Is authorship about to pay even less?

Last November, I wrote about a thorny Supreme Court case, Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons. In short, it revolves around the right to import copyrighted works intended for overseas use and resell them. Kirtsaeng, a Thai student who made a load of cash reselling textbooks produced for the Thai market, won the day.

In some respects, this is a good thing. You no longer need worry about reselling a CD you buy while on vacation outside our borders, something which would have been prohibited had Wiley & Sons won. This is a victory for used record shops, used book stores and eBay.

But in a very interesting piece, president of the Authors’ Guild Scott Turow argues that this is another major blow in the slow pummeling of American authors–it basically means that cheaper imports could not only undercut authors’ royalties in regular sales, but take authors entirely out of the equation. The sales would be considered secondhand, and the authors need not receive a penny.

This is sticky stuff, and pretty sobering for anyone who’s trying to get a book published. Existing laws that stretch to address the emerging models of book sales really need to evolve or get replaced, and fast.

Some excerpts from Turow:

The value of copyrights is being quickly depreciated, a crisis that hits hardest not best-selling authors like me, who have benefited from most of the recent changes in bookselling, but new and so-called midlist writers.

Take e-books. They are much less expensive for publishers to produce: there are no printing, warehousing or transportation costs, and unlike physical books, there is no risk that the retailer will return the book for full credit.

But instead of using the savings to be more generous to authors, the six major publishing houses — five of which were sued last year by the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division for fixing e-book prices — all rigidly insist on clauses limiting e-book royalties to 25 percent of net receipts. That is roughly half of a traditional hardcover royalty.

An even more nightmarish version of the same problem emerged last month with the news that Amazon had a patent to resell e-books. Such a scheme will likely be ruled illegal. But if it is not, sales of new e-books will nose-dive, because an e-book, unlike a paper book, suffers no wear with each reading. Why would anyone ever buy a new book again?

Hyperbole, or rapidly approaching nightmare?

James Heflin

Author: James Heflin

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