to buy second-hand, or to feel guilty if they do—I want everyone to be aware:

I have been remarkably moderate today, for me. Another day, remind me to tell you what happened when I spoke to people (yes, really, people) at Amazon about it. And I also tried to work out how we could do for authors what was done for artists in the EU—the Authors Licensing and Collecting Authority could manage the collection of second-hand royalties—but we reckoned that it would be too punitive to the charities and we don’t want to knock charities. So, all I’m left with is the power of education and the generosity of people’s natures and sense of fairness: do join me in spreading the word about informed choice and Fair Reading.

The message is simple: Buy your books at the best price you can for the author, or borrow from a public library. If we love books, we need authors.

©2009 Nicola Morgan


Dan Holloway said...

Nicola, thank you for this. I raised precisely this question on one of the threads here a month or so ago to see what kind of reaction it got.

As I'm so in favour of writers giving their stuff away for free I probably should think selling-on books is a great idea - gaining audience and so on, but I'm at best agnostic. What I like about writers giving stuff away is that it's the writers in control.

I wouldn't want to go teh other way though, because I think what the PRS has done to the music industry by kicking off about royalties for YouTube and the like is immensely damaging to musicians. I'd hate to see the Society of Authors start getting heavy-handed the same way.

My personal beef is always getting control back to the authors. I know it's actually authors themselves who often beef back, saying they want agents and publishers to do the back room stuff for them, but my opinion is very much that as an author you're a sole trader business person like any other, and you should never take your eye off the ball.

In keeping with that ethos I'd like to see authors flexing their muscles and keeping their freedom - if they want to do stuff FOR CHARITY (and as someone who does work for Mind and Rethink I would love to know that my book was helping specific charities) why not a POD charity version with a split of royalties going to a named charity (OK, I know there are negotiations to be had with publishers - this is just an idea). I'd also like to see flexible contracts where the author could stipulate resale conditions - any, not at all, 3 years/6 months after imprint date etc.

Jsut ideas. As always, fantastically stimulating post, Jane. Any chance of doing a guest spot some day if I promise not to wave any placards?

JP_Fife said...

The problem isn't second hand books, who's making the most money and where, the problem is that the author is at the bottom of the food chain, which is probably a big reason why authors get less than minimum wage.

While you're grumping about second hand sales what about new sales at Waterstone's?

(How do you put links in these comments?)

Will you or any author get more royalties if Waterstone's sells at above RRP?

The thing is no one is doing anything illegal by selling a used book with a huge margin - add a signature and it goes up again and there's author to author which is more collectible: Philip Jose Farmer and Robert Bloch found this out in a bookshop and then spent years signing copies of books to each other. Although I am with you on when you question new books being sold very cheaply but I'd suspect a part of the price is built into 'HUGE postage charge.'

I believe there is a First-sale doctrine which allows the trade you are complaining about (Exhaustion doctrine here in Oorup) so unless that part of the law changes authors wont see royalties on second hand sales. Interestingly the game industry is also trying to get royalties from second hand sales.

I wouldn't have thought books were the subject of contraband or the black market. Surprising to see a batch go missing. Maybe you should add a lost books clause in your next contract to ensure you do get some money.

You need to adjust the links as the facebook page is coming up as Page not found.

Rod H said...

I had one small problem with this post, namely: 'But, if you want to save money, use public libraries, where books are free AND the author earns money each time.'

This sharp idea doesn't work so well when, time and again, the library does not stock the title you might want to borrow. Where I live it is possible to access the library catalogue from home and I have found, several times, that a book I might want to borrow isn't available in a single branch.

Philip Sington said...

You've highlighted a real and growing concern about the on-line used book trade. It is clearly a very different animal from what we're used to, and surely must source its books differently, too. What worries me is the way "used" books appear on Amazon marketplace within weeks of the original publication date. And almost any title, however popular, appears there sooner or later.
I used to think that it was better to have unsold stock ending up on Amazon marketplace than being remaindered and pulped. But I'm no longer so sure. Apart from anything else, if you enjoy success with a subsequent title, it will be difficult to exploit your 'back list' if the market is already flooded with "used" copies going for the (admittedly inflated) cost of postage.

Lexi said...

