Sunday, June 07, 2009

Second hand books - what cost to the author

I remember when I first joined a certain book lovers forum, of which I am now an enthusiastic member, there was a somewhat heated discussion regarding second hand books, and why the practise of swapping and exchanging books with friends was not what I would call author friendly. When I saw a post on How Publishing Works by Nicola Morgan on this very same subject, it occurred to me that it would be good to broach the topic on here.

For the reader there are many advantages to buying second hand books - the most obvious of which is the lower cost. In some ways, they are the ultimate in recycling, which I would certainly not condone; neither would I condone buying anything from charity shops (most of them anyway - there are certain charities I would never support, due to their animal testing policies). Those on the aforementioned book lovers site justified their stance by stating that they could not afford to buy books at full price, yet in their next post, many of them were saying how much they had spent at the pub last weekend. They obviously had different priorities to my own.

Like Nicola, I have no problem with the genuine second hand trade - i.e., out print or copyright books - I have been known to buy one of two of these myself. I also have no problem with donating used books to schools, libraries (most would not accept them anyway) or other institutions, where they can be put to good use, offering reading material and more importantly, the opportunity to read to those who for whatever reason, would not otherwise do so.

The problem is that the majority of readers are blissfully unaware of the way in which this habit of buying second hand, or even worse, lending to friends, impacts upon authors, the ones who write the books in the first place. They seem to think that as authors we are all rolling in money - if only that were true, and that it doesn't matter. They reason that the book has already been sold once when the original owner bought it, so why should be paid twice, but that is not the point. The point is that for every person who buys a book second hand, or borrows it from a friend, that is one less book that the author is paid for.
If you read books for aspiring authors on how to get published they are filled with how this writer and that writer got a huge advance and sold this many books, but what they don't say is that these are the top one percent of writers and the majority are scraping a living. One author I know, who has written best sellers lives in a drafty old caravan and grows his own veg because he can't afford to go to the supermarket! He drives an old banger which is on its last legs and doesn't know what he will do once it stops working. Another author I know, who has written around 20 books and been published worldwide is considering filing for bankruptcy!
It takes considerable time money and effort to write a good book - in my case five years. It cost me around £5000 to write the book (it is another myth and publishers contribute towards research costs) and publication costs were a further £1500 on top of that. Because I self published, there was no one to help me with publicity - add to that expenses such as telephone, Internet, postage etc, not to mention petrol and the cost of sending out umpteen free review copies, and it adds up to some considerable sum. There are a lot of writers in exactly the same boat. When you add up these costs and look at how much I earn from each book that I sell it works out to less than a penny per hour. You don't have to be mad to do this but it certainly helps!
Authors are among the lowest paid workers in the country with average earnings of less than £5000 per year (last year my own book earned me the princely sum of £800). The majority are therefore forced to supplement their income by working elsewhere - as speakers, teachers or as I do, by working as a housekeeper in a nursing home, and currently as an exam invigilator. This represents time away from writing, and more crucially, especially for the self published (who if statistics are to be believed, are now the silent majority), promotion. Second hand sales represent to the author, a form of lost income. To my mind, in a way, this also constitutes theft.
Second hand book sales are big business - according to Nicola, each and every Oxfam bookshop expects to make around £175,000 per year. Bearing in mind that most charity shops are staffed by volunteers, and receive a substantial discount on rent and rates, many ordinary second hand book shops are complaining about unfair competition. In 2002, Oxfam sold 12 million books in the UK, a figure which with the credit crunch and the opening of more shops (not to mention more books being published), may have doubled by now. Don't get me wrong, Oxfam is a worthy cause, which I support by donating many of my old clothes to. The thing is, Oxfam may be a charity, but authors are not. If you value literature and the written word as many say that they do, then you will understand that authors need to be supported, by buying their books new.
Of course I understand that not everyone can afford full price (I couldn't myself at the moment), but the fact is that books have never been cheaper, with discounting increasingly the norm, from the date of publication. Many titles can be bought even cheaper online, with free postage to boot.
There are many costs involved in the process of publication and lots of people needing to be paid - not only the author, but the editor, proof reader, illustrator, indexer, cover designer, typesetter, printer, the list is endless. It is a complicated process that you have to get right and this costs money. Add to this the fact that only one third of books actually make money at all and a third are published at a loss, the successful titles thus subsidise those that are less so. I think then all things considered, the majority of books are more than fairly priced.

If you are really hard up and cannot afford books full stop, then why not use the public library? It is the authors best friend, for a number of reasons. Not only do we get paid when the library first buys our books, but again each time they are borrowed. It may not be a lot (around 5 pence each time), but it is better than nothing, and for many authors, forms a substantial part of their income.
The message is really quite simple - if you love and value books, then support the authors by buying from them at a price you can afford, or if you can't, by using your local library. It is not rocket science, it just takes a bit of thought and common sense.

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