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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Royalties: Should Used Bookstores Pay Them?

I'm sure this is a subject that has been discussed over and over in the past, but it seems to have been mildly revitalized in the last few months by the blogosphere (such as at Teleread). What has probably driven it out of the wood works, if it was ever there in the first place, is the crash of the economy and the rippling effect that tore through the book industry. Used bookstores, of course, have been hit hard by the economic crisis, with many of our favorite indie used bookstores shutting down and some we thought were secure due to their popularity now shivering in their boots.

But what about those used bookstores that are still around? They're selling loads of second-hand books, tossing around cheaper prices, and undercutting the big guy, right? Sure, but should these stores have to pay royalties to the publishing houses for selling second-hand? Or should things remain as they were? Of course, this excludes stores that also sell new books, since obviously they would have to pay full price for those books anyway. Then again, we don't generally expect to pay half price for a brand new book (well, maybe some of us do).

My personal opinion is that used bookstores shouldn't have to pay royalties for the following reasons:
  • I'm selfish and if I can get an older book for dirt cheap, I'll jump on it.
  • Trying to charge royalties to these stores will shift the cost to the consumer, will shut down most, if not all, of the second-hand industry, and will drastically change the entire structure of the book industry in general, which will have adverse effects on everyone.
  • I see this as a way of latching on to profits that have been lost due to poor marketing or the failures of the industry to sell books. But this is something illogical that is stuck in the back of my head and I am, as of this moment, incapable of quantifying it.
  • The cost of applying a royalty-payment system (for tracking, etc.) will trickle down from both the publishing and second-hand industries to all of us, which could reduce the attractiveness of used bookstores--most will go out of business.
Teleread points out that a lot of people will stop buying books altogether when the cost rises due to economic reasons. This is probably true, at least for a segment of the population. What will most likely happen is that readers will buy fewer books, which, in turn, will cause a fallout in the book industry as independent bookstores drop off the face of the Earth, more people lose their jobs at publishing houses, etc. Perhaps in more economically stable times this would have seemed a "good idea," but I wonder if the folks proposing royalties for used bookstores in the U.S. have considered the ramifications of these ideas in today's society.

All this isn't to say that I don't understand the reasoning behind wanting second-hand stores to pay royalties. I completely get it. But it's also problematic, and I think trying to problematize the book industry further will be far worse than simply adjusting with the times. Besides, second-hand bookstores are already concerned about a future where there will be fewer dead tree books and more electronic books. Sooner or later, I suspect, the second-hand industry will dwindle as newer books fail to get into their stores some ten years after publication. But that's just a guess.

What do you think about all this? Do you think used bookstores should pay royalties?

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  1. Simple response from me - NO. A book is not a performance. The author received royalties on the first sale. Otherwise it leads to a slippery slope such as putting counters on the books and paying a royalty every time the book is read (ridiculous I know).

  2. That's basically what I think. It's just a silly thing to do at this point. Too costly and it's basically saying that you should have to pay someone twice for a product they already sold once...

  3. My opinion: No.

    I search used book stores for the out of print, hard to find, rare, etc. A lot of the authors I'm buying there are dead.

    It doesn't make sense to pay royalties on books like that. The author got paid the first time the book sold, that should be enough.

  4. It'll never happen. Why? Because somehow I doubt they'll start charging people for selling shit at garage sales, or on craigslist, or wherever. And it amounts to the same thing. Neil Gaiman discussed the same issue when it came to audiobooks (I think it was) - basically, he doubts they'll start charging people for every time they read a story to their kids. It's a totally unenforceable option.

  5. Agreed. For one, I can't see a way to actually get those stores to start paying royalties -- as they're not plugged into the same distribution channels as new book stores. Secondly, I love me my used bookstores! That kind of thing would just put them all out of business. How can you afford to pay royalties when you're selling a book for four or five bucks?

  6. acpaul: Agreed.

    Loopdilou: Well, you'd have to shut down garage sales, craigslist would pretty much crumble, and it's just a dumb idea in the first place.

    Cavan: You'd have to charge more, but then what's the point? If a used book in the U.S. is 7.99 new and 5.00 used, and you figure in royalties, the cost of maintaining a royalty system, etc., it will quickly becoming a book that costs almost as much as a new one...

  7. Anonymous12:34 AM

    Yeah, I'm gonna have to say no.
    First off, the books have come from someone who has already (presumably) paid the royalties. I'm not saying authors don't deserve money for their books, but still...
    Secondly, with the economy as it is, this doesn't seem like it would be a good idea. As you've said, a lot of used book stores are already shaking and biting their nails, so to do this would just cause them to shake and tremble and fear further.

  8. Mr. Fusspot: I agree :). Lots of stores would die.