Should Authors Get a Percentage of Used Book Sales?

It was bad enough when Amazon offered customers the opportunity to buy lower priced, used copies from second-hand booksellers on the same page as the new books they were selling. Now it’s even worse.

I was dismayed today to discover that Amazon is selling remainder copies of  MR. MONK AND THE TWO ASSISTANTS on the same page as the full-priced hard-cover and the new paperback release, which comes out tomorrow.

I can’t say I’m too happy about this. Amazon is costing me money…but even so, I’m not sure that I’m ready to support an effort to legislate a cut for authors of second-hand sales.

Novelists Inc, a non-profit organization of multiply-published novelists, is advocating a rewrite of the copyright laws that would force second-hand booksellers to pay authors a percentage of the cover price for any book that’s resold within two years of its original publication.

NINC recommends that commercial used-book sellers be
  required to pay to publishers a “Secondary Sale”  fee
  upon the reselling of any book within two years of its original publication
  date. A percentage of these fees would then transfer to authors in accordance
  with contractual agreements between authors and publishers, thereby reinforcing
  the Founders’ intent, as stated in Article I of the Constitution, to
  protect authors’ exclusive right to benefit from their work.

Ninc further recommends that the fee paid to publishers and
  authors would be some fair percentage of the cover price of the individual
  book.  While
  it has been argued in the past that such a fee would unduly burden used-book
  sellers by increasing administrative tasks, that argument is rapidly becoming
  moot. Today, the largest sellers of used books have a strong Internet presence,
  allow Internet-based sales transactions, and maintain records of their sales
  and inventories, at least in part, by using ISBN numbers, as do other booksellers.
  The use of ISBN numbers to track sales is the same process whether it is being
  used by a used-book seller or a seller of new releases, and makes the payment
  of a fee a simple matter when calculated and transacted electronically. 

I’m feeling the pain of lost royalties, but I’m not sure that the proposed legislation is a good idea. What’s next? Should we insist that people pay a percentage on any CDs, DVDs, sofas, and cars that are re-sold within two years of their original release?

I have heard it argued that asking for a percentage of subsequent sales is no different than, for example, artists getting royalties on the reruns of TV shows. As someone who straddles both fields — publishing and screenwriting — I see a big difference.

In the case of a TV show, I am writing the script for the studio, which then exploits that product in many different ways  — licensing it to a network for broadcast, licensing it to a cable network for re-broadcast, selling it on DVDs, etc. In almost all of those scenarios, the studio retains ownership of the product. They are, in effect, lending it to someone else and sharing in the proceeds of this alternative exploitation of the product.  As an artist, I share in whatever the studio gets, no matter how it is exploited.

But there’s a difference between exploitation and consumption. When the studio sells the show to a consumer as a DVD, I get a share of the sale price.  The consumer owns the DVD  itself (though not the copyrighted content that it contains). If the consumer decides to resell the  DVD,  the studio gets nothing from that sale and neither do I.  The consumer paid for the DVD, he should have the right to resell that physical object if he pleases. That seems reasonable to me…even though I am losing money in all kinds of ways as a result. But I also believe in basic consumer rights and simple capitalism.

The DVD example is much closer to how things are with books.

In the case of a book, I write a novel for a publisher, which then exploits that product in many different ways — hard cover publication, paperback publication, e-book publication, foreign language publication, audio books, etc. In all those scenarios, the publisher retains control of the product (for a limited time as determined by my contract). I share in whatever proceeds they get. When a consumer buys a book, I get a share of the sale price. That’s end of the revenue stream for the publisher and for me, too. The consumer owns the book itself, though not the copyrighted content. As it stands now, and as it has for centuries, once you buy a book, that physical object is yours to do with as you please. You might not own the content, but you own the book itself.

I can certainly see the huge benefits for writers, and the publishing industry,  in the proposed two-year/shared proceeds legislation…but as someone who loves to buy used books, I can also see how it could unfairly infringe on consumer rights, inhibit capitalism in its simplest form, and how it could set a dangerous precedent that could be extended to other products.

What do you think?

36 thoughts on “Should Authors Get a Percentage of Used Book Sales?”

