Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Afterlife of books

Two somewhat disparate things are on my mind today, though I may be able to link them up. We'll see how that works out.

First is this post over at Writer 2.0 by writer extraordinaire Pagan Kennedy, who explains that authors can get the rights to their books reverted back to them if the book in question has been out of print for at least 6 months. (Christopher wrote about Kennedy's launching of Writer 2.0 briefly here.) As Kennedy rightly points out, this is standard small print in publishing contracts.

I really appreciate this practical information for authors. Kennedy takes you through the steps - when you know it's been out of print for at least 6 months, write to the publisher and formally request the reversion of rights, and then it's all yours. There are, however, some bumps. First of all, books can go out of stock but not be out of print, meaning the book is not available if someone wants it, but the publisher is happy to take back orders and not declare it "o/p," out of print, quite yet.

Kennedy says, "Eventually, if publishers are smart, they will begin to change the rules and hold onto book rights forever. But for now, the system works to the author’s advantage." But... many publishers are getting wise, and are seeing the potential for the so-called "long tail." They can keep the book "o/s," out of stock, but make it available as a print on demand. This is a tough one. In one sense, it's great because it keeps the book available for new readers, and print on demand has improved in production quality, generally speaking, a great deal. (The interiors are much less smudgy in appearance and even the covers reproduce pretty well.) On the other hand, though, this means the publisher may be reluctant to revert rights, preferring to make that little bit of cash off each sale of the POD (print on demand) version and paying the royalty to the author.

The author could pull in more money with the rights reverted if she were to go, as Kennedy advises, to a place like Smashwords or Scribd. The author can manage things in an easier way. But the book will no longer have the imprimatur of the publisher's name on it. Is that a problem? If you have a catalog of books, like Kennedy, you may feel confident in your own name as a brand, but others might want that publisher branding visible. If you're published by an activist press - South End Press, for example - or an established literary, independent press - let's say Graywolf Press - and you don't have other books to sell alongside your own, you might rather stay with these institutions so your book remains for sale next to big names in your genre or political position.

The second thing on my mind these days is something that is not a new phenomenon necessarily, but it's been made more efficient by technology. Ya see, a friend of mine has recently become obsessed with library book sales, which he watches out for at this site, which lists them all. I can appreciate a good library book sale so I have joined him at a few, or gone after he mentioned them even if he couldn't. I hit Somerville, Needham, South End, and Dedham sales. What I have seen at these sales is troubling.

Yes, most of the folks are people from the communities, mostly women, mostly older, who are probably patrons of the library, some of whom may have even donated books for the sale itself. There are also families stocking up on cheap books for the kids. Then there are academics and readers of varying ages - I'll put myself in this category - who are looking for interesting fiction and quirky and/or scholarly non-fiction.

But then there are the scanners.

People go to these LIBRARY sales - offered as a way to help the meager budgets at these community public libraries - and scan all the books with handheld scanners to see if any of them are worth money. They then stock up on those books - first editions, rare copies - and buy them for nothing, only to resell them. To or in a used bookstore? Online? At Amazon? I have no idea, but I do know this unbelievably sleazy. A quick google search finds a discussion of this going back to 2006, with some folks talking about doing it in the late 1990s. I guess I'm just now seeing it so visibly.

One man in Needham was particularly irritating. He was in his 30s, I'd guess, with the classic shlubby look of a man living in his parent's basement, making pennies on Ebay and feeling like a real mogul. My friends and I sat in the corner of the sale room to go over our findings, to see what we were going to keep and what to put back. (Mind you, hardcovers were mostly $2, paper $1, mass markets $.50.) We looked at this massive pile near where we chose to sit and found a couple more. This guy then comes over and points out that those are HIS books - there must have been about 150 - 200 in this corner. He asked we put back anything we pulled, including a hardcover of Helter Skelter my friend had, which this guy recognized as one of HIS. He then returned to scanning every single book in the sale. My friend commented that this was "uncool," all this scanning, and he didn't even look up, just answering "whatever" as he returned to this task. We happily went back and stole Helter Skelter and multiple paperbacks from his pile, most of which we had no need for, but hey, it was worth the $4 or whatever it was (and we let the woman taking cash keep the change, for the library).

