Used books springing up from nowhere

What’s ‘new’?

MOST BOOK authors depend for their income on royalties - a percentage of the price of each book sold new. They get paid nothing for secondhand books.

This may seem fair enough if one assumes the book was bought by someone, somewhere, once. But the Society of Authors is concerned about the huge and increasing numbers (they haven't any estimates) of books that seem to be for sale "used" via websites such as Amazon. They appear, it seems, within seconds of publication - not at all the same thing as me selling my late uncle's old copy of the biography of Harry Pollit. (No, you can't have it, whoever you are.) Can such brand new "used" books ever have been bought, let alone read, by anyone? Or have they "leaked" into the second-hand market from printers, warehouses or other points in the supply chain?

The Society points out that Amazon, and the other bookselling sites, are not running the equivalent of Black Books (from the Channel 4 TV sitcom of the same name). Amazon don't actually hold a stack of secondhand books, as they do for new titles. They are simply acting as an introduction service between the customer and the individuals selling the books. But the books often change hands at such low prices that it seems likely that those individuals make most of their money on postage and packing. And if, as is suspected, the full price has never been paid for these allegedly "used" books, then authors are being denied royalties.

What, then, is to be done? Some authors have suggested an equivalent to the Public Lending Right system (in which book authors get a small payment each time a book is borrowed from a public library). But it's hard to see how these systems could work in an unregulated marketplace, where prices are so low.

The only possible solution to the problem, which the Society's General Secretary Mark Le Fanu describes as "intractable" is to get publishers to stem any "leaks" in their system. But how to do that?

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