  1. I think it could drive the final nail into the coffin of the independent bookseller. They already cannot compete with the chains’ inventory or discounts. Used book sales have traditionally been a low-overhead source of revenue that have helped offset dips in new book sales. If the sellers have to kick in royalties for those sales, they are likely to just chuck the business. Further, what about library sales, rummage sales, private E-bay sales, or those paperback exchanges in bus stations and marinas?
    Also, I suspect that used-book sales benefit authors who are continuing to write, by introducing new readers to that author’s work at a lower price.

  2. Used bookstores have been around forever, and NOW all of a sudden there an issue? I understand the thoughts behind it, I truly do, but when I was a kid, the second-hand store was the prime source for books one couldn’t find anywhere else.
    If it wasn’t for used book stores, I wouldn’t have about 85% of my Saint collection, I’d have never completed THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. series from Ace Books, and I wouldn’t own British editions of the James Bond novels.
    I have to agree with Danny; if this one gathers any steam, it will be the end of the Independent Stores. Amazon and the Big Stores will be all there is.

  3. I’m intrigued by the idea. I understand that a royalty might hurt indies, but there comes a time when we authors have to think solely of ourselves. First, let us make a little money. Then we can share.

  4. Seems to me like a bad idea. Lots of stores that sell used books are shoestring operations. The owners couldn’t afford the bookkeeping needed. They’d either ignore the law or give up and close their doors. Who’s going to police the people selling on eBay?

  5. It will only hurt the book sale industry in the long run and will most likely drive many indie booksellers out of business (my favorite local indie used bookshop is struggling to stay afloat as it is).
    I also know that I would be buying less and less books, as most of my shopping is done in second hand stores and such, because, more often than not, I simply cannot afford the luxury of new books.

  6. It will never happen, nor should it. A person is free to do whatever they hell they want with a book once they buy it. Read it, sell it, throw it away, or wipe their ass with the pages. It’s nobody’s business.

  7. One difference between DVDs and books that I see is that some books, like category romances, have a limited shelf life, and used book sales can make a significant dent in sales. This can impact any future contracts, assuming they’re offered.
    I think there’s a difference in the short and long-term impact of sales figures. Does the # of copies sold of a particular DVD have any impact at all on whether a writer is chosen to write more episodes of a show? Because another difference I see is that sales figures stick to book writers like credit reports. Any resolution to the used book issue may be a work in progress, but I can see where those sales could have a greater impact on a writer of books than a writer of scripts.
    I would like to see a way devised to track used book sales because in the long run, it can be used as a tool to help writers. If a publisher sees that a writer has an active, large used book presence, that may give them more of a clue as to a writer’s popularity, and possibly lead to further work.

  8. I think it would get more books pulped as the resellers avoid the accounting headaches and bypass the remaindered material as a rule. Then who wins?
    Since most publishers do not know how to handle the e-rights to books, is there a time when the writers should own and exploit the digital aspects on their own?

  9. Danny,
    Novelists Inc. quotes a study that shows the used book business is booming:
    As technology advances, the used-book industry grows, with used copies of books being made available with increasing speed after a book’s initial publication. Subsequently, readers have become more willing to purchase recent releases from used-book sources rather than to purchase a book new. Evidence shows that this trend is growing rapidly. As both publishers and authors derive their income from the sale of new books only, the ultimate effect that this market trend will have on the industry will be that both authors and publishers will see—arguably are already seeing—significant declines in income, making creative endeavors difficult to pursue.
    Authors are particularly harmed by this trend as sales of used books, including immediate resales of brand-new releases, are not included in publishers’ calculations of sales figures. Irrespective of the enthusiasm for an author’s work in the used market, diminished sales of his or her new books provide publishers with a negatively skewed perception of the popularity of that author’s work.
    Given that new contracts are typically and heavily based on past sales performance, poor sales of new or even backlist titles lead inevitably to a reduced likelihood of future book contracts for an author. This is a trend that is already affecting not just the fiction market, but all market sectors of the book publishing industry. As such, this can only lead to an eventual but substantial decrease in the amount and variety of books published and available to the public. The detriment to society over time is incalculable.
    In 2005, in an effort to understand the used-book industry and its scope, the Book Industry Study Group, Inc. (BISG) hired a consulting firm to conduct an in-depth study of used-book sales and the used-book industry in the United States. The study indicated that the negative effect of used-book sales on the book publishing industry is growing rapidly and bears serious consideration.
    Today, used copies of a book are frequently available simultaneously with the book’s initial publication; indeed, it is not uncommon for used versions of new titles to be available for sale on the Internet prior to the book’s initial release date. According to the BISG study, high-volume booksellers, defined as selling a minimum of 25,000 units per year, typically had used copies of a new fiction title available within two months of its release, and low-volume sellers, defined as selling fewer than 1,000 units per year, typically had them available within 17.9 months of release.
    The study concluded that “availability is a critical issue for the used-book market. To the extent that customers have timely access to desired titles at competitive prices, the used-book market will continue to grow.” If the growth trend continues as the industry matures, even if it grows at progressively slower rates than it has shown in previous years, the resulting revenue stream from internet used-book sales, a stream that entirely bypasses the books’ creators, will be enormous.
    “The study described the used-book market as “exploding” and estimated that in the U.S. in 2004, “total used book revenue exceeded $2.2 billion and that 111 million used-book units were sold, up 11 percent over 2003”. It went on to state that online sales of used books in the U.S. reached $609 million in 2004, which is an increase of 33 percent from 2003.”
    Okay, me again…
    The Secondary Sales fee would only cover books resold within two years of their original pub date and the proposed legislation specifically excludes library sales/resales.
    I’m not saying I support this idea, but I see both sides…

