There has been a bit of fussiness in publishing over the past few weeks regarding the rise of used bookstores as cultural centers/ways to screw writers. While many are coming down on the side of “any exposure, even through piracy” is good, many more writers are taking the “pay the writer” tack. The good news is that they’re both right.
First, let’s look at the history of the argument. Around Christmas the Washington Post ran an article about how used bookstores became cultural hubs in small towns and cities where cultural hubs were hard to find. This is great. A used bookstore is a swell place to drink coffee and look smart while you peruse the poetry section. A used bookstore is a boon for young writers who can use it as a hub, a space for readings, and a place to explore writing. Amazon is awful at helping you discover new writing and scrounging through an old bookstore is marginally better – but only marginally. But at least there are sometimes brownies in a bookstore.
What some writers are concerned with, however, is the idea that they make no money from used book sales. Because no royalties come from the gray market, they wager, there is no benefit to used bookstores. In short, it’s the old “F you, pay me” argument, one that is at once cogent and logical.
So both camps are correct but I worry that the first camp will soon be wrong. Here is the hard truth: the opportunity to have a books resold in a used bookstore is fading quickly. In a perfect world I’d love for a used bookstore to feature any one of my titles in all its ragged, pre-read glory. But I am not a fool. I understand that the opportunity for my books to appear in print in any great number is now over. I will publish books in ebook form and sell them in paperback as an afterthought. There is no benefit to going with a traditional publishing when I can do so much myself and save my sanity in the process.
Go ahead and read this great piece by Kristen Lamb about why authors need to get paid. She has some very strong points and I enjoyed her writing. She wrote:
Great stuff. Funny stuff. But take a look at her last paragraphs:
She is making money selling classes to writers who could, ironically, self assemble those classes at bookstores. To be clear I am amazingly pleased by this. There is enough awful writing out there that any education will help. But the very thing she is upset about – the idea that bookstores can resell your titles – presumes there are books to resell in used book stores. This will soon not be the case and print books will become artisanal objets D’art relegated to used bookstores when reading and writing will attempt to take root and blossom.
I want to pay writers all day long but our culture and many technological advances have made that an unpopular option. You are not paying to read these words – or you are paying, indirectly, through your attention – and I have been blessed to be allowed to enter so many of your heads with my scribblings. Soon all writing will reach a central inflection point when “free or cheap” becomes the norm and print is expensive. This will, in turn, reduce the number of books available to bookstores in general and used bookstores in specific. In the end, paying the author will become much easier and bookstores will snuff out like candles in he wilderness. What happens then is anyone’s guess, but it won’t be pretty.