Thursday, June 14, 2007

Greening of Books

Geographical distribution of copies of The Last Samurai available through Abebooks on 11 June, 2007 can be seen here.

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
 Mr Monbiot

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 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,
Only connect.

Any thoughts?

Helen DeWitt

Astoundingly swift reply from Monbiot on 17 April 2007:

Dear Helen,

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: 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.

Any thoughts?

[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.]


Anonymous said...

One reason there aren't more copies of TLS on abebooks is that I bought many copies in dustwrapper like new to give as graduation presents. Supporting the idea of supporting authors, I sent a check directly to the author to cover royalties. Just for fun, I followed up with another payment via PayPal to cover future purchases. There's nothing quite so enjoyable as putting your money where your mouth is; assuming you have both money and mouth. You can do it too! It's fun and you get to contribute directly to an author's well-being. I don't give money to William James' estate when I find Intrductory Lectures..., but for all living authors consider a contribution when you purchase a used book. My next goal is to buy futures of Your Name Here.

Anonymous said...

I would be more than happy to tip you for the used copy of The Last Samurai I just bought on Amazon the other day, though I hope that my relentless cheerleading on behalf of your book for the past couple years at least partially makes up for that. I have looked in vain for a Paypal donation link on your site or an opportunity to buy direct from the author, though.

While I'm here, thank you for blogging.

Helen DeWitt said...

Peter -- THANK you for being the PayPal guinea pig. They SAID it was not necessary to register with PayPal to send a payment, a claim that it seems was somewhat frugal with truth. Still, it's good to know that it's not especially complicated.

anon -- you are absolutely right, there is currently no PayPal button in the blog (or, for that matter, website). I looked at all the PayPal buttons and they were all repulsive -- I did not want them on my site. [was going to comment at much greater length but shd perhaps have another post]

Thank you VERY much for telling people about The Last Samurai. I live in Berlin, so it probably wouldn't be practical for me to sell copies directly to people outside Germany -- at least not unless I could persuade friends in other countries to act as local liaison. My friend John Abella, a vet in the Oceanside-Carlsbad area, has offered to sell Your Name Here at Aloha Animal Hospital -- perhaps I should sort out the logistics in case others were also willing to take something like this on.

Anonymous said...

I have to say I'm intrigued by your idea. It makes since now that you think about it. A similar thing is done in the computer programming community. Many programmers
develop programs that they make available for free, and they have
links on their websites to PayPal for people to make donations so
as to support their cause and encourage them to work on further
developing that specific program, or just to encourage them to
develop more programs. It makes since that this could be applied
to books. If an author developed a website, even just a simple one
where people could go to find information about said author and then of course have the opportunity to make a contribution to the author so as to encourage their writing. I think your idea is brilliant. There are thousands of ways I'm sure your idea can be put into effect.

What writers could do is have a page or paragraph in the back of
each of their books where all the "About the Author" information is
that gives the website address, and says something along the lines
of: "If you've purchased this book secondhand, please visit. . . "
Or something along those lines. Each secondhand reader could make
a donation, or even if they don't want to make a donation, they could
still just fill out a small form that documents they bought the book
secondhand so the author could get a realistic estimate of how many
copies of their books become secondhand. And for that matter, you could have it be just a general form asking them if they've read the book, and if so if it was library, new purchase, or secondhand.

A comparison can also be made with the music community. Musicians make a certain amount of money off of each album sold, but they actually make more money from touring and such. I'm not a big fan of buying compact discs because I'd rather spend the money on more important things that I need like groceries and books. (My mind would eventually starve and die without books, so they are a need.)I can actually go without food more than I can without reading and learning, I'm sure you understand. Anyway, back to the point at hand, I don't purchase an album unless I'm crazy about the musician/band. What I do do, however, is support them in other ways, such as going to a concert and such. I've spent god knows how much money on Sigur Ros every time they come to the States. I love their music, and thought I don't own all their albums, I've actually spent more money on them than people who JUST buy albums. The point is that when an artist tours, it gives fans an outlet to support them, especially monetarily. There's really no parallel with the book business. I mean, there are book tours, but authors really only tour when there's a new book. Though many musicians tour specifically to promote a new album, it's not a requirement. Many just go on tour to promote their music in general. The book business itself basically limits the ways readers can support their favorite authors. I think your idea is a step in the right direction.

Jon Jermey said...

Do I get a refund from the author of a book if I sell my copy to a secondhand bookshop or put it on eBay? Fair's fair, after all..

Helen DeWitt said...

Readers sell books secondhand for all kinds of reasons. A reader who returns a book to the library (having borrowed it for free) does not demonstrate that s/he thought it was a bad book by returning the book to the library. There are plenty of books I've read once and never mean to read again; the fact that I don't want to read a book twice doesn't mean that I regret having bought it new.

A good example would be Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey and Maturin series: I borrowed the first volume from a library, went on to borrow every volume I could get my hands on from a library, bought new the volumes not available from my library and bought in hardback the last few volumes in the series as soon as they came out, being unable to wait till they came out in paperback. My guess is that, if I am going to set about rereading a long series of books, I am likelier to REread A la recherche du temps perdu -- but that doesn't mean that the O'Brians were a waste of time. I have a feeling I ended up giving the hardbacks to Oxfam -- not a vote against O'Brian, just realism as to my own reading habits, combined with the hope that other readers would discover this splendid writer. But I would have felt better if I'd thought those other readers were likely to send the odd quid the way of the splendid P O'B., and for that matter would have been happier if I could have sent him a pound apiece for all the books I'd read gratis.

Speaking for myself, if a reader buys a book and feels aggrieved at the unnecessary expense, I'd be happy to refund the dollar or so that was my cut of the cover price -- thought I'd be happier if the aggrieved reader registered the book up for resale on my blog or website. 90% of the cover price of a book goes to people other than the author, so they are presumably the ones who should compensate for the remaining 90% of the dissatisfaction.

Lee said...

An interesting idea, though one at first glance I'm not sure I'd support. Most other secondhand objects are sold without any return to their original makers. Wouldn't it be better to rethink the entire publishing paradigm?

And I'll be blunt. There are plenty of authors who would be very satisfied with having sold 100,000 copies - most midlist writers, for example, some of whom do excellent work but fail to have their third novel taken on for lack of sufficient sales. Clare Dudman is a perfect example.

And then there is the E-route, which in time may offer viable alternatives to writers. I'm not banking on it yet; I'll leave that to the next generation.

Anonymous said...

I now this post is not recent, but I read and kept thinking... the thing is not only if the author gets some money in secondhand sales (and I think the author should) but... what about e-books? Will the paper book cease to exist when people start reading books in their e-readers ou iphones or whatever?

And what about piracy?

Of course, I live in Brazil and around here the problem is DVD / software and games piracy. I live in a region (Brazil is very very big so each region is completely different from the other) in south Brazil where everybody read a lot but the average for the country is something like 4,7 book per citizen per year; If nobody reads, why think about book piracy anyway?

I think this subjetcs are all conected - ecological publishing, second-hand sales money, e-books and piracy and whatnot. And I think the authors should get more money anyway.