Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Should Authors Get Royalties for Second-hand Book Sales?

The idea of paying authors royalties for their books even when sold second-hand is not new. It was suggested by A.S.Byatt in 2005 and she was certainly not the first. Authors struggled for decades to get Public Lending Rights, that reward them for the fact that millions may be reading their books through a public library. But what about the secondhand book market? Isn't it fair that authors should get something for this hidden readership as well? At the moment, when the sales of a book are calculated, it's only the sales made by the publisher that count.

      The main objection to the idea is to say that it would be impractical. Objectors complain about the cost of the extra accounting and the "burden of compliance." They paint a ridiculous picture of  the police having to snoop over every secondhand book stall. Come on  - we live in a computerized age. It wouldn't be that difficult to put aside a percentage for the author from each transaction.

       And there are other approaches. In 2007, Helen de Witt, author of the best-selling novel The Last Samurai, felt so strongly that she deserved some royalties from second-hand sales that she set up a special Paypal link for purchasers to send her a direct payment. She argued that such a system would enable authors to earn their living while reducing the amount of paper copies needed, as the same ones can be circulated and re-used. This would be good for the environment. She tried to get the Society of Authors and the Authors' Guild to take up her idea and campaign for it, but they didn't seem enthusiastic.

      It has been objected that many of the sales of second-hand books are made through charity shops and therefore to allocate anything to the author would be to rob the beneficiaries. This is feeble excuse. We are only talking about a very small percentage  - royalties are often 5% or less  - and it would be easy to exempt charity shops if the accounting was too burdensome for them. Since each Oxfam bookshop makes about £175,000 per year and has no salaries or business rates to pay, is it fair for them to pay the authors nothing at all?
     The case is even stronger when you come to consider the economics of internet book-dealing. Amazon.com and its subsidiaries sell millions of books each week, about 25% of all the books sold in this country. Amazon owns the once-independent concern Abebooks. They pay far less in overheads than a traditional bookshop. It has been said of Amazon that "its whole business model is built around tax avoidance". The Ethical Consumer website even suggests boycotting it until it starts to pay corporation tax.
      On Amazon.com the same book can be listed side-by-side as new or "used" and there is nothing to stop you from buying it new then re-listing it for sale as soon as you have read it. This is what originally annoyed A.S. Byatt. She found that her latest novels were being listed on Amazon at a alongside second-hand copies at a lower price, within a few weeks of publication, and this discouraged people from buying the book new. By re-selling a book, the reader can get back a lot of the purchase price - but the author gets no royalties on the second, third or subsequent sales. Is this fair? I think not. Amazon makes a margin of profit on each transaction. So does the Post Office, and the author is the only one who doesn't. Bear in mind that most authors get very little money for a first run, and you begin to see the unfairness of it more starkly.
      There would be nothing impractical, difficult or fiddly about requiring Amazon and similar book-websites to automatically reserve a small percentage of the price paid for each secondhand-book, for the author. It would mean making a distinction between books by long-dead writers and those by authors who are alive or whose heirs are still entitled to benefit from their estate. But that would not be complicated in this cybernetic age. Amazon.com already offers authors the facility of a personal page on the site. All that would be needed would be for authors to register on it when they wished to claim this royalty on secondhand sales, and provide an account to pay it into. It could be paid automatically. The same could be done on other secondhand book websites, such as Alibris. It would be fairer than the present system, and it is high time that the Society of Authors took up this cause and campaigned for it seriously.
  >>>  I have now set up an online petition about this and I am happy to say that at yesterday's meeting of the Oxford branch of the Society of Authors, ten writers, including Brian Aldiss, endorsed the paper petition.


This policy has already been adopted by several European countries and is found in Article 14b of the Berne convention.





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