bookstores

An author’s view of the First Sale Doctrine

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Abuse of the first sale doctrine is fairly rampant in the small-press bookselling world. This is a real sore spot with me, and is going to take some explaining, so get comfortable.

You have possibly encountered on-line booksellers who offer copies of books (often books they did not themselves publish) for outlandish prices. I myself have seen copies of my Cemetery Dance collection Things Left Behind going for as much as $1,750.00 (which, by the way, is a good deal more than I received for writing it; not bitching about what Rich Chizmar paid me for it, not at all, but I would dearly love to have more than one copy of my first book but that ain’t gonna happen because I can’t afford the prices many places are charging for it). The sold-out release of Borderlands 5 turned up at several on-line auctions within days of its publication with bids starting — starting — at between $200.00 and $500.00.

There are some who mistakenly think this sort of thing is illegal; it isn’t. It is allowed under what’s know as the first sale doctrine.

According to Section 109 of the U.S. Copyright Act, whoever first purchases the physical copy of a copyrighted work (a book, a DVD, VHS tape, CD, etc.) has the right to do with that copy whatever they want, including transfer ownership of that physical copy in any manner they choose. They can give it away, sell it to some place like Half-Price Books, or offer it up for on-line auction. The doctrine deals with the physical object, not the intellectual or artistic expression contained within. For more info, read Lucy’s article “Why you can rent a novel but not a music CD“.

Here’s what pisses me off about this: there are some booksellers and individuals who will purchase and hoard multiple copies of a book with no concern for the work, the author, or the work’s fans — they couldn’t give less of shit about the quality of the stories or the novel. What they’re concerned with is obtaining as many physical copies as possible because (as was the case with Borderlands 5) a particular book might sell out very quickly, and they, in turn, can sell their copies at a price that is sometimes as much as 700% higher than what they paid for it originally.

When confronted with their unapologetic avarice (and avarice it is, make no mistake about that), they will inevitably defend their actions by claiming that they’ve every right to turn a profit on their investment…and then probably have the nerve to bitch about having to pay four bucks a gallon for gas because OPEC are a bunch of greedy bastards. What’s wrong with this picture?

Understand something: I am not condemning specialty-press publishers like, say, Donald Grant, who produce exquisite (and justifiably expensive) limited editions of books geared toward book collectors — those rare birds who have a deep and abiding respect both for the physical object and the work contained within and who, it should go without saying, can afford these editions. Nor am I condemning any specialty-press publisher who at a later date offers up copies of a book they’ve previously published at a higher price: after all, it’s their product, and if they can find a buyer for their product, more power to ’em.

I am also not condemning those who offer up for auction or re-sale books with the intent of using the money to assist others who are struggling with financial hardship or to fund charity drives.

My problem lies with those who buy books solely for the purpose of re-selling them at obscenely inflated prices so as to fatten their personal pockets just because they can.

No, it isn’t illegal, but in my book it is (and always will be) reprehensible and immoral. Which is why I do not buy books from sellers who engage in this practice, be they on-line or in the dealers’ room at a con. As far as I’m concerned, it’s price gouging if I see a book selling at more than twice its original asking price. I’m not completely unreasonable about this; I realize that booksellers have to make a certain amount of profit to stay in business and cover basic operating costs, so doubling the price of a sold-out or out-of-print book strikes me as equitable and fair, but beyond that — I walk away.

And God help ’em if they have the nerve to ask me to sign any books for them so they can jack up the price even more.

The Horror of the Used Bookstore

by Gary A. Braunbeck

There’s a dark side writing that few people have dared address. I’m talking about the single most dangerous foe to the writer’s resolve; the thing that can stop even the most dedicated wordsmith dead in his or her tracks; an element of the publishing business that renders all of us absolutely powerless when faced with it.

No, it isn’t the dreaded book signing that finds you sitting at a table for 90 minutes, during which time the only person to approach you and the unsold stacks of your new book is someone asking for directions to the bathroom; it isn’t having someone discover you’re a horror writer and asking (almost as if compelled to do so by a Congressional Decree): “So, do you know Stephen King?”; and, no, it isn’t that utterly radiant, mettle-testing moment when you open that first royalty statement to discover that your book has, in the course of one year, sold only one-third of its print run so obtaining that more pricey loaf of bread is going to have to be put on the back burner once again. Yes, all of these can test you, no doubt; they can chip away at your confidence if you let them; and they can make you a real buzz-kill who doesn’t get invited to many parties, but I’m not here to discuss my dreadful personality problems.

No; the single biggest foe to the writer’s resolve, confidence, and determination is (insert ominous chord here): the Horror of the Used Book Store.

