PayPal Account of Helen DeWitt on 14 June, 2007:
These exhibits are the result of the following e-mail correspondence:
E-mail from Helen DeWitt to George Monbiot on 10 April 2007
I'm a writer, with a book that sold 100,000 in English and was published
in 19 countries. Is it sad that the book did not sell 1 million, like
Captain Corelli's Mandolin or White Teeth?
118 copies are available on Amazon.com for 50 cents and upwards. I only
get paid if a new object is manufactured and sold. On the sale of a new
object for $11.99 I get 90 cents.
I've argued to the Society of Authors that it would be better all round
if we changed the system -- if an author's cut were taken for every
secondhand online sale. If we changed the social system, so authors got
"tipped" -- you buy a book secondhand in a shop, it includes the
author's Paypal account, you recycle the object and send the author a
tip if you liked the book.
Libraries are A Good Thing from the point of view of the ozone layer,
and A Bad Thing for an author who gets something like 1p per loan. I'm
not wildly keen on writing for free, but I'm also not wildly keen on
having getting a $200K advance to have 100K physical objects pushed
into circulation. My understanding is that paper manufacture is
horribly expensive in ecological terms.
I would infinitely rather get paid for 10 sales of 1 book than for 10
sales of 1 book; I think ways could be found to recycle packaging and
cut down transport. The Society of Authors remains tamely unkeen.
I thought: Wait. I once met George Monbiot, the Ecowarrior, at the Pater
Society at BNC. I have a Connection. And as E M Forster famously said,
Astoundingly swift reply from Monbiot on 17 April 2007:
I think this is a great idea. Hasn't something similar been done for artists?: every time you a painting by a living artist is resold, he gets a cut. The circulation of books is certainly more environmentally friendly than constant printing.
We do already have a system a little like this in the UK, called public lending rights: www.plr.uk.com. But it would surely make sense to extend this to secondhand sales. The means you propose sounds plausible.
With my best wishes, George
The Society of Authors remains unkeen; the Authors' Guild is unkeen; but two readers have bought copies of The Last Samurai directly from the author, and one has bought a copy of Your Name Here directly from the author, and the fruits of these transactions are to be seen in my Paypal account (I do have more than $36.65 to my name, you'll be happy to hear).
I don't know how to talk round the official bodies -- but I do think the system we have now is very bad for the planet, and it's indirectly also very bad for literature.
Publishers base their decision to publish new books on the sales of the last book -- that is, on sales of new books, not on readers. But hang on just a minute. Sven Birkerts recently nominated The Last Samurai for an article in the New York Review of Books on unjustly neglected fiction, excellent news -- but if you thought you liked the sound of the book, and it wasn't in bookstores (and an "unjustly neglected" work of fiction almost certainly isn't in a bookstore near you), surely you'd either go to your local library (where you can get it free) or to Amazon (where you can get it for $1.70 plus $3.99 postage). If a reader loves the book and keeps a spare copy to lend out to friends, this is VERY VERY GOOD for the planet (not only is the same physical object being used several times, it is being passed around locally, with negligible use of nonrenewable fossil fuels). But none of these ecologically virtuous readers is visible to publishers as a potential buyer of the next book. So all these green readers indirectly sabotage the writer's chance of getting the next book published. Sad but true.
I have no idea how to twist the arm of Jeff Bezos. I have no idea how to get on Abebooks' case. But surely we can do better than this system? Surely what we're up against, really, is not selfishness or greed but a sociological problem -- and the planet is paying the price.
We-ell. One way of looking at it is: the only way to get authors paid on secondhand or borrowed books is to have the system policed. We need the Public Lending Right to collect. We need Jeff Bezos to collect. We need enforcement. Question is, is this actually right? Who polices tipping? In America it's standard to tip 15%, and my mother says she now leaves 20% because the minimum wage has been outstripped by inflation, and NOBODY HAS TO DO IT. It is not standard for readers to send money directly to authors. However much you love a book, it would be very very odd to send a monetary token of your esteem to the person who wrote it. But the fact that this would be odd is in itself odd.
Giving a waitress a $2 tip for a $12 meal does not improve your chances of getting a good meal next time. Giving a waitress a $3 tip for a $12 meal does not improve your chances of getting a better meal next time. No amount of discretionary generosity to a waitress will have any effect on the quality of the next meal. And the institution of discretionary generosity to waitresses, of course, however laudable in itself, offers no obvious ecological benefit.
By way of contrast--
Contemplating the length of this post, I am reminded of J S Mill's comment early in On the Subjection of Women, that when one is arguing against what "everyone knows" one is obliged to go on at great length, because the number of unexamined assumptions is so large. The institutions which govern the sale of books and payment of authors rest on a very large number of unexamined assumptions -- assumptions with unintended consequences. I think it may be better to pursue the subject in a later post.
I comment, however, that I have linked to the satellite version of the Google Map for a reason. Suppose it were possible to locate on the planet all 100,000 copies of the English-language edition of The Last Samurai rather than the 231 on sale at Abebooks, or the 73 available on Amazon. Suppose we knew the cities in which the book was to be found, suppose some of those owners were willing to be contacted by e-mail by would-be readers of the book who lived locally. Suppose would-be sellers of the book registered with the author rather than with Mr Bezos or Mr Abebooks. If such a system could be made to work, I think we could BOTH slash the quantities of books manufactured and hauled across the planet AND reduce authors' vulnerability to profit-hungry agents and editors. I think it would be A Very Good Thing.
[PS I see that the link to Google Maps does not, in fact, bring up the satellite view, so I did not have the total artistic control I had hoped for -- if you want the satellite view you will have to manually click Satellite. If you want to see the location of the copy in Permina ND more manual clicking will be required.]