Fascinating - especially JP's comment:

'add a signature and it goes up again and there's author to author which is more collectible: Philip Jose Farmer and Robert Bloch found this out in a bookshop and then spent years signing copies of books to each other.'What is to stop me dedicating my POD novel to JK Rowling and selling it on eBay? Perhaps this is the way to make a profit from writing...

Anonymous said...

I always try and buy books at full price for precisely the reasons you outline - but I was recently very frustrated when, having bought the first book in a trilogy at Waterstones, I was unable to order the second through them because it was apparently out of print. The third book in the trilogy was not. Maybe I'm naieve, but I find it very bizarre that only the second in a trilogy was out of print! So I was forced onto Amazon marketplace where I coughed up £30 to have a so-called 'second-hand' (read: used) copy shipped over from the US. (it was a very good trilogy! - Robert J Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax. I think perhaps this is where the Blackwell's Espresso Book Machine may prove itself: printing new copies of out-of-print and out-of-copyright books but with some sort of agreement with the publishers' (as far as I know) to ensure royalties are received.

I had a longer rant about this on my blog, here:

Donna Hosie said...

Why is it in the "art" world - writing, music, art - the actual producer of the work is last in the pecking order? Is it because it isn't regarded as a real job? I find it unfathomable.

I never buy second hand books. The author is always at the front of my mind.

Phillipa said...

Nicola. Thank you so much for standing up and highlighting this 'issue' on author's behalf. I actually had saw a post on a public messageboard from someone complaining that a second hand copy of one of my books was really tatty - Arghh!!! I find it very difficult to point out the obvious without sounding bitter and twisted. :) This book is in print now - you can get lovely, pristine copies all over the web and even in bookshops - from anywhere in the world. Grrr.

May I recommend the Book Depository who sell new books with free worldwide delivery...

JP_Fife said...

Lexi, they didn't dedicate books they signed them. Here's the source:

Now, if you can get JK to sign your book ...

Dan Holloway said...

Donna, I think that's why more artists, musicians and writers are taking things into their own hands. At the risk of plugging, I was blogging just today about the need for writers to think more like muicians

Brian Clegg said...

'Every author I know has found their books listed, sometimes for absurd prices (one of mine is currently available for 1p—apart from the HUGE postage charge) as being second-hand before publication day. Where do these books come from?'

I'd have thought many of them were review copies. There's nothing new in this - in Bury my Heart at W. H. Smith's, Brian Aldiss mentions regularly having Betjeman turning up in his van at the bookshop where Aldiss worked with piles of books he'd been sent to review, in order to sell them.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I have to be a voice of dissension here. You see, I am an avid used book buyer (and online trader). And, quite frankly, if I weren't, I'd have found fewer authors who are now on my auto-buy list. I've found books that have blown me away so utterly, I've gone out and bought multiple copies, simply so I can share them with others.

I'd love to use our local library more. But libraries have due dates. Mine is a half-hour drive from here, and with small kids, browsing the adult stacks just ain't happening.

And honestly? When I was without kids, I actually bought fewer of those great books I'd read at the library. It's as though picking up a book used via online trading or a book sale (usually to benefit a library in the area) reminds me of the need to call my local indie (a 40-minute drive) and order. And order. And order. And then, to share, share, share.

none said...

Yes, it's free to borrow books from the library. But it's not free to get there. It costs me £3.80 every time (so £7.60 to borrow and return the same books). Or I can buy a book online without travelling anywhere, and keep it into the bargain. Personally, I'd much rather spend my money on books than on bus fare.

I'd be happy to see a tax on secondhand book sales that would go into the Public Lending Right fund and be distributed among authors.

It's not unique to the art world that the producers are at the bottom. It's true of any industry. Every time a product moves along the chain of production, whether it's a book being represented by an agent or a carrot being washed and sliced for a supermarket, value is added. When value is added, the price goes up.

Mosher said...

As BuffySquirrel says, a mandatory tax on second hand sales would be fine. After all, even a 1% tax would get the author the pittance they make on an initial "first-hand" sale...

I will confess I am no longer a library member. In fact, I dot between two houses right now (my parents' and my girlfriend's) and couldn't even tell you where the libraries are in relation to these places. Don't get me wrong - I love libraries. When I was a kid, my cards got me access to five within convenient distances and I regularly filled up my allowance from each for the 3-week loan period. However, as someone else has mentioned, availability of texts is an issue especially with popular authors. Bradford Central used to get one copy of a new Pratchett book in and the queue was regularly 20-30+ (at up to 3 weeks' wait each time) to borrow it.

