On buying second hand books

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On buying second hand books.


“I saw a tweet the other day, it said that — if you buy a second hand book — the author doesn’t get any royalties. The writer, of the tweet, seemed to think it was a bad thing.”


“I suppose we need writers to be compensated for their work.”


“Is that obligation on the consumer though? To say nothing about people who can’t afford new, first editions. I always find these conversations tricky. While I understand the necessity of people getting paid for their labour, creating a positive obligation on anyone who enjoys that sort of work to pay for it seems odd.”


“How do you mean?”


“Well I mean… it’s the publishers and associated middlemen that are making the money from it. Like publishing, art or whatever, all operates under capitalism. So the writer writes, and the publisher extracts the difference between the value of what was written and what the writer was paid in the form of profit. I just think it’s middle class nonsense to blame people for not buying your book to avoid having to critique your systematic exploitation.”


“But like, it’s a very different form of exploitation. It’s not like writers are at the coal face. They’re, sometimes, earning multiples of the average industrial wage.”


“Well yeah, but that’s a labour aristocracy surely. Certain aspects of the labouring class getting above what their labour power alone would earn, for a confluence of factors. A benefit of sitting at the apex of imperialism.”


“I dunno, it seems vulgar to just force this into neat Marxian boxes. I really find it hard to accept any definition of a writer that is neatly and simplistically working class. Like footballers, or whatever. You just sound like the Jacobin mag’s Twitter. ‘Tom Brady is a worker’. Those things just seem facile. I’m not sure a maximalist definition of class aids analysis, obscuring — as it does — the power relationships that exist between people who may be wage labourers but are still immensely wealthy and the genuinely working class.”


“Well I think the Jacobin stuff is gauche, but surely there’s some merit in pointing out the commonality in exploitation. Like Cristiano Ronaldo might have enough labour power to only have a tiny percentage of any value realised expropriated, but there is still a sum. And that concept surely has some value?”


“I really don’t see it. Like Cristiano’s wages are such a minute fraction of his income, with image rights and the rest, that I just don’t see the point in parcelling that out. I think a more interesting conversation is why the wage model has persisted in elite sports and other realms where the star is capable of leveraging his value.”


“Well it’s to do with ownership surely. Like obviously. And then we’re back to the idea that it’s capital is the real enemy here. Like sports people join the sport young and the majority have minimal leverage due to its cut-throat nature and the short lifespan of an athlete’s career. Plus in things like NFL you’ve got these mostly white owners earning off the backs of black athletes. Not to mention the NCAA.”


“But then what’s the solution?”


“To what? Sportspeople getting exploited? Or to exploitation in general? Ending capitalism.”


“No the book thing.”


“Oh. Well I guess we will have to buy as many books as possible so that no author goes hungry.”




“Every second you are not buying books is a moral horror against the literary scene. You should aim to earn as much money as possible, and spend as little as possible, so that the maximum amount of money is being diverted to where it belongs, those wonderful creative literary types, who can assuage your unhappiness at hair-shirted penury with their, all capitals, ART.”


“I actually think that’s redundant.”


“Oh yeah?”


“Yeah. Think about it. Participation rates in profitable forms of ‘high’ literature are low and, of those, the vast majority come from wealth. So we don’t need to create an economic system built around buying books to ensure their quality of life. We’ve already done that.”


“That’s a point.” She rummaged around in her bag, finally fishing out a copy of a book. “I read this in a Christine Brooke-Rose book recently; ‘The reason why Tom Stevens could thus feed his vanity rather than his cupidity was fairly simple, like his conscious mind; he was quite well off. His name in print, as large and in as many places as possible, but particularly on the covers of a book, was worth more to him than an extra five hundred on a contract, though naturally he couldn’t sell it for anything other than a respectable sum, which was always, anyway, welcome.” And I feel that that rather sums it up.”


“It does sum it up I guess. Rather than having this conversation we could have just directed people to read Christine Brooke-Rose.”


“Yeah, but then we wouldn’t have the possibility of getting paid for it down the line.”