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:
- that most authors earn very little—according to recent Society of Authors figures (for the UK) two thirds of professional authors earn less than half the average wage;
- that author income is based on a few pence earned on each new book sold;
- that if authors can’t earn from writing, they won’t be able to write, and then we’ll all be the poorer.
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