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Do You Think About Author Compensation When You Buy Books Online?

Matt Selman offers A Moral Guide to Online Book Buying, in which he says:

The sticky question is this: when you buy a book online, you must ask yourself, “Who needs the money more — the author or the bookstore?”

Authors deserve to be paid for their work, but America’s independent bookstores are dying. When you buy a NEW book on Amazon, a royalty is paid to the author, and the rest of the money goes to the publisher and Amazon. When you buy a USED copy from a network of independent book sellers, like Alibris or AbeBooks or even Amazon Marketplace, the store gets (almost) all the money — and the author gets nothing.

Yes, ’tis a sticky question indeed. That’s why I steal books. πŸ™‚

How about you? Do you think about author compensation when you buy books online?

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

25 Comments on Do You Think About Author Compensation When You Buy Books Online?

  1. urbancontra // September 28, 2008 at 12:53 am //

    I think the best thing you can do for an author is to buy their books from retail channels to bolster their sales numbers.  They might not get too much actual cash from the sale, but a publisher will be more inclined to keep publishing their books if they sell well.  Until self-publishing becomes more feasible, trying to keep an author in business is probably the best you can do.

  2. When I buy anything, my first and only consideration is me. Personally, I don’t give a rat’s ass about anything beyond getting what I want as cheaply as I can. If that means some authors will stop publishing because they can’t make money then I suppose that job at the local Jiffy Lube will be filled. If that sounds cruel, it is. If the world has one less writer, so be it.

  3. Being a consumer lately is tricky. You’re dammed if you and if you don’t. I don’t buy anything made in China. With food purchases, because of a variety health factors, I have to read the label on everything, to make sure there isn’t MSG, grape juice concentrate, excess sodium, etc. within. And then, food manufacturers are allowed a certain percentage of MSG in their food — and they don’t have to put it on their labels! (Therefore, I don’t buy Campbell’s Soup.)

    I don’t download movies online, however, I do download TV shows.

    I don’t buy books that have had their covers ripped off. When I do buy a used book, I know the author was compensated for the original sale when the book was new. I do try to buy from my local used bookstores, however, when I can’t find what I’m looking for there, I do use the online sites.

  4. I do well over half my buying at the annual Readercon, thus giving my business to those independant stores that cater to SF & F literature. I have also discovered that there are three “genre” store along the path of my upcoming roadtrip through Maine and the Maritimes. Provided they withstand Kyle I will probably do a bit of buying there as well.

    Most everything else I buy at brick-n-mortars, but wait until it comes out in paperback.

    And I do a lot used store buying, usually searching for back-catalogs of authors I discover.


  5. My local store has poor selection, bad hours, and it’s owned by a cat lady who glares it me when I go in. Yet I’m supposed to get weepy at the thought it might close…




  6. Second hand books? That argument has been around as long as I’ve been reading. But…if it weren’t for second hand books at various stages of my life, I would have had a lot fewer books and made a lot fewer discoveries.

    Small stores? They don’t exist around here. Haven’t, for years and years. So it is the “big box” or nothing.

    I think the local store is an urban myth…

  7. I shop exclusively between and Half-Priced Books, neither of which is the best option for an author to see some sort of a return on their work. My take is convenience and low price trumps everything else.

  8. I sometimes consider royalties when buying a book by an author I like, but I don’t feel a moral obligation to do so. I feel that that’s a matter between the author and his/her publisher. I don’t give too much thought to employee benefits when shopping at the local grocery chain, either. If I stopped to consider the economic consequences of every purchase I make in terms of who gets what, I’d likely never get any shopping done.

    For me, the main utility of used bookstores (online or brick-and-mortar) is in obtaining an author’s backlist, particularly given that I much prefer hardcover over MMPB. If a book has been out much over 9 months, it’s often impossible to obtain new hardcovers. And BTW, I consider remainders on the same level as used — the author receives very little, if any, of the proceeds from them.

    In short, if a book I want is available in hardcover through normal retail (new) channels, I buy it that way. If not, I won’t feel bad going through the used market.

  9. I have no qualms against second-hand books, because it does all work out. and as Neil Gaiman says, books are there to be READ. Second-hand books are fine and dandy for that.