We all shop at them. We’re writers, for pity’s sake, our major source of income is our writing (see Laura Anne Gilman’s previous post to learn more of that particular daily terror), none of us can afford to shell out 30 bucks for each new hardcover or 8 bucks for each new paperback on a consistent basis. We go there to find a bargain, or perhaps to locate a book that’s been hard to find or out of print for several years. While we’re doing this, we remind ourselves that the First Sale Doctrine, codified in Section 109 of The U.S. Copyright Act, allows the original owner of any book to transfer ownership of the phyisical copy in any way they choose, so, technically, there’s nothing legally or morally wrong with our purchasing any books here.

Besides (we tell ourselves), stores like this make books affordable to folks who otherwise wouldn’t have the money to buy them. So it’s all good … until we find ourselves face to face with copies of our own books.

Don’t shake your head at me; if you’ve ever published with a mass market house, odds are you’ve found yourself in this situation. And what is the writer’s first reaction? But, my work is eternal, it speaks to the deepest pain of the human condition, my books are things to be treasured , to be passed down from generation to generation, not end up here!

The first time I discovered copies of my novel In Silent Graves on the shelf at a used book store, I felt a slight twinge of disappointment — who wouldn’t? We all hope that our books will be things that readers will want to keep around to read again someday, but here we are, faced with the bald hard truth that not everyone who buys and reads our books is going to want to keep them. I at least had the pleasure of knowing that the 3 copies I found on the shelf had been well-read, as evidenced by the wear on, and cracks in, the spines.

Two weeks ago, I’m in another used book store with a friend of mine who also happens to be a writer, and he points out to me that another copy of Graves is on the shelf. I’m really into this now, I’ve adopted a helathy attitude, I want to see how well-read the copy was, enjoy the sight of those cracks in the spine, hold it in my hands knowing that whoever had owned it before read the living shit out of it before selling it here.

Well, guess what? (Here’s the moment that really tests the mettle.)

It hadn’t been read. It hadn’t even been opened, as far as I could tell. It still had the Walpurgis-Mart sticker covering the bar code on the back.

“What is it?” asked my writer friend.

“This hasn’t even been read,” I whispered.

“You don’t know that,” he replied. “maybe the person who sold this is like you, they take care not to damage the spine when they read a paperback. Maybe they’re just very careful with their books.”

“And maybe they just didn’t read it.” (Outwardly, I’m doing the Healthy Attitude Shuffle, I’m very calm and cool and collected; inwardly, I’m jumping up and down and throwing a fit and threatening to hold my breath until my face turns blue.)

“Okay,” my writer friend said, “then you gotta tell yourself that there was some earth-shaking emergency that forced them to sell this book. They lost a job. They lost a limb. Their Workman’s Comp ran out. They had to do it to put food on the table for their family, man! You know they had to do it to put food on the table! Dear God, why else would they part with one of your books? IT WAS A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH!”

“So what you’re telling me in your own subtle way is that I’m over-reacting?”

“God, no! You’re a hero, Gary, a lifesaver!” He threw his arm around my shoulder and began talking very loudly. “Because of you and your book, somewhere in this city tonight, a man’s family is not going to bed hungry. They can afford Grandma’s medication for another month. Little Eunice can get that knee surgery so that her dreams of the Joffrey Ballet needn’t be forever buried, thus turning her into a bitter, empty shell of a human being before she turns 13! And it’s all because of this book on this shelf. I’m sorry, I’m … I’m getting emotional, tearing up. So moving, it is. I so rarely get to witness acts of decency and heroism. It reaffirms my faith in humanity. We must all hold hands,” he cried out to the terror-stricken customers. “Indeed, we must all hold hands and sing out our joy at being here to mark this resplendent moment in human history. Come, sing with me, all of you: ‘WHEN YOU WALK THROUGH A STORM, KEEP YOU HEAD HELD HIGH, AND DON’T BE AFRAID OF —‘”

“So I’m over-reacting, is this what you’re telling me?”

“Nah. They probably got through the first 20 pages and decided it was too much of a downer. You gotta admit, this thing ain’t gonna make anybody’s list of My Top Ten Favorite Chuckle-fests.”

“I feel so much better now, thanks.”

“Hey, take your pick: They did it to put food on the table, or they did it because they thought your book sucked the dimples off a golf ball through 40 feet of clogged garden hose.”

We’re writers, we exist because of fantasy and delusion and our ability to convey them on the page. And when you have to rely on your writing as your major source of income, any delusion helps, especially if you know it’s a delusion.

So I helped a stranger put food on the table for his family. I feel good about myself.

Hey, I’m a writer. Delusion is my business.