Now he could do the right thing here, which would be offering this service to the library ahead of their sale. He could scan the collection and help the library sell the valuable books separate from the rest, making some extra money. But he didn't care. He was being such a nasty little capitalist and banking off used books on offer from a community library. We were all enraged.

I guess there is a connection that goes back to all my rambling in the past, that we need to think collectively to get through tough times - both on a larger economic level, as the unemployment rate remains disastrously high, and in publishing, with books. This is not to stop e-books (necessarily) but to say as we move to the digital realm that we cannot lose perspective, and use technology in a way that's so exploitative of weaker parties. We should also be careful in labeling the good guys and the bad guys. Publishers that keep books "in print" by keeping them available may be doing the right thing in some cases, using POD technology to keep a stable of books that belong together for sale alongside one another. And we could use book scanning technology to be charitable instead of trying to make enough money to buy a new Playstation 3 - which would be even more fun to play on the big tv in the living room but my MOM says she has to watch her shows. (That was another dig at the Dedham scanner - I'm telling you, he was a total ass.)

Most of us in publishing, whether editors or authors or booksellers, are not going to make much money, so can't we share what little there is out there more fairly?

1 comment:

Pepper said...

Hi. I'm a scanner. I just have to get that off my chest. I ran across your blog and I have a real passion for books. I like your conversational writing quite a bit (and I'm the worst blogger ever, so I was refreshed to see your confession of your blogging sins). I'm sad to see a thoughtful person dismissing all scanners as sleazy. Imagine for a moment you're supporting a family and running a home based retail book business. You could take your very limited capital and spend it on items that might sell eventually, or never. They could be listed for a penny, or they could be the rare one that you can buy for $2 and sell for $5. Every purchase is a risk, and your limited inventory space fills quickly with heavy loads that you eventually truck back to the library to donate. Or you could invest in a tool that lets you scan all the things you like, and buy only the ones that will sell relatively quickly, for at a least a little more than you bought them for. The Amazon database and marketplace gives millions of independent sellers access to our own tiny slice of the huge and largely devalued market for used books. Sure, some scanners are no doubt schlumpy. Some are rude. I've had my feet stepped on at library sales by frantic strangers rushing to get there before me. That's individual rudeness, and it's annoying whether it's at a book sale or a movie theater. But I maintain the smallness and transparency of what we're doing makes us a visible target of scorn - when in fact those very qualities are to be admired. We're just small time people using available tools to make a modest profit. We're not hiding anything or hurting anyone. I'll drop $2000 at library book sales around my region and donate hundreds of (sadly, penny listed) books to them before the year is out. The libraries generally don't care who buys the books, just that they get sold. Scanners make real and substantial contributions to libraries through our purchases. We then use our time and expertise to add value by examining, researching, describing, listing, storing, packing, and shipping them to their new homes. Those of us with ethics do business honestly, with sincere effort. The net result is money flowing into the library system and media being circulated to as many consumers as possible before it enters a landfill or recycling center. This worldwide flow of media brings ideas to fresh audiences, makes more information available to more people using less resources and provides a modest living to folks who are willing and able to handle the book business. It's not magic money, it's not "cheating": it's the simple, time-honored rule of retail. Buy low, sell high, reinvest, repeat. Is there any reason to brand this particular type of independent retailer as sleazy? Is all capitalism nasty capitalism? In these tough times, I should think we could all admire someone with the initiative to research and buy a tool that lets them create their own local job selling locally sourced goods to a far-flung audience, hence putting money into their local economy. If you think about, it's a transparent reversal of the corporate practice of leaching money off behind the scenes to enrich elite investors. No doubt there's many an ass among us book scanners, but really, is there something wrong with product research just because you get to see it happening?