I've been traveling for three years and only recently settled back in the UK, hence no fixed address as yet. While living on a tight budget I bought pretty much only second-hand. Or I swapped books in hostels. Once in a blue moon I bought new, but English-language texts in foreign countries are often expensive (except India where a brand new paperback is very cheap, though the second-hand market is fantastic).

As a consumer, I always go for the cheapest option possible. With some authors I do get new books, but generally I wait at least until I can get them 3for2 or similar. £8 for a new novel in paperback these days is just an awful lot of cash.

I honestly feel awful for authors (and musicians) who get a fraction of the sale price of the material THEY created while the publishing companies seem to gobble the lion's share. But right now, I have to be selfish.

One day maybe I'll get round to finishing that half-done novel on my hard drive. Then I'll be grumbling about the other side of the coin!

R.R.Jones said...

I wasn't even aware of the situation before this article and it has opened my eyes. However...

Sorry, I have to hold my hand up here and state, for the record, that I do buy second hand books for as cheap as I can get them.
Firstly, in my defence, I want to say that I live in Germany and the English section in my library is somewhat limited.
I'm still a member, but having dashed through all the good reads, I'm now wallowing in the marsh of the less spectacular titles and it's all very unsatisfying.
I work, however I'm building a house, I have a family, two cats and the whole hodge podge that goes with it, which is the reason why, basically for me, new books are too often overshadowed by the one pence sensations.
I'm sorry, it's the way of the world. My apathy in regards to the plight of the poorly paid author is terrible, I know. However, they're not my family nor are they my friends and I refuse to pay more for a product on the basis of some abstract notion of fair play in regards to author royalties.

I know, I know, I hate myself too.

I would like also to add that I'm sure that if I were a published author, I would also be very bitter about the situation.
Thank you.

catdownunder said...

I once suggested that there should be royalties paid on secondhand book sales and was told, "You don't pay royalties on secondhand clothes." So? Someone (not the machinist but someone) has already made a mighty profit on the shirt on your back.
As one who managed to earn less than £5000 last year (from my regular but sometimes 70 hour a week job)I can only sympathise with authors.
Now, didn't the Irish government set out to give tax breaks to creative people some years ago? How does that work? Is it something to push for?

Lisa Barrow said...

Aw, c'mon--

To paraphrase Cory Doctorow, the problem is with OBSCURITY, not with people exchanging copies of your book.

Some authors here are imagining a shadowy market for their work--one that they can't tap into, one that's leeching piles of money from them. Is that an accurate picture of the marketplace? The fact is, you want readers. There will always be a portion that wants a book as cheap as they can get it (for whatever reason), and there will be cheaper used copies to fill that void. And there will always be people who want that crisp, new-book taste.

(Someone who complains on amazon about a book being tattered could just as easily make that mistake for an imperfect new book.)

I have a friend who's a remarkably avid reader, the kind who devours books about science and tears through classic works of fiction. He gets his books cheap, and then he READS them, and then he TALKS about them to all kinds of people. My reading list has grown exponentially just by being around him.

It's an anecdote, sure--but why would you want to stifle that kind of grassroots enthusiasm with a bureaucracy?

Emma Darwin said...

There seems to be a shade of opinion which suggests that second-hand bookbuyers read-and-talk more than their first-hand fellows, which is an argument I don't buy. If a reader wants my book, and can buy it on Amazon for (nearly) full price, and on Amazon Marketplace for peanuts, why wouldn't they do the latter? The difference, as Nicola so clearly put it, is that I get, say 60p from the former, and nothing from the latter. And if that reader then lends the copy around, I'd STILL get nothing, and who knows how many of those other readers might have bought the book. If it were a library loan I'd get, what, 5p in PLR, but many times over from the same book.

I do want readers, but I also have to live, and if my books don't make enough money for me to live on, then I have to do something else to put food on the table and shoes on the children. And if I'm doing something else, I'm not writing books. If readers want books to read, they have to be prepared to pay for them. And maybe the greener-minded should reflect that second-hand books go round in the system for a long time, buying a NEW book means it's being used, whereas it might very well otherwise be pulped.

