The Ethics of Royalties

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will know, beyond doubt, that I am a huge fan of purchasing, acquiring, and reading used books. The first post that I wrote to really make it big in terms of comments and social media talked about why I love second-hand books. And a few weeks ago I wrote about how it’s important that second-hand book markets exist.

One point that came up in both posts (and to which the second was a partial rebuttal/exploration) was the issue of royalties: that is, the question of whether it is ethical to purchase used books, on the grounds that the authors of said books do not receive royalties for said purchase. My argument was that things like libraries and used book stores support authors (and the general reading community) in plenty of ways besides with royalties, and that it’s not the end of the world if you can’t buy new very often.

And, yup, here’s another post on the subject. This is obviously something that I’m still thinking through.

Various commenters chimed in on both posts, with diverse opinions, and also with some ingenuous ways of supporting authors. Mark B wrote,

Here’s an idea to support an author you like – especially a new one. Find their address and mail them a five dollar bill. Tell them what you enjoyed (or didn’t) about the book and thank them for their work.

And Ali said,

If the author is my friend, I’ll buy their book new as a personal show of support. Otherwise, I support authors by reading their books and talking/writing about them, by showing up at their readings/signings, by choosing something other than the latest bestseller to read and then sending the author an email about it.

These are well and good, but I’m still not completely satisfied. I mean, yes, I do talk about books and recommend them to people, review them — but is that enough? What debt, if any, do I as a reader owe to the authors whose books I read? I know that these kind of referrals work, because I’ve acquired many a book after another blogger has reviewed it. But book bloggers are going to buy books anyway — most of us are talking to each other, not to the vast unwashed non-reading public, right? So while such things may be effective, I don’t know if we can reckon them as particularly super virtuous.

What, then, of our own purchases? Heavy readers know that it’s hard to sustain a reading habit while buying new books — that is, author-supporting and royalty-paying books — exclusively. Books are expensive, and are to some extent luxury items, and used bookstores and libraries remain brilliant and necessary outlets for those who cannot necessarily pay full price for everything (or anything) they read. I think that most people are able to accept this.

At this point I will turn to my friend Glumpuddle:

As an author, I’ve worked hard to write a book – but a living wage for that work are non-existent. As a general rule it isn’t authors who make big bucks off books – it is publishers and re-sellers. While everyone might not have equal access, not every one gets a living wage for their work… so I’m afraid I’m still in theoretical favour of buying so authors get something out of it.

Right. Living wages. Historically, being able to make a living wage from artistic endeavours of any sort has been a relatively rare thing. There’s a reason that painters and musicians and what have you sought out wealthy patrons to support their endeavours — and that’s why so many of them seemed to die broke, too. Broke and/or crazy. You know. And authors who were paid a penny a word for their serial novels would have to keep pumping them out like the dickens (haha, I kill me) in order to support themselves. So the ability to support oneself solely from artistic endeavour is historically rare, and has never been a guaranteed thing.

Yet it’s probably not acceptable for us to point at these facts and conclude that authors don’t have to make a good wage from their work now, simply because most of them haven’t before. To make a slightly hyperbolic comparison, you could as easily say, “Well, these people over here have historically been enslaved — so why should we change that now?”. Because things have always been this way is usually not an adequate support for — well, anything, really. If we are preserving old traditions, modes of thought, etc. it should be because they are good, not simply because they are old. Age is not a particular virtue; everything attains it if you wait long enough. And, in theory at least, I think that most people are in favour of authors making a living off of their books — after all, that means that they won’t have to take other jobs in the meantime, and can write more books. Yay authors. Yay books.

But how to go about it? It is true that it’s not authors who make the big bucks off of these expensive trade paperbacks. POD publishing might change that (see Wil Wheaton and his offer of Sunken Treasure as a book from Lulu and an electronic version, most of the profit seeming to go directly to himself) but it largely hasn’t happened yet. We need to work within the existing system, it seems, where publishers get some money for new books, and no money for used.

Given all of these things, it seems that the best thing to do is to support authors directly whenever possible, by purchasing their books at new prices, as galling as that may sometimes seem. As stated above, however, most of us cannot afford to buy all of our books new — there are simply too many books we want to read, and too few dollars to spend on them. So what do we do? How do we go about picking and choosing which authors are supported and which aren’t?

Amy voiced her opinion:

In fact, it would seem that most people who don’t buy new only buy new when it’s a big name author. I would really encourage you if you have the money to buy new when it’s a midlist author, not a best-selling author. Many of these authors are losing opportunities and getting their contracts canceled. Why not help out a little IF YOU CAN.

So: mid-list authors. It still seems a bit sticky to me, though: who’s defining what “mid-list” really means? It’s the sort of vague descriptor that lends itself to manipulation, and I could see myself moving authors around through it depending on my purchasing impulses and not on their actual status. And that’s not so great, right? Right.

After much ponderation, I’ve decided to go with this method: Before purchasing a book, I shall endeavour to find out if the author is still alive. If he/she is I will buy new if possible. If he/she is not, I will use the library or buy used without qualm. I think that’s a logical approach: I will be supporting living authors who are (conceivably) still writing and still in need of money to live off of, but I need not trouble myself over supporting the estates of the deceased.

Seems fair to me. What do you think? Is this something you trouble yourselves over, or am I just thinking too hard?

4 thoughts on “The Ethics of Royalties

  1. That's an interesting proposal. It's certainly a starting guideline for choosing which books to buy new. One thing I tend to buy new is the next book in a series because I have already waited a year or two for each new story. This certainly fits in with the “living authors” plan (except for zombie authors, of course).Perhaps a second criteria could be something that benefits readers as well — buying new copies of foreign translated works. This is a market that is directly linked to sales. If we don't buy the books, they don't translate new ones for us and we miss out on some great literature!Kristen M.’s latest blog post:“I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.”


  2. Well you have conscience about it or you wouldn't keep posting about it. 😉 I definitely think you're reading too much into my comment! Let's say you've decided to buy a new book. You're either going to buy the new James Patterson or the new Beth Kephart. Totally different books. You want to read them both equally though. Why not buy the Kephart book since she could genuinely use your support while not buying or buying the Patterson won't make a big difference in his career. Why won't it? Because not everyone cares enough about this subject to have written three blog posts on it.Amy @ My Friend Amy’s latest blog post:Faith 'n' Fiction Saturday: Reader's Choice Awards!


  3. Hahaha, I was thinking about this today as I purchased two books new because I had a gift card for a large chain store. I had funds for either a new hardback book (Neal Stephenson!) or a trade paperback and a regular paperback. I thought about the whole mid-list author thing and the alive/dead thing from the previous comments. I ended up getting The Time Traveler's Wife and the newest Peter Robinson detective story in paperback. Robinson is a local writer, and I think his stuff sells well, but I still like to support locals. The TTW has a movie coming out so the author can't be hurting but I'd rather support by book than movie. I'm pretty sure the NS book is coming out in paperback eventually and I just don't have room for a bulky hardcover – so that also played into my choice. But the previous discussion on ethics here did play into my thinking. Then on my way home I stopped in at a used bookstore and plonked down four bucks for an out of print (I think) William Gibson book. Out of print books are, I think, also ethical used purchases.


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