December 2, 2014

A state-by-state guide to literary bankruptcy


The Book of Mormon: not just a musical. Image via Wikipedia.

The Book of Mormon: not just a musical. Image via Wikipedia.

Bankruptcy is not a laughing matter, for the most part. However, it is a complex field of the law that in its study can lead one down some pretty interesting paths. Take, for instance, the story of Anna Robinson.

In 2013, Robinson filed for bankruptcy in the state of Illinois. The sale of assets in order to pay off debts is a standard procedure in bankruptcy court, and the state of Illinois allows certain assets to be exempt from liquidation, including bibles and school books. Robinson, who is a practicing Mormon, owned a number of copies of The Book of Mormon (“Choloform in print” – Mark Twain). One of these copies happened to be an original printing from 1830, appraised at $10,000. Robinson had found the rare book in 2003, in a library where she was employed, and convinced the library to give it to her for the low price of nothing. Since then, she’s kept it in a plastic bag, and though the bible is in too poor condition to be read, she claims she takes it out every once and a while to show interested parties.

When Robinson declared the book on her list of personal assets provided to the bankruptcy court, the appointed trustee argued that the book was non-exempt, as the statute did not exempt valuable bibles, only “necessary” bibles, apparel, and pictures. The bankruptcy court agreed, on the basis that the bible was too damaged and fragile to be used as a “daily worship aid”. The district court then reversed the decision, with all the philosophical musing that makes court documents totally worth reading.

What is a necessary bible?  Of course a bible is not necessary to the extent that one needs it for sustenance.  It can only be necessary for spiritual reasons.  The Trustee argues this particular Bible is not necessary because Robinson has multiple copies of the Book of Mormon.  Robinson counters that this Bible has special meaning to her because it is a first edition.  The Court doubts it is in a position to determine the spiritual necessity of any book.

So Robinson gets to keep her rare bible, as can any other bankrupt citizens of the state of Illinois, assuming they own one. However, this got me thinking. If each state has their own specific exemptions for Chapter 7 bankruptcy (which involves liquidation, versus Chapter 11 which involves reorganization), which states are the most exemption-friendly for books? I did some research, and the results were surprising.

(Disclaimer: I pulled this information from Nolo, which advertises itself as a source of basic legal knowledge for the lay person. These exemptions may have changed, and the on-the-books specifics are predictably abstruse, so none of this should be taken as gospel for anyone looking to declare bankruptcy tomorrow, and you should definitely find a helpful lawyer.)

All 50 sets of state exemptions share certain aspects. The assets that one can  claim exemptions on are usually either benefits (like pensions, personal injury settlements, and child support) and big possessions (like vehicles, property, and houses). This varies a bit from state to state, but most allow you to keep equity or otherwise a portion of your assets before you have to surrender them to your debtors.

Books, meanwhile, are exempted in two ways; either as personal property, or as “tools of the trade”. One imagines the latter to include manuals, reference books, and miscellaneous grey literature, though we in publishing understand that literally any book ever is a tool of the trade, which is why moving apartments sucks so much. The “personal property” designation is often limited by value or type; books can be exempted as long as they aren’t too valuable, or as long as they’re a sacred book used for worship. Most states also include a “wildcard exemption”, which despite sounding like an UNO move is much less fun. This is your get-out-of-liquidation free card; it applies toward things that otherwise aren’t covered, up to a point. For instance, you probably can’t claim a wildcard exemption on a swimming pool full of gold coins.

Of the states that cap the value of books as personal property, the one that allows the highest dollar amount of exempt books is Wisconsin, which allows for up to $12,000 of your personal possessions to be exempt. This can mean a lot of things, including pets and guns, but if you’ve got $12,000 of books in Wisconsin that you want the court to keep their grubby paws off, you’re set, as long as you don’t need clothes or food. Wisconsin also allows for exemptions of up to $15,000 for professional books, so as long as you keep your hidden bundles of cash inside hollowed-out auto repair manuals, you’ll be fine.

Coming in a close second in book-friendly bankruptcy statues is Mississippi, which lets you keep up to $10,000 in personal property, specifically including books. But Missisippi also allows anyone over 70 to claim an additional $50,0000 wildcard exemption on personal property, so if you’re a septuagenarian who’s bad with money and you have a rare book collection, you’re not just husband material, you’re also destined to live in Mississippi.

The states that let you claim the least in exempt books are Arkansas and South Dakota, which both allow a paltry $200 for bibles and books. Arizona does a little better by allowing up to $250, and it also exempts books “used for the instruction of youth”, but as we know, it’s hard to find any in Arizona that are worth keeping.

Beyond that, the law gets both hazy (the term “family library” is thrown around a lot, which these days can include everything from a room of pristine Folio Society editions to whatever’s stacked on the back of the toilet) and weirdly specific. Kentucky lets you keep $1000 worth of your “professional library” as well as one spare tire. If you’re in Iowa, you can keep up to $1000 of your private library, but you have to choose between either your rifle or your musket. So if you’re a bankrupt Iowa MFA who happens to still live there and you’re also a Civil War reenactor, you’re out of luck in so many ways.

Rhode Island seems like they’re being miserly by only allowing $300 of books and bibles, but they also allow full exemption of wages for “the wife and the minor children of any debtor”, so if you’re feeling the financial walls closing in, put your wife and kids to work in the family bookstore and pay them solely in first editions. Nevada, meanwhile, knows exactly what it’s about, and will let you off the hook for “metal-bearing ores, geological specimens, art curiosities, or paleontological remains” as long as they’re properly catalogued. This is as good a reason as any to make sure your catalogue of ores is written in the margins of your signed hardcovers. It may knock a few thousand off the price on ABE, but it’s better than losing it to Uncle Sam. Plus it’s Nevada. People travel to Nevada (though not by Uber) specifically to lose money. Be smart.

You’re probably wondering about New York, the central point of American publishing. Well, it sucks. The Excelsior State only allows for $50 in non-Biblical books, and enough food and fuel for 60 days. If you can convince the court that the books are tools of the trade, they allow another $600 of wiggle room, with another grand for wildcard exemption. But, come on, $1650 in New York? You might as well burn your leftover books for heat. (Note; we’re not advocating book burning. State law is.) You’re better off claiming federal exemptions instead, which let you get away with almost $13,000 worth of personal and professional books. Though I think when you do that, Janet Yellen meets you in a room and tells you that one day she’ll call upon you to do a service.

So in conclusion: if your financial boat is taking on water, and you don’t want to lose your library, you could do a lot worse than moving to Milwaukee.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.