December 7, 2012

Dollar books under seige


It’s a truth universally acknowledged, here in the Melville offices, that folks in publishing don’t buy books. At least, they don’t buy shiny new $25.00 hardcovers — or $16.00 paperbacks, for that matter. As do so many other banal truisms, this one applies to me. Publishing people are swimming in books, the theory goes, and they have access to channels outsiders don’t. They get all their books for free. That’s the supply side explanation — publishing people don’t need to spend money on books. My explanation, from the demand side, is equally popular: I don’t have the money.

When I worked at the old Coliseum bookshop on 57th and Broadway, I would marvel (and still do) at the customers who brought stacks of fresh hardcovers to the counter, stacks of not-very-interesting books, and slapped down a credit card to pay for them. (Any retail store is a good place to be jostled by herd behavior or to listen in on hive consciousness but a bookstore can afford a particularly dispiriting vantage on the dominant strains of literate culture. I stood by helplessly as thousands of middle-aged, middle-class, college educated, white people made a bestseller out of The Celestine Prophecy.) As my Coliseum colleague Patrick Shannon used to say, “those people don’t know the value of a dollar.”

The problem with the they-get-all-their-books-for-free argument is that it doesn’t account for the restricted choice of selection. Who is content with what can be had for free? Most of the books I want or think I want are not available to me for free. But I have found that with patience, and with the involuntary doggedness of the mildly compulsive bibliomane, anything can be had for a dollar.

Anyway, I need more books than you do. And different ones. Many are out of print, if that makes you feel any better. Like any naturalized New Yorker I like to crow about the stuff I’ve picked up for next to nothing, to say nothing of the things I’ve found in the street, but the fact that I can buy these things for a dollar tells you how esteemed they are by the market’s invisible hand. “One man’s trash,” and all that.

Luckily, I’ve stockpiled for the much trumpeted “end of print” but before reckoning with that cataclysm, a more immediate threat has arisen. The used book dealers that I have relied on for my entire hoard may soon be out of business — depending on how the Supreme Court rules on the interpretation of copyright law advanced by John Wiley & Sons Inc. v. Kirtsaeng.

According to the Christian Science Monitor:

Under scrutiny is the Copyright Act’s 1908 “first sale” doctrine, which provides that after a copyrighted good (like a book or CD) has been sold once, it can be resold for profit without the authorization of the copyright owner. At the crux of the matter (and what the Court is ruling on) is whether the “first sale” doctrine applies to any copyrighted work, regardless of where it was manufactured, or only those manufactured in the US.

If it rules that the “first sale” doctrine only applies to copyrighted goods manufactured in the US, it could render illegal the sale of used books, media, art, and other copyrighted works produced abroad. Which is why interested parties, from the Association of American Publishers to Goodwill to eBay, Powell’s Books, and the American Library Association are watching the case closely.

Local secondary market stalwart Strand bookstore has joined Powell’s Books, Half Price Books, and the Harvard Bookstore in a brief of amici curiae on behalf of the defendant, Kirtsaeng. (You can read all the briefs on the SCOTUS blog, here.) “In the modern world,” the brief says,

traffic in ideas and goods is international. Books first published in the United States are frequently manufactured abroad. Books first released abroad are sold over the internet everywhere in the world. Buyers of books also travel, and frequently resell their books in a different place from where they bought them.

The “practical effect” of a ruling in favor of John Wiley & Sons would be

to make it more difficult for struggling bookstores to sell used books. A bookstore has no way of knowing whether the used books it buys were first sold in the United States or not. But under the Second Circuit’s ruling, bookstores could be sued at any time for offering books that turn out to have been lawfully sold by the publishers on the wrong side of a border.

Get yours while you still can.




Dan O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Melville House.