The reason that authors do worst out of the book food chain is supply-and-demand: a lot of us willing to supply, and a limited number of readers demanding. If a publisher can't make the (speculative) sums add up they won't (and can't) do a deal. It has to be said, too, that book trade salaries are low, compared to what similarly educated and qualified people would earn in other industries. Indeed, no part of the book food-chain makes vast amounts of money, and 90% of a publishers' list makes virtually none at all. Not even on Harry Potter made money for Bloomsbury, at least not each new title, since the discounting was so cut-throat. Indeed, in many cases Amazon make more money hosting sales, as it were, in the Marketplace, than they do selling a book direct. So it isn't really a case of wicked publishers and booksellers making shedloads of money: nobody does.

As Margaret Drabble said at a recent Society of Authors meeting, at least we can't be made redundant.

Dan Holloway said...

Emma, that’s a very interesting comment, and yes, we would all do well to remember that the business of books doesn’t command investment banker salaries – so writers are by no means alone in their penury. I think you’ve put your finger on it when you say high supply and low demand. That’s not the full picture. What sets writing apart from, say (to choose a former career), flooring as a business is that there are very few people who think they can fit carpets – and whilst there is a fair share of cowboys, relatively few amateur carpet fitters who have day jobs as waiters and data entry clerks try and sell themselves as carpet fitters (and genuinely believe they are).
So what are we to do? I have to say I don’t subscribe to the sentiments in Emma’s “I do want readers…” paragraph. I’m NOT a paid writer. I would dearly love to be. In the moments when writer’s self-doubt doesn’t get the better of me I know I have the ability to be. I regard anyone who is able to give up even one day a week of their day job because writing pays sufficiently as having attained the holy grail. I’m really not very keen on what I perceive as a feeling that there ought to be a closed shop (I’ve found this in several writers’ groups that only admit “properly published” writers). It’s odd for someone with my out and out left wing credentials that I seem to be so free market oriented (or maybe it’s just the anarchist – in the Nozickian sense – in me) , but I believe writing is the same as any other non-essential (I’m not disputing that writing is essential to a civilized society, by essential I guess here I mean publicly funded) career. No one actually “deserves” a living – no matter how good they are at what they do.

And like people in other “businesses”, I rather think writers should be prepared to do their bit to persuade the consumer they’re worth investing in. This is one of the things I find so refreshing about developments like Print on Demand technology, and e-readers that will allow anyone who can create a pdf to get their work out there – it gives “the many” a CHANCE, if they are good enough and know what they’re doing, to break some glass ceilings. And if “the few” really are as good as the closed shop system proclaims them to be then surely 1. They have nothing to worry about and 2. They will actually benefit from the increased debate about, and interest in, literature. I’ll finish with a final observation from my days in flooring. Many shops used to live in mortal fear of Allied Carpets or Topps Tiles opening up down the road. The good independent showrooms used to long for the day an Allied or a Topps would open, because whenever that happened it drew traffic to the area – who soon discovered the independents were better and cheaper.

Hmm, I hope I've made my point in a balanced and non-chippy way. It's an important issue, and I think it's good for people to see several sides of the argument.

Daniel Blythe said...

Of course publishing salaries are paltry - there is even a Facebook group dedicated to their whingeing about how poorly-paid they are. But let us never forget that we published writers, without whom there would be no publishing 'industry', often long for an advance equivalent to some of these 'paltry' salaries.

Emma Darwin said...

Dan (Holloway) my point wasn't that I deserve to be published - though I know exactly the kind of forum-froth you mean - only that if people want to read my books, they're going to HAVE to pay for them, because if I can't earn at least part of my living doing that, then I'll have to earn it doing something else, and the books will go unwritten.

As it is, for virtually every author in the country being published is as much about the gateway to other kinds of writing-related earning - teaching, editorial reports, journalism if I ever had time to pitch and write the stuff - as it is about cheques for advances. But it all hangs on being able to afford the time to write the books in the first place.

I do take the point about competition sometimes helping everyone, if it raises the profile. The stumbling block for the e-reader/POD model, which solves the erstwhile distribution difficulties of self-publishing, is publicity and marketing: it's just incredibly hard to get people to know about a book at all. Hence the power of the bookshop front table, with or without 3-for-2s, and the feelgood tale in the women's mag. It's incredibly hard for anyone except a mainstream publisher to make those happen.