  10. The argument of whether the initial publishers or authors should or should not get proceeds from the sale of used books is strictly academic, because the entire concept is legally flawed. A book, or DVD, is a physical product, even though it may contain copyrighted materials. While copyright laws may affect the ability of the owner of the product to reproduce or otherwise infringe upon the copyright, the physical product is no different than any other physical product in the universe, be it a rock or a basketball. That physical product is subject to basic and longstanding ownership laws, both when it is owned by the publisher and sold as a new product, and when it is resold by downstream buyer as a used product.

  11. As the chair of the Novelists’ Inc committee that came up with the position paper on used book sales you quote from, I would like to note that we stipulate that the royalties paid to authors for used books would be only for TWO YEARS after the copyright date. There would be no royalties paid after the two-year limit. Joan Wolf

  12. Lee, it’s a convincing argument, I think. It’s one thing if someone is making a selling illegal copies, another if they are passing off their own property.
    I don’t think there was a problem with used book sales until it hit the Internet and made it seem like it was competing with new sales, however, I stopped worrying based on my own buying habits — even on Amazon, I think very few people opt to buy the used books early on in a new book’s release, simply because of the shipping incentive — I’ve had used sellers there charge as much as the cost of a book to ship it. It’s cheaper to buy new and take advantage of free shipping. Even cheaper to seek out an ebook. Now that even out of print books or out of stock books could be “kindled” used book prices become even less of a deal, at least on the net.
    Bricks and mortar are different, and I don’t honestly think they are a threat, and in fact, they probably bring us plenty of new readers.
    My real resentment is with mass-trade sites like, which boasts over 1 million books available, many of them romance. Lets try to close these down – but we can’t since they operate on the same principle you lay out — it’s their property to do with as they please. But shouldn’t there be some kind of limit on that? At what point is lending a “business,” even if not one of dollar profit?
    Again, sharing a book with your friend or relatives or even putting it in a garage sale, no big. But now you have readers opening large public lending sites where they will lend your books to God knows how many people. Adding insult to injury, these sometimes books they didn’t buy — they may troll the net looking to win contests, then swapping free books for free books.
    In the end, I think it all adds up to making it harder on all of us to make a living, but personally I would rather target free swapping sites than used bookstores.

  13. “But now you have readers opening large public lending sites where they will lend your books to God knows how many people.”
    Wait a minute, I’ve heard of those… What are they called again?
    Oh yeah… libraries. Damn those libraries!

  14. I say no to the legislation too. I think it would kill the small bookstores and having to check a copyright date to see if the book was covered would get ridiculous.
    And what about libraries? How many hundreds of people just use the library and don’t bother buying? You could argue that’s taking away sales too.

  15. Changing the copyright laws might temporarily force the biggest mass-sellers to pay some royalties on used books, but overall it would be like forcing all fish to swim upstream when everyone knows only the biggest salmon are strong enough to climb the waterfalls.
    And it’s doubtful to me that many publishers will try to warehouse the remainders for two years to avoid paying royalties, so their options then become limited to four: 1) black-marketing; 2) pulping; 3) smaller print-runs; and 4) POD.
    Maybe disappearing ink is the key to destroying the threat of used book sales. Copyright laws won’t have any teeth for the fight, I’m sure.

