Droit de Suite – A Modest Proposal

July 26th, 2005 · 8 Comments
by Booksquare

It is an interesting thing that artists do not benefit from their works beyond the first sale. With certain notable exceptions — residuals in the motion picture industry and music publishing royalties come to mind — you get one chance to make a dime off your work. Thereafter, it can change hands, for profit, as many times as possible without additional compensation to the artist.
And, you will say, that’s how it’s always been.

The Financial Times takes a look at the expansion of the French law that imposes at 3% resale levy on works of art (not fully defined in the article) to the rest of the EU. The logic, quite simply, is that when a work is resold, the artist will share in the revenue. Naturally, art houses are not pleased with this; it will cut into profits. Oddly, artists are not all enthusiasm either; some see sales being made in non-signatory countries.

The question, of course, is why aren’t artists organizing and forcing the issue of droit de suite (or artist’s resale right) on a broader, more global scale? For years, authors have complained about how used books are being sold alongside new books on Amazon, yet few have suggested that perhaps there is a way to make this less painful. We assure you that it won’t make everybody happy, especially used book retailers, but that’s democracy for you — all about compromise.

Because we are not good at math, we’ll keep the numbers simple. Let’s say that a levy of twenty-five cents is imposed on every used book sold (also allowing for certain exceptions to the law, such as charitable institutions, perhaps). Ten cents goes to the author, not subject to reduction by the application of royalties. Ten cents goes to the publishers. Five cents goes to administration — perhaps shared by booksellers and the body overseeing the distribution of funds.

Models already exist for this type of levy — many countries already impose a fee on blank media, assuming it will be used to capture copyrighted material. Funds are split among copyright holders, generally based on revenues, then further distributed based on sales. Not every book will benefit, and bigger titles will get a bigger share of the pie. However there are a lot of ways to split the money, and using Amazon as an example, it is easy enough to see exactly which titles are sold used (surely they have all of this information and more) and apply the levies to specific titles directly.

We see a lot of shaking heads and muttering. It won’t work, it’s too hard, they won’t go for it, it’s a waste of time, too hard to manage, won’t solve the problem. Sure, it’s easier to complain about used book sales (or CD sales or other sales), but why not refocus the discussion in a way that gives artists and other copyright holders fair compensation? The business model has changed and used media sales are big business. Twenty-five cents is not a huge sum to impose.

If artists and corporations (publishers, record companies, motion picture studios) worked together to develop a solid, equitable plan — and we have faith that this can be done — then perhaps change can happen. It’s not like there isn’t good incentive for trying.

File Under: Square Pegs

8 responses so far ↓

  • Susan Gable // Jul 26, 2005 at 2:47 pm

    Have I mentioned lately that I really love the way your mind works?

  • Booksquare // Jul 26, 2005 at 9:57 pm

    And here I thought you stuck around because you have a thing for blondes…

    Now go forth and agitate. It takes a movement (or a village — should probably study history more).

  • Tod Goldberg // Jul 26, 2005 at 10:29 pm

    I think its a fine idea, Kassia, and I’d buy my own used books if I thought I’d see money in return, but I have a hard time seeing publishers, agents and authors finding a middle ground on this, simply because they all want their share. Let’s take a friend of mine who shall go nameless fo example: She received an advance of about 200K and earned out at about 50K, so her publisher is still on the hook for 150K and is trying to recoup anywhere it can — believe me, they’d like their ten cents and the author’s ten cents and the five cents, too. Any time there’s an amount of money going to the artist, it would still have to be measured against what is owed in the recoupable advance, even at a low level such as this and even on a used work, it would seem to me. That’s why some bands can go on hugely successful tours and still end up broke because they owe their labels millions in recording costs and promotion, costs often worked into bad contracts for artists. So while as an author I love this idea, I see no way an publisher would say, Ah, what the hell, give the writer ten cents.

  • Susan Gable // Jul 27, 2005 at 5:20 am

    Who me, agitate? I’ve done tried that. (G) (Yeah, stop looking so surpised. LOL) In fact, there was a huge discussion about this very subject on the Novelist, Inc. list. A solution much like yours was proposed. But then it just kind of sank quietly.