    I tend to think about this issue, not because I’m a writer myself (although I am) but because I have really come to despise and am boycotting them. And from there, one gets to thinking about big box stores in general and starts trying to find ways to order from indie bookstores again, just to keep ’em afloat.

    (not that I have any money to order ANY books right now, but if I DID)

    So it does cross my mind, but I’m not beholden to it. When I’m buying books, I’m in full drooling reader mode (eternally frustrated that there are so many things to read, and I don’t have lifespan enough for all of them, all the things I want to know) and I tend not to think about anything other than buybookbuybookbuybook… πŸ™‚

  10. I don’t buy used books if there is a new version available. I don’t buy imports if there is a US version, available or scheduled. I bought exclusively from independent Borderlands Books when I lived in San Francisco, and now that I live in a town with no independent genre stores, I still order from them on occassion. I will also buy a hardcover at a chain for a friend’s book in the week it comes out to help his/her initial sales numbers.These are all personal choices, evolved over several years in this business. No on has any obligation to think about anyone beyond themselves, but thank god some people do.

    In Britain, authors are actually paid a royalty on library books, to a yearly price cap. I wish we had that system here.

  11. I use the library.

    When I do buy books, I buy hard covers. I’m lucky enough to have a specialty SF bookstore I can go to (Pandemonium Books), and Readercon is a great resource for small press books and small regional bookstores. I feel no qualms about buying second hand.

    The best thing you can do for an author is to tell your friends.

  12. Technically, authors do get money from used books sales, just not a whole lot. If a book is sold in a retail bookstore, the author gets their regular royalty, which is the largest amount. If the book is sold to the bookstore or a warehouse store or other vendor, such as Amazon, for a substantial discount, depending on the publisher, the author’s royalty may be reduced to accomodate the lower price. Used bookstores get their supplies from retail bookstores and from wholesale distributors who have already paid the publisher for the books. Depending on the type of sale, the author will get a small royalty on net receipts the publisher received from these sales. If the books were sold as remainders at cost, however, which a fair amount of used books are, then the author doesn’t usually get any royalty, even on net receipts.

    Used bookstores also buy books from people who frequently already paid the full price for the book, which gave the author a royalty. While the author then doesn’t get a second royalty from the resale, the author does get other benefits — it keeps the books in circulation and exposes them to a wider new audience, who, if they like the book they got for cheap, may buy the author’s next, new book for full price at a bookstore. (Particularly useful if the book bought at the used bookstore is out of print otherwise.) Used bookstore customers are chiefly book junkies, who buy new books at bookstores, but also want to try lots of other authors they couldn’t afford otherwise, and who don’t care if every book they have is shiny and new. Used bookstores save a lot of books from being thrown out or pulped, which is what usually happens if they are returned to the publisher, or if a big vendor like Amazon hasn’t got the storage space, or if someone decides to clean out their shelves.

    If we object to used bookstores, then we might as well say that we should shut down the libraries, which also let people read their works without even paying for it. But the benefits of both systems in audience exposure and growth generally outweigh the loss of a very small stream of revenue. Nobody gets particularly rich off of used books, as witnessed by as many used bookstores closing shop as independent bookstores — many of the latter who rely on used bookselling to supplement their store’s income and to offset overstock that they can’t return to the booksellers.

    Lou, are you saying that Pyr sells books to libraries for free? That the author doesn’t even receive say a 5% royalty on net receipts for library sales? Because that sounds strange, and not the way it’s been in the U.S. in the past.






  13. I find myself going to my Friends of the Library Bookstore – nobody can beat the price ($1 for most hardcovers and 25 cents for most paperbacks) – but if I am really into an author I will buy anything I can track down – I just bought 2 copys of Anathem – 1 signed and 1 to read – and I am also more than willing to buy Limited Editions – it is just with a used bookstore when I am paying quite a bit less I am more willing to pick up a book from an author that I am unfamiliar with than if I go to a Big Chain Bookstore

  14. Edward Milewski // September 28, 2008 at 4:12 pm //

    I buy lots of books online; some new, some used. I like them to be as cheap as possible as that way I can actually buy  more and try out different authors. I recently bought a second hand mystery. It was enjoyed. It was by a new author to me. Now I’m looking for others by the same author. Some will be new if available and others will be used because that is the only way one can get them if you want them.