  16. Daisyj,
    The hardcover edition of MR. MONK AND THE TWO ASSISTANTS came out in June…Amazon is selling remaindered copies of that book. It’s the *paperback* that just came out today.
    That said, I was unaware that the book had been remaindered before I stumbled on to the Amazon “bargain books” sale. Ordinarily, the publisher is supposed to inform the author before a book is remaindered and offer him the opportunity to buy books at a discount price. Since I wasn’t notified, I am wondering if these are overstock copies that Amazon, for whatever reason, either can’t return or is choosing not to.

  17. Richard,
    I am in no way arguing for the legislation, but I think you misread the position paper and misunderstand how the remainder side of publishing works now.
    You write: “And it’s doubtful to me that many publishers will try to warehouse the remainders for two years to avoid paying royalties, so their options then become limited to four: 1) black-marketing; 2) pulping; 3) smaller print-runs; and 4) POD.”
    Why would the publishers want to avoid paying royalties? This proposed legislation would be a win for them, too.
    As it stands now, publishers sell remaindered books to companies that specialize in distributing overstock/hurt books to independant booksellers and other parties. The remainder market is a industry until itself — they even have a massive, annual sales convention called CIROBE that’s held every year in Chicago (see
    The publishers take a massive loss when they sell remainders…which they often do in bulk, selling books by the ton, and genre, as opposed to by titles or authors.
    Under the proposed legislation, publishers would not only make money selling the remainders, they would also share in the royalties (along with the authors) for two years from the original pub date.

  18. In the July 28, 2005 edition of the New York Times, UC Berkeley economics professor Hal R. Varian analysed the impact sales of used books have on new books. Here are the money quotes:
    “When used books are substituted for new ones, the seller faces competition from the secondhand market, reducing the price it can set for new books. But there’s another effect: the presence of a market for used books makes consumers more willing to buy new books, because they can easily dispose of them later.
    But Mr. Bezos is not foolish. Used books, the economists found, are not strong substitutes for new books. An increase of 10 percent in new book prices would raise used sales by less than 1 percent. In economics jargon, the cross-price elasticity of demand is small.
    One plausible explanation of this finding is that there are two distinct types of buyers: some purchase only new books, while others are quite happy to buy used books. As a result, the used market does not have a big impact in terms of lost sales in the new market.
    Applying the authors’ estimate of the displaced sales effect to Amazon’s sales, it appears that only about 16 percent of the used book sales directly cannibalized new book sales.”

  19. Wait a minute, I’ve heard of those… What are they called again?
    Oh yeah… libraries. Damn those libraries!
    The internet lending sites are libraries writ large. No waiting list for your book, and it gets shipped right to your home.
    And fwiw, it’s my understanding that in the UK, libraries do pay fees to authors when their books are borrowed. It’s called the PLR–Public Lending Right.
    At the bottom of the page.

  20. //But now you have readers opening large public lending sites where they will lend your books to God knows how many people.”
    Wait a minute, I’ve heard of those… What are they called again?
    Oh yeah… libraries. Damn those libraries!//
    Thanks for your sarcasm, very entertaining, but do you really see reader-based swap sites in the same light as a public library? For one thing, local libraries are relatively limited by geography, and the internet isn’t. Most carry the new, best selling paperback books, but not many current category novels and paperbacks, because of the short shelf life – I don’t think I’ve seen any current paperback romances at my local library.
    I don’t believe that they do anywhere near the damage to paperback writers’ incomes and sales numbers that swap sites have the potential to do.
    FWIW. Sheesh.

  21. Oh, and additionally, libraries often carry one, maybe two, copies of a book that is available to whoever wants it — I’ve sometimes waited weeks for a new book from a library — far different from 100 people joining in a mass swap, where some authors who are massively traded could lose big bucks on new books sales.
    Sorry, I knew there was one more thing I wanted to mention.