    Too many people are too afraid what could happen if they got vocal about this topic. (i.e. readers getting totally ticked off and not buying books from that author at ALL anymore.)

    We kicked around an idea of educating the reading public about the truths of the biz – sort of like how the movie industry is doing those trailers abour how pirating hurts the “common man” of the movie industry, the guy who runs the camera and is trying to feed his family, etc. Thought that maybe SOME of the readers would care that used book sales are hurting the vast majority of authors who don’t make much money anyway.

    Here’s what one writer has done in an effort to help educate:


  • Booksquare // Jul 27, 2005 at 8:28 am

    You’re right that everyone would want a piece — and, in the example you’ve given above, the author was, essentially, paid in advance for her share of the levy (and her agent, presumably, received his or her share). Thus any monies collected would go against recouping the remaining advance; that’s only fair, seeing that publisher in this scenario had taken all the financial risk. In this case, it would take a lot of used books to make up for 100k. I’m not seeing that the publisher will ever be made whole in this scenario, but if the author had earned out, it would be pure gravy for all parties.

    This is no different from other types of ancillary income, except (and I suppose it depends on your agreement) that I’m suggesting the author’s share not be reduced by being subjected to a royalty. This is why I’m suggesting the publisher receive a share off the top — used book sales cut into their revenues as well (and, yeah, I really do love talking about what some people consider hieroglyphics).

    On the music side, there are so many things wrong with how musicians are charged for recording, promotion, etc, that it would take many posts to address that issue. However, the same model could be applied to used CDs and it might help.

  • Booksquare // Jul 27, 2005 at 9:35 am

    I think the “ticking off readers” argument is lame because, generally, such a fee would be invisible to the readers. If it were five dollars, yes, that would be noticeable, but twenty-five cents isn’t a huge sum (and that’s just my suggestion). Most readers don’t know that authors don’t receive royalties on used books; most readers probably don’t know that authors receive royalties or how they’re derived.

    Provided publishers and authors (and their associates) can come together on such an idea — and that’s really critical — then the largest realm of resistance I see is the used booksellers, because there will be a small increase in prices, plus additional overhead. This is why I would suggest (using my quarter example) splitting the remaining five cents between the bookseller and an organization charged with administering the collection and distribution of funds. Unless I’m misreading financial reports, just getting Amazon on board with the idea would jumpstart the process, while repairing some of the bad feelings that occurred when it decided to make purchasing used books a prominent feature of its business model.

    And, yes, education is a critical component of this. Like I said, most readers don’t understand the financial aspect of writing (most writers don’t understand this, either).

  • Kevin Holtsberry // Jul 27, 2005 at 12:58 pm

    Could someone explain why the author deserves a take of a re-sold book? I bought the book at full price. The book is now mine. If I choose to re-sell it and then that person choses to re-sell why should the author come into the picture? Each person is simply trying to recoup the cost of their original purchase (and make a profit in some cases). Should authors get a cut every time a book is checked out of the library?

  • Booksquare // Jul 27, 2005 at 1:35 pm

    Actually, I believe Canada provides some sort of compensation for authors whose books are checked out of libraries. I have information somewhere in the morass of my inbox because I’m going to write another article on this topic — it’s just not convenient to find it right now.

    As to why authors deserve a take of a resold book? Well, I guess the most obvious answer is that someone else is making money off their work. It’s about fair compensation for work done. Sure you’ve paid for the book, and I’m not suggesting that people don’t have the right to make a profit or recoup their investment — I’m saying that the author should also benefit from subsequent sales. In the motion picture industry, they pay residuals to writers, etc for reusing their talent; why shouldn’t this model be applied to other artists? Writers of books get one shot at earning money off their work — that first sale. Writers of songs, at least, get additional royalties through the lifecycle of their work.

    The business model has changed dramatically over the past ten years, and price is a driving factor (and, as an aside, I’m not entirely convinced that every book being sold used was purchased initially) in consumer behavior. Retailers like Amazon make the choice between used and new books seem equal — again, I’m not sure that most customers understand the mechanics of compensating authors for their work — and used book sales are rising. This affects a publisher’s ability to buy new artists; it also affects a writer’s ability to pursue their vocation.