Writing will never be a closed shop because we're all freelance, and, unlike actors, say, we don't work collectively. And it is more possible to combine with other work than some things, and demands almost nothing in space and materials, relative to sculpture, say.

The published/unpublished divide will always seem a gulf to some, and not to others. As far as I'm concerned we're all writers, but there are conversations there's only any point in having with someone who's in the same position as one is oneself, whether it's about the current impossibleness of your toddler, or the frustrations of your books not getting to a festival in time (hasn't happened yet, I hasten to add, but something usually goes slightly wrong). Yes, I know that to the unpublished, and particularly anyone who's just had a rejection, the very fact that I'm doing a festival may seem very bitter (I know, I've been there.) but it's still something I need to moan about, because it's incredibly frustrating. So I may choose to have that conversation where I know it won't tread on anyone's corns. I have friends who've suffered real vitriol in forums when they landed a contract, from members who were perfectly nice till then.

DanielIB - yes, we don't forget. And the proponents of giving away our writing free forget it a lot of the time - even advances are more than nothing. Individually, agents/publishers/booksellers remember - generally the flowers/congrats/respect/photos travel in one direction. Collectively the system doesn't remember often enough.

Dan Holloway said...

Hi Emma, thank you so much for such a detailed response. First, let me say that my points were/are not personal (I haven’t yet read your books, but having clicked through and been intrigued by your website/Facebook group I WILL). Yes, I was thinking about this as I was wandering between offices this morning. I was thinking, I will happily take whatever free downloads I can get of my favourite bands (sorry, if you’ve followed my posts you’ll know I’m fascinated by the lit/music crossover – I’ve been blogging about it this week as well) and authors – BUT I will also pay for anything chargeable they choose to sell, because I know if I don’t they will stop writing/performing. I guess the point I’m making is that if a writer inspires that kind of loyalty then people will pay, and if they don’t then why should they be paid – which I think is a different way of saying what you’re saying – if you don’t get paid the books won’t get written – or not as quickly, anyway.

Yes, it’s the related stuff that makes the money. Traditionally that’s exactly what you mention – I’d add speaking and consulting to that.

On e-reading etc – I’m not disputing how hard it is to get noticed at all – it’s almost impossible. My point is that if an author from outside the mainstream CAN do it, then the fact they’re from outside the mainstream should be neither here nor there IF the readers like her/him.

On the pub/unpub – first I’ll change that to pub/self-pub. Again thinking about music, it’s funny that music fans actively get behind and champion bands who do it themselves – I have an inkling readers would do the same if they came across someone they liked.

The tales you relate of friends being turned on sounds, alas, all too real. And it absolutely (to use the technical phrase) stinks. I know some wonderful, wonderful writers, but I know many more who seem determined to press the self-destruct button by being rude for the sake of it. Envy’s an ugly thing – but what people seem to fail to understand is that exhibiting it just makes it more likely they will carry on being rejected – who wants to work with a boor or a bully? I’ve been running a series on my blog for the past few weeks called “10 commandments for aspiring writers” It’s deliberately a bit provocative, but perhaps you should point your friends’ “friends” to number 7: “Writing is not a zero-sum game – far from making my success LESS likely, your success makes it MORE likely, so cooperation between writers is a good thing.” And whilst they’re at it, number 9: “Networking is about looking for ways to do something FOR people, not get something FROM them.”
I’m certainly not bitter at the thought of you doing a festival – I saw it on your Facebook and thought it was cool I was in someone’s group who was doing Hay (I’m Sandrine Curtesz over there, as many people know – the protag from my last novel, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall).

I guess we will always disagree on giving work away – I’ve blogged about it a lot (as a way of MAKING money not losing it) and I know people get the wrong end of the stick – so I think I’m now at the stage where I want to show people it works as a marketing strategy by doing it (hence the Facebook group The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes). As I’ve said on my blog a few times – I certainly don’t give stuff away to deny anyone else their rightful share of the pie – I just hope they in turn won’t lambast me for doing it when I think it’s the best way for me to get a share of my own.

Richie D said...

What an excellent discussion here. Thanks to everyone for raising such interesting points!

none said...

