Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Traditionally the used book store has been a dusty little place of shelves crammed tight with books, generally off the beaten path and quite unlike the new book store with its bright lights and carefully arranged shelves of pristine copies. But with the advent of the online bookstore, the distinction between sellers of new and used books has blurred.'s Marketplace program enables used-book sellers to sell right on the same page as the new books Amazon itself is selling, thus allowing used books to compete directly with new ones.

As a result, there has been increasing concern that the sales of used books are depriving authors of their rightful royalties. After all, if a person can surf onto Amazon's webpage and find the same title that is sold brand new by Amazon itself sold instead for half or a quarter that price by a used-book seller, it would seem obvious that people would be likely to buy the cheaper one. Thus an organization called Novelists, Inc. has begun pressuring lawmakers to require used book sellers to remit royalties on each book sold, or at least books published in the last two years.

Paul Biba of TeleRead has suggested that requiring used-book dealers to pay royalties could have surprising consequences, including making books even less available to the poorest decile of the population, for whom used books and other inexpensive reading options, including libraries, are often the only way to obtain books at all.

In fact, I would suggest that he has not gone far enough in his discussion of the unintended consequences. In fact, it's very likely that the necessary overhead in recordkeeping could actually kill the secondary market for books altogether. Most used-book dealers operate on very narrow margins, often on a mom-and-pop basis. The sellers aren't getting rich, and often are barely scraping by. And that's just sellers who specialize in books. The generalist secondhand store will decide to no longer carry books at all, even those that are well beyond the two-year limit, for the simple reason that ensuring that nothing recent slips in by mistake is too much of a hassle. Thrift stores such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army will also find it impossible to justify such overhead, and will decline to accept book donations, thus hitting the poor twice -- by eliminating a source of very low-cost books and by the loss of the revenue those sales generate that are then applied to various good works.

In a world where royalties must be collected on (recent) used books, only the largest used-book dealerships and a few specialist collectible bookstores would be able to stay in business. Otherwise, the only venues at which used books would be found would be garage sales, which generally fly under the regulatory radar altogether. Most books that are no longer wanted by their owners would most likely go straight to the trash, needlessly burdening landfills and resulting in further resource destruction as trees have to be pulped to produce new copies. Worse, many old and out-of-print books would become even more difficult to find, making it even more likely that their authors become forgotten altogether.

Which means that what is intended to help authors get more money will instead result in many authors losing out altogether.

Correction The actual article is by Chris Meadows -- Paul Biba is the overall site owner, who has various guest writers posting as well.


Chris Meadows said...

FYI, Paul Biba is the head of the site, but I'm the one who actually wrote the piece in question.

Chris Meadows said...

Also, I think you'll find I did say:

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.


Anonymous said...

I can't begin to tell you how silly I think that idea is.

Tattercoats said...

Unfortunately many silly ideas get far further than they should, simply by appealing to people's tendency to pursue a short-term gain, even at the expense of long-term gains.

Whether it will do any good to keep pointing up the long-term damage such "make sure writers get every penny of possible royalties they're entitled to" thinking could do to the authors themselves is uncertain, but at least if we keep sounding the alarm, there's hope that enough people will take note to make a difference.