  22. David,
    The proposed legislation specifically *excludes* libraries from having to pay royalties on the sales of used books (for books resold within two years of their original publication). I think the “lending” that Novelists Inc is referring to is some sort of massive, internet book-lending program …something which, by the way, I was unaware of until reading the Novelists Inc position paper.
    The more I think about this proposed legislation, the more I think it’s a bad idea. My wife, on the other hand, argues persuasively why it’s something writers should support…

  23. Lee,
    Is it possible that this book being a tie-in had something to do with you not being notified? Perhaps Amazon notified the “author”, as in the “rights holder/studio”, instead of the author, as in the person who wrote the book.
    Just a thought – M

  24. But what’s the fundamental different between a public library and a book trading site? They both provide the same service. Why support one and oppose the other?
    (The reason, of course, is that nobody wants to go on record opposing libraries.)

  25. Technology has trumped copyright. It is no longer possible for the owners of artistic property to protect their work. Music, publishing, and the motion picture industry have all felt the impact of major expropriation by digital and other means. There are no solutions.

  26. While I love to buy new books, I admit I wouldn’t have half of my library if I had to pay full price. Also, I mark up nonfiction a LOT when I read, so it only makes sense to buy used copies to scribble in. Fiction is different. With the incentive on Amazon to ship free over $25, I usually wait until I have enough books to go over that amount and then order my fiction new. Saving the shipping saves a lot–whether you buy used or new. I understand better why more and more of my own published books come out in paperback originals–they fall apart faster and have to be ordered new instead of being sold as used!
    Kristi Holl

  27. Our library must be an exception to the rule then, because they seem to get just about everything and they’ll also take requests. I’ve done that a few times if I wasn’t sure a book was going to be worth getting.
    I use Amazon for books that are out-of-print or would just be a special order anyway, but I usually hit my local stores for new books.

  28. “But what’s the fundamental different between a public library and a book trading site? They both provide the same service. Why support one and oppose the other?”
    It’s been stated in replies twice. Size and scope. Even the biggest public libraries serve only portions of a large metropolitan area. Outreach is a little greater if you count library networks that cross-lend, but there’s still no match for a book trading site can cover entire countries.

  29. That’s largely a meaningless distinction. Libraries provide free books for lending on a vastly larger scale than any internet site could dream of. The fact that any given library lends fewer books doesn’t really matter, especially when their cumulative impact is far greater. A recent PEW study reported that half of all Americans visited a library last year — that’s 150 million people. How many visited a book trading website?
    If you’re opposed to people lending each other books for free, how can you only oppose it when it’s done on the internet? That doesn’t make any sense. (And how on earth could you make it a crime for people to do so?)

  30. Lee,
    I was under the impression that your tie-in work was work-for-hire rather than royalty based. Isn’t that still common? Also as you mention, if they are really remaindering the hardbacks already, I assume you have a legal claim against the publisher since your contract should contain the clause about buying the remainders yourself at a reduced price.

  31. Frank,
    I get an advance and royalties for my tie-in work and I know many other writers who do, too. But there are a lot of tie-ins being done out there under work-for-hire contracts.
    I have just learned from my publisher that my book has not been remaindered…and that they are looking into why bargain copies are being sold on Amazon.

  32. Royalties on used books,even within the two year time frame, would ultimately cost some writers in the long run. Because of my situation, if I see a writer that looks interesting, I’ll buy a couple of used books to check him/her out. If I like what I read, I become a fan and buy new books by said author as they come out. I can’t afford to take a chance with new books and not like them. A number of writers I buy new started with me like that. Lee, you’re one of them. I purchased a couple of your old books used, liked them, and now buy every new book of yours as it’s published. I have all your fiction. If it wasn’t for used books, I probably wouldn’t have read any of your books.

  33. I’m pretty late coming to this whole issue, having only just found out (and blogged) about it, but there’s this thing we’ve had in the United States for exactly 100 years this year: the Doctrine of First Sale, which states that the creator of something only has control over the first sale of it. Once someone’s bought it, they can do whatever the heck they please with it as long as they don’t violate any other laws by doing so.
    If I buy a copy of a book, I can turn around and resell it, I can donate it to a library, I can mail it to a friend, I can send it through a book-swapping site—the possibilities are endless. This is my right as a consumer.
    Imposing even a limited two-year term for additional royalties would place an immense burden upon used bookstores who are barely making ends meet as it is. It would require them to spend a lot of money on bookkeeping to track things they’ve never had to track before, or else drive them out of business altogether—and even if they stay in business, they would then have to pass those costs on to the consumers.
    And as a rule, the people who buy used books do so because they can’t afford to buy new ones. Why on earth make them have to pay more for the few books they can afford in an era when people are already lamenting the death of reading?


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