For those who aren't familiar with Seanan McGuire she's an amazing urban fantasy writer well known for interacting with fan and giving straight answers when necessary. I love her Toby Daye books, and she has several other series, so be sure to check her out if UF is your cuppa tea. With her permission I'm reposting Seanan's reply to what authors think about used books and why used books and piracy aren't the same thing.
The Original Question:
Do you get royalties on used books, or are they okay because they've given you royalties before?
I do not get royalties on used books. But! Used books are awesome and amazing and so important. I cannot overstress how important they are. They keep the cycle of reading going; they mean that worlds are not closed off to people just because they don’t have that much money right now. They keep things that are out of print available and accessible.
That said, I get angry—and not at you; you didn’t do this; this is just something I see with dismaying frequency—when people say “oh, if used books, which don’t pay royalties, are okay, then piracy must also be okay. Or you’re a hypocrite.”
A used book is a singular artifact. If my publisher decides that they’re only going to print 1,000 copies of my next book (chosen because it’s a nice, simple number), that means there are 1,000 copies in the world. 500 of them wind up in private collections. Another 200 wind up in libraries (and may become used books in three to five years, if they don’t fall apart). Assume 200 are stripped (covers removed and returned to the publisher). That leaves 100 copies—10% of the original print run—to enter the used book ecosystem.
They will be bought by teenagers counting their pennies. By college students doing the same. By single parents trying to have some good things while also feeding their kids. By homeless people who enjoy reading, but can’t justify more than two or three dollars for a paperback. By bargain hunters and people who want to sample the series and minimum wage workers and people from a thousand other walks of life that I can’t even guess at. And always, there will be 100 of them. If enough people express dismay at not being able to find the book, used or new, there may be a second print run. Options remain open.
Now let’s assume that when my publisher decided to only print 1,000 copies of my book, some enterprising soul said “damn the Man,” and put it up for free download. 5,000 copies were downloaded. There is no math that says “of those 5,000 copies, 2,000 were lost sales”; that just isn’t a thing that can be defined. But when my publisher sees that 5,000 copies were downloaded, they’ll see it as 5,000 lost sales. Not 2,000; not 2; 5,000. So the odds of a second print run go way, way down.
Let’s return to the used book ecosystem for a moment. When you buy a used book from my local Half-Price Books, no, I don’t get royalties. But the store pays its rent. People are employed. The lights stay on. People who need money can sell their books to the store to be sold to other people looking for a little joy. A used book is joy magnified. It is something paid forward into the world. A pirated book is a dead end. Maybe someone is happy because they didn’t pay $4 for a used book, or $8 for a new one. That someone has endangered the author’s income (“Oops, her piracy stats are terrible, and she only sold 5,000 copies of her last book, let her go”), the survival of the library system, which is already under attack (“No one’s borrowing these books, so why are we budgeting for them?”), and the survival of the used bookstore, which uplifts and benefits its local community.
I know I can’t convince people not to pirate. I know that every time I talk about piracy, my own piracy numbers spike, because now I’m a good target. But the math is pretty clear. Piracy benefits the pirate; new book sales benefit the author; used book sales benefit the world.
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