Why Authors Should Get Royalties On Second-Hand Copies

When buying books, it’s easy to think that you’re supporting your favourite author, but that’s not always the case. When you buy books second hand, you’re only helping the seller, even if it is your local independent second-hand bookstore or a charity shop.

Authors don’t currently receive a share in the money made from second hand copies of their work, which means that the only way to truly help the writers you love is buy their books brand new. Even then, it’s not that simple- the books sold in supermarkets and in discount stores, although new, are cheap for a reason: writers don’t make as much on them.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t buy your books second hand, it just means that the system needs to change. Buying books second-hand is a great way to save the environment, as new books won’t be made and then languish on people’s bookshelves, unread and uncared about. 

Thankfully, things are slowly starting to change. To help struggling authors who work hard on their art, a collective of booksellers have set up a royalty scheme to compensate authors whenever their books are purchased through their sites.

The scheme is in its early stages, with a yearly maximum amount of royalties set and a limited number of retailers currently signed up to the project. However, it’s still a step in the right direction.

Acting as a fund, the scheme will pay authors from the kitty. It’s already being touted as a game changer by many organisations in the bookselling and writing community.

It would be great to see, in the future, booksellers making an effort to provide a section of the profits to authors, particularly those who are independent writers or who have fewer alternative sources of revenue, such as TV or film right options. It might be that they could do it for writers whose works are popular on the site- so instead of paying per book, these second hand booksellers, be they shops or websites, simply pay an annual fee to popular writers for the right to stock used copies of their back catalogue.

I’m not saying I’ve got it all figured out- it’s safe to say that I have nothing in my life all worked out, least of all this! However, I think that the industry needs to make sweeping changes to account for the ever-increasing trade in used copies of printed books. Some sellers even make a lot of money out of particularly difficult to find titles, but not a penny of that currently goes to the book’s writers or their estates.

A change in the system needs to be made, and while this new fund is a great start, more is required. I’m neither a bookseller nor an author- although one day I will finish my novel! I’m simply a book lover and voracious reader who thinks that, in order to get new writers to focus on their writing and have the time to dedicate to creating amazing new works of fiction, we need to pay them properly. It’s the same as in every industry; we’re seeing it currently in hospitality, where an industry that previously undervalued and mistreated its workers is having to raise wages and think long and hard about how it treats them in order to survive. The same will eventually happen in literature, as good authors stop writing full-time because they simply can’t pay their bills. When this happens, the industry will be forced to change, so it’s better that it evolves now before the change becomes inevitable.

By supporting writers and giving them some of the royalties on their books, particularly valuable first editions or uncommon books that are out of print but still sought-after by readers, booksellers could help keep the writing industry thriving and improve diversity.

After all, there’s constantly a push for greater diversity in the writing world. But, when push comes to shove, the biggest barrier is always going to be a lack of funding. Many individuals simply don’t have the time to dedicate to unpaid work that doesn’t give them any security. Others don’t have the option to choose expensive self-publishing methods or pricey book publicity agents to arrange blog tours and book signings on their behalf.

With greater earning potential comes a greater chance that a more diverse range of voices will be heard in the writing community, particularly in the fiction market. I’ve already mentioned the need to increase diversity in school reading lists, but this simply isn’t possible or sustainable if every talented novelist isn’t able to get their voices heard. That means that we need to make fiction writing a viable career, and for many, that’s simply not the case right now.

At the same time, we also need to acknowledge that second hand books are an important part of the literary market. Not every book buyer can afford to pay the initial release price for a book. Also, they might enjoy the process of browsing for used books, which have character. I personally love my copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, which I bought at a charity shop and contains some amazing annotations from its previous owner.

Second hand books are also better for the environment, as they mean that books that were previously sat on shelves, unused, can go to a new home. Buying used books reduces the amount of waste in the publishing industry. New books are great, but they take a lot of energy and raw materials to produce, which means that buying used copies saves resources.

Therefore, the publishing industry needs to embrace new ways to benefit both the second hand book market and authors. This new scheme is an exciting step in the right direction, but more needs to be done in the future.

Overall, I think that this scheme is an amazing idea that, if developed properly, has the potential to become a game changer for the writing industry. Hopefully it will be picked up by more book retailers over the coming months and will evolve into a practice that remains in place throughout the coming years and changes the bookselling market for the better.

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