I'd totally pay a tax on second-hand clothes (not that I buy clothes unless I absolutely HAVE to) if it went to the machinist(s). Just sayin'.

Did Bloomsbury object to the removal of the Net Book Agreement? If not, I have no sympathy with them over the discounting of Harry Potter books. Sorry! Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.

Nicola Morgan said...

You may wonder why the person who started all this off has gone very quiet! I've been on trains for the last couple of days and while I've been able to read your comments, posting replies was impossible on the hopeless gadget I was using. Anyone want a netbook???

Anyway, this has been a great discussion and you've all pretty much said everything between you. Thanks, jane, for asking me to write the piece.

Can I just briefly pick up a few points?

Dan H - totally agree that we don't want to get tangled up with heavy DRM, as the music industry did. Ypur first comment is pretty much exactly what I'm saying - authors need to understand and flex their muscles, but only in the right way. In your later comments you go onto POD/self-publishing/closed shops and i agree with you much less there, but since it's not relevant to this, I won't waste space here!

Re control for authors - this is EXACTLY what I'm talking about. That's why I am not against secondhand bookselling per se, just the loss of control that has been created.

Emma - completely agree with all your points. You took up the argument brilliantly in my absence. And as several people have hinted, it does put a different complexion on things when you ARE a published author, which is why Dan H's point of view becomes different from yours/mine later on.

Someone mentioned royalties on secondhand books - though it's an attractive idea in some theoretical ways, I decided not to push for that. I think it's unworkable. A tax on secondhand books sounds good on paper but I don't imagine it would ever get through Parliament. (Unless on an expense form ...)

Catdownunder - you mentioned re the Irish tax break system - my own view is that it makes authors feel like special cases in the wrong way. Totally agree with your other point though.

elladk - it is perfectly possible for the second book of a trilogy to be OP (out of print) - if the print-run ran out and they decided not to reprint because sales were too slow (which would be why the 3rd one would still be available, cos no one bought it...)

Brian Clegg - yes, many are review copies but many are not; many are new, and no one knows how they got there. IF (big if) they have been returned to publishers from bookshops (in which case publishers won't sell them as new), this is a PROBLEM, because the royalty will not have gone to the author, of if it had, the author will have to return it (it will be deducted from next royalty statement). So, the author has never made money on those books, but someone has.

Susan Helene Gottfried and Lisa - er, this is what I already made very clear: that I have no problem with the idea that secondhand bookselling can create new readers, in exactly the way you say. So you're actually not disagreeing! It's a very good reason for passing books around. But it has become something way more than that.

BuffyS - abs right re cost/time of getting to library. There's a scheme that gets round that and I will try to remember the name and tell you about it.

Buffys and RR Jones - no, I'm not asking you to beat yourselves up or feel guilty! The point of "Fair Reading" is about understanding the issues and the consequences. And that's what every one of you has done - it's about making informed choices about book purchasing. It's not about me hectoring anyone. But anyone who agrees with me at all, if you could gently spread the word when the topic comes up in conversation, you'll be doing a lot of good.

Sorry i haven't picked all the points up - great discussion. Thanks for joining in! Excuse any typos - am zonked from too much coffee on train

none said...

We did wonder where you'd got to :).

A tax on second-hand book sales may sound unlikely, but the Public Lending Right did too, before it was brought in. Personally I see the first as a logical extension of the second. But Parliament is too busy imploding atm, I guess!

(word ver: dabomm)

Dan Holloway said...

Thanks for getting back Nicola. At the risk of sounding flippant and off-topic, my wife and I have been debating whta to do about finally taking the plunge and investing in technology we can't afford, and whetehr to get a netbook that we kind of can't afford, or a laptop that we totally can't afford - I think you've brought us one step closer to a conclusion :-)

Nicola Morgan said...

BuffyS - good point, but I think that the word "tax" is a hard one to sell. Very hard to see how it could be implemented, too - except through the VAT system, but we don't want VAT on books ... I'd love to see an economist (which rules me out very firmly!) work this through and present arguments for and against. I'd fight for it if I fully understood the implications. What I don't want to do is have authors seeming like whingers - what want is have an environment in which we can flourish without state help. That means being able to earn properly from our work and not having the world think that words should be free. That's where I want to focus my energies: education of the public as to WHY authors need to earn reasonably.

