Book Barn, a small online used book merchant based in the UK, announced yesterday that they will be partnering with the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society to start an author resale right initiative. Book Barn will be working with ALCS to collect and pay a royalty to authors on each book sold.
This initiative, which Book Barn is calling Book Author Resale Right, was inspired by the Artist's Resale Right, or Droit de suite. This is a legal concept which states that someone who buys a piece of artwork has to pay the original artist a royalty when it is resold. (more coverage at TechDirt)
While I am sure that sounds like a good idea for artists and authors, it is not without its own complications. And before anyone jumps on the bandwagon it's worth our time to consider just what we're getting in to.
The Droit de suite was codified under an EU directive in 2001, and when it was enacted in the UK in 2006 it was shown to have significantly higher costs than expected, require far more work, and benefit far fewer artists than predicted. It also discouraged speculative investments in new artists, thus depressing several careers.
According to, the average administrative cost per sale was between £23.30 and £53.60. This high cost was largely due to the difficulty in identifying qualifying artists and the fact that the sellers took on this responsibility in order to protect themselves from the financial liability of a misidentification. And rather than the claimed tens of thousands of artists benefiting, "in the second largest art market in the world, only 1,104 artists benefited, of which only 568 were British".
And now Book Barn wants to bring that bad idea to used book sales. Admittedly, Book Barn's announcement was more of a publicity gimmick than anything, but for the sake of the argument let's consider it seriously.
For the sake of this post, I'm going to ignore the US market. This idea runs contrary to the first sale doctrine, and that would probably defeat it in US courts. Instead, let's look at the UK.
Creating an Author Resale Right would involve taking an idea from a market in which tens of thousands of items are sold each year from hundreds of sellers and applying it to a used book market in which hundreds of millions of units are sold each year (if not more) from hundreds of thousands of sellers. What's more, the averaged used book price is measured in dollars or pounds (as in under ten), while artwork can sell for hundreds if not thousands times that.
Furthermore, there are now hundreds of thousands if not millions of authors, both living and dead; how exactly are they going to be found and paid, especially the ones not in the UK?
While the UK does have a system in place to pay authors a very small fee for each time one of their books is checked out, that system isn't designed to handle as many transactions as occur daily in the used book market. And at a payment of 6p per loan with a maximum of £6,600 paid to each author each year, it's not exactly a huge sum.
Book Barn's idea doesn't strike me as a workable proposition on a large scale, and even with the assistance of collection societies, it's not clear that the benefit to authors would exceed the cost of maintaining the system. Furthermore, existing collection societies are neglecting to pay musicians because it's too much effort, so I would seriously question whether it is a good idea to give them even more money for their coffers.
Luckily for me, this is an idea which will probably not catch on. Even though it might damper the used book market, publishers would oppose the idea because it would negatively affect their business model (remainders in particular). And there's little chance that the idea would be picked up as a voluntary market initiative, not when Amazon's response could be summed up as "piss off". And if Amazon won't raise their costs to cover this, few other retailers will be able to afford to do so - not if they want to stay in business.
Still, it's an interesting idea, which is why I took time today to beat it to death, set it on fire, and then nuke it from orbit (it's the only way to be sure).
- Droit de suite (Wikipedia)
- Artist Resale Rights stories (Techdirt)
- Resale Rights Directive (Wikipedia)
- Impact Study ( )
- Authors' Public Lending Right payments frozen (TheGuardian.com)
- Another post where I attempt to understand the performance royalty system (Zoë Keating)
image by J. Tegnerud