    If the author is paid for the initial sell, I’ve no qualms buying used. He is already paid. Should GM be paid if someone buys a used GM car?Don’t think so.

  15. Anyone remember when Garth Brooks claimed the entire after-market was unethical?

  16. Garth who? Does he write fantasy?



  17. Polish SF writer Rafal A. Ziemkiewicz even argued that libraries are unethical.

  18. I’ve never heard of a Girth Brooks, but that sounds like the opinion that twit Chris Gaines would have had!

    (Really, Pete? Is that as topical a joke as you can manage? Really?)

    Actually, the site that’s impressed me of late is which I got off of Neil Gaiman’s blog. Showing it to friends, I discovered everyone knew about it but me.

    I buy books based on my income of the moment. In theory, if I could buy all new books, all the time, and from indie bookstores or publishers, sure, I’d do it in a shot without hesitation. And I’d eat healthier too. But sometimes, you gotta eat ramen noodles, and you gotta buy used books, or percentage-marked-off books at Barnes & Noble or what-have you.

    If the option is between buying books at The Wrong Sort Of Shop, or not reading, then I’d make the wrong choice every time.

    (I use my local library, a huge cathedrel of a building, too; loads of stuff there, from a network of libraries, it’s fantastic. As Mr. Anders says, I wish that we had the UK system in the US, too. And if wishes were horses…)

  19. Jim Shannon // September 28, 2008 at 10:06 pm //

    I rarely go to a 2nd hand book store. Too many broken series and books in questionable condition. At least books on Ebay (in most cases) will show the cover of the book and will give a complete breakdown of it’s condition and chances are the Ebay seller will have other books of similar interest for the buyer in their store. If I want a book in print I’ll order from my local independent bookstore every time. They care more about local customer loyalty then the chains. Also here in Canada when our dollar was at parity with the US dollar my local bookstore gave its customers American pricing. They held it for as long as they could. Way to go Audrey’s. As for the national chains, shows they’re only in it for the book. The independent bookstores are in it for the love of what they do. Also, at Audrey’s I met some well known SF authors doing book signings. Audrey’s is always having signings and free finger food. Audrey’s books and Ebay rock.


  20. Lou, are you saying that Pyr sells books to libraries for free?

    No, KatG, of course not. And you make very good points, all of which I agree with.

    I was saying that UK libraries track how often a book is checked out, and pay an additional royalty on a yearly basis. It’s capped at only a few thousand pounds, so it isn’t a huge amount, but a hundred or thousand dollars extra a year is still nice! I don’t see how there is any practical way we could implement the system here though.


     With rare exceptions (very famous authors) the worst thing for an author is being unknown.  There are far more books availible than people who read regularly can possibly read. Anything that gets someone to read an author is good for that author. I have found many authors in the used book store, free e-book or at the library that I then liked so much I went out at bought more from that author!  

  22. What Cash said, hundred percent. Amen.

  23. As an author, I want all my little babies to find a good home.

    Ultimately, I don’t care about royalties on individual copies. I care about a readership. Ultimately, if people are reading your books and talking about them it will increase the sales of both used and new books.

    I want all my little babies to find a good home.

  24. When I buy books at a retail store, the artist gets paid and we’re even. Those books, then, belong to me. In the past, I had the freedom to resell those books–at a yard sale, to a used book store, whatever–and didn’t owe the artist a dime. Now, all the sudden, if I want to sell them on the net, I’m evil?      

  25. “I was saying that UK libraries track how often a book is checked out, and pay an additional royalty on a yearly basis. It’s capped at only a few thousand pounds, so it isn’t a huge amount, but a hundred or thousand dollars extra a year is still nice! I don’t see how there is any practical way we could implement the system here though.”


    That is a nice system, but unfortunately, the U.S. library system is just too big and too poorly funded by too many different governmental agencies, etc.,  to copy it. Maybe if we end up with e-books lending, authors could get per-click advertising dollars or something, like the websites.

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