DanH - I do know people (well, one!) who love their netbooks. But I cannot cope with the keyboard. I've had mine replaced because they did agree it was faulty, but it's not much better. I have to HIT the keys, and because the keys are small, I frequently (virtually every word) HIT two at a time. The most I can cope with is writing a v short email, which I preface with: "pls xcus lots f mstks - am on crppy kybord". I use a laptop as my only other computer and I love it - would never go back to big lumping desktop. So, I'd recommend you get a medium-sized laptop and carry it around if necessary - after all, you'll be at your desk much more than you'll be on a train, and trains are not good typing places anyway. Good luck!

Dan Holloway said...


On the tax question, I was thinking about this recently (I may have commented or I may have blogged, I lose track), wondering whether the word it might be apposite for writers to use (got it! it was in the messageboard plagiarism thingy) isn't tax, or royalty, but licence. There are all sorts of software applictaions, manufactured items and the like for which people are only too happy to pay a repeat fee for the "licence" - I wonder if writers could start constructing a model on these lines.

none said...

You're probably right about that evil word "tax", and we certainly do not want VAT on books! but all businesses pay tax on their income (at least that's the theory...). I suspect it wouldn't be hard to divert part of that into the PLR.

But, as you say, we need an expert opinion.

Will said...

There's no dissent from me on a bit of moaning about the damage the industrial scale 'charities' do to competition.

But the rest of it sounds like load of sad old whining.

A book is an object, which you can buy, and therefore can sell.

The endless attempts by content providers and their alleged representatives to get people to buy stuff which it can then be claimed they don't actually own is immensely irritating.

If you want people to pay 7.99 for a crappily produced paperback printed in fuzzy grey ink on fluffy grey paper with a spine that splits on the first reading, then you might have to put up with them thinking that they do at least own the horrible object after handing over the dosh.

The revolution in comms and computing as spawned a bazillion tiny software author-publishers, all selling direct and taking the full margin on their products. Hundreds of imaginative solutions to the problems of copying have been invented, with enough success to allow viable business to operate.

It's ironic that the nerds have successfully applied their imaginations to take advantage of new opportunities, while the so-called imaginative artistic types are left wringing their hands over their scruffy old ways of doing business.

At no point in human history has it been easier or cheaper for authors to transfer words and ideas from their minds into those of their readers. All the crappy nonsense with paper and shops and distribution is a by-product of mechanical difficulties which used to encumber you but now needn't.

Leave the publishers to sell their ever-dwindling piles of paper, and get back to dealing in words and ideas.

Mosher said...

Actually, this has always puzzled me. Pick up any book (I assume this varies from country to country - this is from the UK) and check the copyright bumph in the front:

"This book is sold subject to the condition that is shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out [...] without the publisher's prior consent..."

So doesn't that make second-hand sales illegal?

Of course, you're then into the territory of such warnings not being easily-spotted until *after* purchase (like confidentiality message in email signatures *after* you've read the message), but still... Technically Penguin could have any second-hand shop closed for illegally selling their books.

JP_Fife said...

I refer the Honorable Gentleman Mosher to my previous statement. First sale Doctrine gives people the right to sell on books, although the publisher statement (and during the eighties and nineties 'retrieval system' was added to some books) does seem to imply people can't do this no company can remove statutory rights from the consumer - although many try.

Mosher said...

Thanks, JP - does make you wonder why they bother to put it in there, though, if it's effectively meaningless.

Does this mean it's also legal to show a DVD on an oil rig even though the (lengthy) copyright at the begining of that says that you can't either?

JP_Fife said...

"Does this mean it's also legal to show a DVD on an oil rig even though the (lengthy) copyright at the begining of that says that you can't either?"

It might not be legal but I'd pay good money to watch a suit go on an oil rig and tell them not to do it.

AnneMarie Brear said...

Excellent post!
I've been trying to send out the same message!

miss pitch said...

I agree with everything Nicola has said here, and she has said it brilliantly and comprehensively. It only leaves me to say that I have been on the end of the telephone to authors who haven't been paid money they are rightly owed on new book sales. Money they need, to buy food.

These are not people at the bottom of the sales charts either. They are people who've made the commitment to write full time and need to get paid. Second-hand book sales of the types discussed above are an abuse of their hard work and some of the instances are tantamount to theft.