Think back to the last time you went to a used book store. When they checked you out, did they scan the books and track the ISBNs? Did they update their stock on their in-store computers? Or more likely, did they add everything up on an adding machine or pocket calculator? Do I even have to mention that those used book sales can be good for authors by keeping their out of print books in circulation and helping them build a readership? Just thought I’d throw that in.
The impact of secondary sales (i.e. UBSs and online resellers of books) on the publishing business has received lots of attention recently. For instance just take a look here. Now Novelists, Inc. (Ninc) has suggested that USBs pay a “‘Secondary Sale’ fee” on used books sold in a UBS within two years of its publication date. Ninc. is a well known organization that has supported published novelists since its founding in 1989. Unlike some similar organizations, writers must qualify to join. So you’d think they’d have more business sense. Not only would this involve changing the law — it would also create a logistical nightmare.
I’ve spent money at a lot of UBSs. Some of these stores had computerized inventory systems, but most had no inventory or tracking systems — other than the owner’s brain. How are they supposed track these sales? Ninc suggests using ISBNs to track this information. So stores would have to track ISBNs, not to mention the date of publication as well as the date of sale. Finally, they would have to calculate a percentage of the sale and send that to the copyright holder. How? In almost all cases, copyrights are held by the authors. Are UBSs expected to know how to contact the author? Are they expected to send authors checks for what could be paltry amounts, such as 25 cents? They might be asked to forward the checks to the publisher. In that case, the publishers could wind up spending thousands of dollars to process checks worth 25 cents. Then some authors could ask to be exempt from this law, so the author names would have to be tracked, adding another source of potential confusion.
Many of these stores would have to add some kind of computerized inventory system for the first time. In many cases, these stores are run on a shoestring budget. It would be easier for the owners to close their doors than face the expense and trouble. That means the writers would never get their imagined Secondary Sale fees. What would happen to the books? Libraries and charities limit the number of books they can accept, so many of those books would be recycled, tossed into landfills, or even incinerated rather than finding new readers. Rare, out-of-print books could be lost forever. Some writers agree with Ninc and think UBSs are a danger to writers. They should think again. The last thing writers need is fewer sources of books, new or used. The last thing we need is to toss used books on the trash heap.
In the past couple of years, I’ve known of one UBS that closed entirely, another that changed ownership because the original owners went bankrupt, and another store that was forced to close down a location. A law like this would shut the doors of even more small UBSs, not to mention small on-line booksellers or local library and rummage sales. Meanwhile, the giant used book dealers, the ones that organizations like Ninc seem to fear the most, would find some way to survive.
Add to that online booksellers. These range from the large dealers that worry many authors to, well, you and me. Have you ever sold some books on Ebay once you were done reading them? Or sold them in a private sale? Uh-oh. Me, too. Did you have an inventory tracking system? Neither did I. I guess I should be grateful that the books I sold were all out of print. If we did sell books without following the law, would we get sued or even end up in trouble with the federal government?
This, among many other reasons, is why many authors, including some Ninc members, have said No! to the idea of a “Secondary Sale” fee on used book sales. Yet if enough people backed it, could the copyright law get amended? Let’s hope not, because if that’s the case, what comes next?