by Walter M. Brasch
vendors can be found in almost all major cities trying to make a buck. Want a genuine knock-off Rolex for only fifty bucks? Too high? How about forty? But they can't go any lower; why, it's almost a steal at that price.
Like the street vendors, a few "needy" bookstores also have something to sell. Every publisher sends complimentary copies of a press run to booksellers to evaluate for possible purchase and to the media to evaluate for possible reviews. Publishers also send booksellers and the media "advanced reading copies," before publication, then later copies of the finished book, often by request of a reviewer.
Unethical bookstores will put the complimentary comp copies they receive onto their shelves, thus earning extra income without having to pay for the merchandise. Sometimes, bookstores buy their supply of comp books from reviewers who sell the books at a fraction of the list price. For a bookstore which normally pays 40-50 percent of the list price to a publisher or wholesaler, paying reviewers only 5- 10 percent assures greater income.
"There [is] no law against it," Nick Taylor, Author's Guild president, told his members, "but it [breaks] the unwritten rules." The problem, of course, as Taylor points out, is "the sales produced no royalties, and displaced new book sales that would. Only the sellers and the store made money."
Nevertheless, until the fourth quarter of 2000, publishers and authors, while complaining about lost income, have been a rather tolerable bunch. And then Amazon.com, with sales of about $2.8 billion that year and about 20 million separate customer accounts, the nation's largest virtual online book, music, and film vendor, compounded the problem by allowing its customers to buy "used" books online.
Near the top of the same web page where a customer can buy a just-released copy of a book is a click- through button that allows that customer to buy the book at a "used" price. The inventory is supplied by other customers who set the price for their books. Amazon.com charges a $3 shipping fee -- the seller does the shipping; Amazon.com doesn't keep the book in its inventory -- and takes a commission of 99 cents plus 15 percent of the sales price; the seller gets the rest. For most books, "used" means just that -- "used" -- some may be damaged, most will be out of print. The seller benefits; the customer benefits; Amazon.com benefits. Amazon's first profit after its founding in July 1995 finally came in the fourth quarter of 2001, with about 15 percent of its sales the result of the sale of used books. Not profiting, of course, are the author and publisher. But, both long ago accepted the reality that used books don't bring income to those who create literature. What they won't accept is that many of the "used" books are really mint-condition comp copies provided by book reviewers.
"With the return on sales of used books so rich, Amazon has created a system that compels it to push used copies over new," according to the Guild. The Guild proposed several alternatives, including moving the click-through "used" window and not allowing customers to purchase used books for 6-12 weeks following publication. The Guild charges that Amazon.com "refused to change anything," then launched a counterattack that resulted in more than 6,000 emails, many from authors.
In a strong letter to Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder and chief executive officer, Nick Taylor argued: "We're not against Amazon's selling used books, or used book sales generally. We're against Amazon's selling 'used' (frequently new copies sent out for review) books on the same page as new ones. Neither authors, who frequently devote years of hard work to their books, nor publishers, who invest faith and money in bringing books to print, receive credit for books sold in this way. Only the seller, who often paid nothing in the first place, and of course Amazon, turns a profit."
Amazon's customers wonder what the problem is. After all, they're getting new books at "used" prices. The greater issue, says Nick Taylor is one of intellectual property. In an article in the Spring 2002 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin, Taylor wrote:
"The people who wrote [the Constitution] recognized that writing and other forms of creativity -- intellectual property -- were valuable to a free society. So to 'promote the progress of science and the useful arts' they gave writers temporary monopolies in the form of copyrights.
"Churning 'used' books through the new book marketplace defeats the purpose of copyright protection. Royalties aren't just money; they're food for thought and new ideas, the thing the Constitution intends by carving out a special place for writers. Books aren't like other forms of property. They're not useful as objects. It's the ideas they contain that make them useful. Treating books like widgets may be good merchandising, but the framers knew there are things more sacred than the marketplace."
Customers complain about the spiraling cost of books, but they should be complaining about bookstores that force publishers to raise the list prices in order to partially compensate for stolen income.
July 26 2002 (http://albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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