Two Ways Authors and Publishers Should Make More Money

Suggested corrections for the book publishing industry

Sharon Woodhouse
Mar 3 · 6 min read
Image by Rawpixel.

Having been immersed in various aspects of the book publishing industry for the last 27 years, mostly as an indie book publisher, but also a hybrid publisher, project manager, consultant, author, and coach, I’ve had more than a few thoughts over the years on improvements to the industry, changes I’d like to see.

Three of these ideas have persisted:

1) Nearly all readers read more books than they can possibly afford to buy new. Those who love authors and books most, those most likely to want to support the crafts of writing and publishing, may be most likely to not support these things through their voracious reading habits — taking much of their reading material out of the library or getting it on the cheap at used bookstores, garage sales, swaps with and loans from friends. Is there a way at least some of these activities can be monetized in a way that supports authors and/or authors and publishers?

2) Other creative industries like the music and theater businesses have — decades ago — figured out how to monetize different versions of their artists’ works. Can’t the publishing business do the same?

3) In life, in business, it’s better in my mind to be proactive when we can be rather than reactive. Can book publishing as a business and commercial activity[1] sometimes be proactive? Instead of just responding to trends and reacting to Amazon, can it figure out how to bring about specific, desirable ends? What do we want as an industry? How can we bring those things about?

Bookrolls is one answer to all of the above. A project, a movement, a cause, an idea perhaps whose time has come (I hope!), it is my effort to spread these ideas widely in the book industry and invite meaningful exploration and consideration of them. As the title suggests…maybe these ideas are weak, unworkable; I don’t think so. Change my mind.

So, what is Bookrolls all about? It’s about getting authors and publishers (or whomever the rightsholder/s of a book may be) paid something akin to a royalty when books are re-sold through Amazon, new bookstores, used bookstores, and other outlets in the book industry pipeline.

It’s also about bringing the Public Lending Rights (PLR) concept to the United States, getting authors compensated for the repeated use of their books in public library systems. How long have Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish authors been receiving PLR payments for their books being taken out of libraries? Since the 1940s. What other countries have Public Lending Rights? At least Canada, Ireland, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Israel. A letter published on the Authors Guild site a couple years ago suggested they were starting a discussion on this topic for the United States, but I haven’t heard more. Does anyone know if there’s been movement on this?

Why should we consider the two changes above?

Because it’s right and fair for creators to be paid for their work when it’s enjoyed and consumed. And that includes the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 10th, and 100th time the paper and binding that contain the content (the valuable portion in most cases) is sold to a new buyer.

Because the value is not in the paper, printing, binding. It’s in the creation. The intellectual property. The concept. The package. Readers don’t buy the paper and the binding (typically); they’re buying the story, escape, experience, knowledge, information, entertainment…In short, they’re buying the work of author as polished and presented by the publisher (the entity that corrals the creative efforts of editors, designers, marketers, etc.). Their combined efforts.

Because other creative industries have figured it out, have solved this matter decades ago. It’s time for book publishing to catch up. Consider that playwrights earn royalties every time their play is performed, including when it’s performed for free, when it’s performed at schools, and even for some dress rehearsals. Consider the various types of music royalties and the elaborate system that exists to pay musicians and music rightsholders for radio play, streaming services, live performances, etc., often decades after a song is first released.

Because fixing this will allow the industry and readers to make smart choices for the environment. Selling and re-selling the same copy of a print book is eco-friendly. It’s aligned with many readers’ concern for environmental stewardship and an increasing interest in purchasing secondhand items.

Because fixing this will allow consumers to buy used books (make their own informed choices for the environment and their pocketbook) AND support authors and publishers.

How might we do this?

For the Public Lending Rights component, all we need to do is to review how this works in other countries and adapt it for the U.S., our authors, and libraries. PLR is all about paying authors. Personally, I think it would be ideal to send payments for in-print books to publishers[2] and have them distribute the monies according to splits outlined in contracts. Publishers also lose out from library sales. Most publishers outside the NYC giants can use all the extra support they can get. That said, I’m more flexible on this point.

The technology and necessary infrastructure already exist for ebooks and other digital products. Amazon has a way of handling, charging, collecting, and distributing payments for their ebooks. And not just for purchased copies, but also for “pages read” in ebooks that may come free as part of a package, subscription, or plan. But it’s not just Amazon. There are several ebook distributors that slice and dice content[3] for library usage, corporate portals, university systems, and the like, charging for access, purchase, subscriptions, pages, chapters, mix-and-match compilations, whatever, and sending publishers their cut monthly or quarterly. ProQuest, Knovel, Copyright Clearance Center are a few names in this arena.

We need to amend existing technology and infrastructure to account for print, which remains the format of choice for most readers. Author contracts, which currently account for the spectrum of ebook options, would also need to account for used book sales. That would mean that bookstores would also have to account for this new residual[4] and make it part of their business model and business processes to pay it.

This could be phased in, starting with Amazon, which likely sells the vast majority of used books in the U.S. They already track these sales and can afford to develop a system for making the residual payment, an industry-standard percentage to be determined. Next to phase in would be chain booksellers and indie bookstores, many of which now sell both used and new side by side. Many of these outlets also can likely spit out a sales report for used books with the technology they already have, perhaps making payments twice a year to a payment clearinghouse for this purpose to keep the bookkeeping burden on them minimal. The classic used bookstores would be last, and perhaps their participation would be optional for the first 10+ years, but they could be recognized with signage and extra promotion if they did choose to participate in the residuals program.

That’s it. No one is coming for thrift store books, garage sale books, church book sales, or Little Free Libraries. This is for the industry. An industry that loves books, publishers, and authors, and should be designed just a wee bit better to support the creators.

So, where do you stand on this topic? Would you like to see further discussion of these ideas? What are your ideas? What else do we need to consider? Join in the conversation — to help disseminate these ideas, advocate for them, think through their logistics and implications…or change my mind.

[1] I specify this because I think that book publishing can be and is often proactive when it comes to its products, its creative outputs.

[2] Payments for out-of-print books can go to authors.

[3] For a high-tech and philosophical treatment of micropayments, see Jaron Lanier’s book, , or interviews about its ideas, as this one.

[4] I’ll use residual for this to clearly distinguish the used-copy payments from royalties.


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Sharon Woodhouse

Written by

Sharon Woodhouse is a coach, multipreneur, small business consultant, and book publisher, interested in ideas, cities, big questions, more. TW @ConspireCreativ



SYNERGY hosts articles about all aspects of writing, editing, blogging, and freelancing.

Sharon Woodhouse

Written by

Sharon Woodhouse is a coach, multipreneur, small business consultant, and book publisher, interested in ideas, cities, big questions, more. TW @ConspireCreativ



SYNERGY hosts articles about all aspects of writing, editing, blogging, and freelancing.

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