Moral obligations in book buying?

Booksquare has posted a couple of entries on the business of book buying and the fairness or ethics involved. Rather than leaving long comments in the posts I thought I would pontificate here. That is what having your own blog is all about right?

A few days ago Booksquare discussed the idea of droit de suite (or artist’s resale right) and recommended a simple way to apply this to books:

Because we are not good at math, we’ll keep the numbers simple. Let’s say that a levy of twenty-five cents is imposed on every used book sold (also allowing for certain exceptions to the law, such as charitable institutions, perhaps). Ten cents goes to the author, not subject to reduction by the application of royalties. Ten cents goes to the publishers. Five cents goes to administration – perhaps shared by booksellers and the body overseeing the distribution of funds.

In a more recent post the complaint is raised against a book sharing program on-line discussed in this article. In discussing that issue Booksquare sets out their policy on book buying:

We have simples rules for buying used books: the author must be dead or the book must be out of print or unattainable through normal retail channels. While we rarely borrow books, we do loan them, having learned that all it takes is matching the right reader with the right author for future happiness. In our spare time, we fiddle on roofs.

We do fully realize that our rules don’t work for everyone.

I find Booksquare’s perspective interesting and thought I would share some thoughts. If you are interested you will find them below.

While I can appreciate Booksquare’s interest in assuring that authors get as strong a compensation system as possible (and obviously they can choose to make choices based on their belief about how that system should work) I have a sense that there is a larger issue involved.

Let me start by stating that if authors can work to change the industry in a way that rewards them more fully for their work, more power to them. If it results in better books being written, all the better. But I am sensing Booksquare feel consumers should have some sort of moral obligation in mind when buying books. I think this is rather silly. The obligation to make money, and to organize how said money is made, is on the author, the agent, the publisher, etc. I don’t have an obligation to makes sure the author gets as much money as possible in any given transaction. It isn’t even part of my thought process.

I should obey the law obviously (including copyrights, etc.) but outside of that I fail to see how I need to base my book buying on some assumption or knowledge of how the publishing world works any more than I should choose whether to see a full price movie or go to the dollar theater based on how much a given actor or director makes.

I buy books based on how much I think a given title is worth (ie how badly I want to own/read it. I happen to like new hardback books so I buy a lot of new books. I buy on-line, through book clubs, in chain stores, and in quirky independents. If there is a way to buy books I do it.

But I also shop a lot at discount bookstores where remainders and used books are sold. If someone purchased a brand new hardback and decided they didn’t want it anymore and I can pick it up at Half-Priced Books much cheaper than I could at a store I don’t feel in the least guilty buying that book. It is a matter of setting a price level. If it is either buy the book used or not buy it at all, I would think most authors would choose buy it used. To me this is a good thing, because it means I will be reading authors that I otherwise wouldn’t be (and which could mean buying more of that author’s work in the future). A lot of these works are not easily available in retail stores or are out of print. But some of them are available on-line or in stores.

Booksquare seems to be arguing that book buyers need to buy based on the author’s needs, or some sense of economic equity, rather than based on the consumer’s own sense of the product’s worth. This is neither likely nor rational in my mind. Consumers have their own reasons for the what, why, and how of their shopping. The economic structure of the industry shouldn’t be a factor.

I think there is an irony involved as well. On the surface this issue might seem to pit the two clashing views of the publishing industry, it’s just a business versus it’s all about the work/art. But it seems to me that in neither vision should Booksquare’s concerns (at least about the readers purchasing choices) be an issue. Either literature is art and therefore the author should be happy with more readers, and leave the crude business decisions to someone else, or it is a business and he should expect consumers to make their own economic decisions based on their own needs and desires.

Am I missing something here?

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. All very altruistic but unrealistic. Book swapping is done all the time. I belong to two services on the internet and have traded over twenty books. I don’t have the money to buy books. I also use the public library. Should that be banned also? Authors want their books read.

  2. Great post. The library point is a good one too.

    By way of example, I was buying a couple books for my mother’s birthday, and I saw _Gilead_ for the first time in the flesh as it were. It was about $25, and I would have gotten 10% off that, I think. But somehow $25 feels too much for a book, and _Gilead_ is a small book, so the feeling was stronger. I wouldn’t have gotten it anyway because I don’t think my mom would have enjoyed it; but my feelings are an example of part of the current market. Is $25 a bit steep for a small book? Is $33 too much for a thick one?

    In the same vein, I think $16-17 for a CD is too much, but $10-12 is much better.

  3. Kevin — thanks for the discussion ( and I’m preparing a post featuring another point of view — it requires slogging through a scholarly paper, so writing is slow). You’re right in that I’m taking a moral position on author compensation, but that is a personal issue that came from my long experience in the industry. I don’t take issue with used book sales — they do serve the reading and writing community well — even if I don’t indulge myself. I know far too many authors who have benefitted from new readers finding them via used bookstores to pretend it’s not a valuable tool.

    My issue is (and the article I’m working on addresses this further) is that technology has changed the market. Based on the study noted above, Amazon’s used book market (those sales that were cannibalized from new book sales versus other types of sales) are 15% of book sales. That number is rising. At what point do authors and publishers see diminishing returns? Authors realize that, by and large, they won’t grow rich in this industry, but there must be some way to balance changes in the market with real business needs of authors (publishers are another, long story).

  4. At the risk of sounding ignorant, how do actors/studios, etc. get compensated for video rentals? I would assume that there is some royalty recompence involved. Could there not be a parallel reimbursement process for authors/publishers, etc.?

  5. Pattie, residuals are paid to actors, writers, and directors based on a percentage of video sales (not rentals). That percentage is a point of contention in Hollywood, but the guilds have currently put it on the backburner due to other concessions in contract negotiations. The same group also receives ongoing residuals for television rebroadcasts. Residuals are also paid for commercials, but I’m not terribly familiar with the methodology there. Also, talent and producers receive participations (gross and/or net percentages of proceeds — Eddie Murphy called net participations “monkey points”, but they can be very lucrative, especially in the made-for-television market). In the motion picture industry, these costs are factored into the sales price of DVDs (not so much videos anymore) and factored into the license fees paid by stations (you participate in these costs by virtue of suffering through commercials).

    In the music business, there are ongoing royalties for songwriting and performance. These ongoing fees are paid for by radio stations (supported by commercials or listener pledge drives), bars (factored into drinks), and other venues where copyrighted music is played (even dentist offices pay ASCAP/BMI fees).

    I’m, sadly, incredibly familiar with the various aspects of contingent compensation in the motion picture and music industries, as this is what I did professionally for many years. I’m also familiar with collecting levies of the type I’ve proposed as I had the joy (g) of auditing these types of collections on behalf of the studio. Following the motion picture model for books doesn’t make sense because of the “windows” involved in the distribution. Books get one shot (two if they’re released hardback and paperback). This is why I went with the alternative.

    Brenda — I’m absolutely not opposed to used bookstores or sales. My moral stance is for me and me alone; I realize there are far too many variables to oppose this type of sales outlet. I realize there’s a massive benefit to authors who are discovered via used bookstores. My suggestion was merely that, with the changing business model, it’s time to revisit the compensation process for authors.

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