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Second-hand book sales threaten authors' income

24 January 2005

Authors and agents are increasingly disturbed by the booming sales of second-hand books, but there seems to be little they can do to stop this. The growth in used book outlets has been rapid, as reported in News Review 12 July 2004. Abebooks now represents a huge and still growing way of finding a book through booksellers all over the world. More significantly in terms of reaching the general book buyer, Amazon’s Marketplace facility is thought to be particularly damaging because it displays the second-hand version alongside the new book. In many cases Amazon can offer the used version as an alternative if the book is difficult to get hold of, or out of print. It is the visibility and transparency of the online offer which makes it so tempting – and so damaging to authors’ royalty earnings.

Authors’ income is also being nibbled away at by the increasing presence of specialist bookselling charity shops. Although these are obviously a good idea from the charities’ point of view, they are yet another way of people acquiring books at low prices. It makes sense in terms of efficient recycling, but donating books to these outlets also gives the warm glow you get from making a charitable donation – and many feel that it’s a moral obligation to pass books along to others.

There have been efforts to devise a scheme which would allow authors a further royalty on second-hand sales, but it would be virtually impossible to organise or to police this. Mark le Fanu, general secretary of the Society of Authors, says: ‘It’s getting worse, and authors are becoming more anxious as second-hand book sales get slicker and more closely linked to new sales.’

Perhaps this is really the problem, for in an age when books have become commoditised and the sales promotion approaches are focused on deep discounting, authors lose out all round. There’s still no satisfactory solution of the problem relating to the special discount clause, which means that the author will, according to the terms of their contract, get a lower royalty on high discount sales. When most books which go through the chains in bulk are sold to them at a high discount, this clause can take a substantial chunk out of authors’ royalty payments.

All in all, it’s not a good prospect for authors.