Over the past month, I’ve been watching the discounts climb at our local, on-its-way-out-of-business Borders bookstore. Recently I’ve picked up several novels by authors I’ve been meaning to read but have never seemed to get around to reading, like Charles Stross, Stephen Baxter, and Elizabeth Moon.
I got to wondering yesterday about whether the authors of those books would ever see their royalties. As someone who is an aspiring author, I’m a little disappointed that it took me so long to actually ask myself that question. Authors live on their royalties and it seems that if the publishers aren’t paid for the books, then it’s likely that the authors will also not get paid for them. (Publishers Weekly has the amounts Borders owes to some of the major publishers here.) I wasn’t sure, however, if it would actually work that way because it’s the publishing houses that pay royalties to the writers, not Borders, and the publishers aren’t the ones in bankruptcy. It seemed possible that authors would still get paid their due, but this certainly isn’t clear to me.
I did some searching of the interweb to see what I could find. I’m disappointed to say that little has been published on it since February, when Borders first filed for bankruptcy. At that time, speculation abounded and few concrete answers existed, and to the best of my searching, things haven’t changed. Back in February, John Scalzi thought it would be a mixed bag on royalty payments. Lawyer C.E. Petit painted a much bleaker picture, providing this pithy summation for authors: “[Y]ou’re screwed, but you should be used to that by now.” That said, Mr. Petit noted that authors should still get paid, but that the publishers would likely do everything within their power to reduce the royalties paid to their authors, both now and through future contracts, to spread the pain.
So, will writers get their royalties from the books you buy at Borders? The best answer I can come up with this is “sort of”. It appears that writers will be paid royalties and that publishers, the ones who really got the shaft in the Borders bankruptcy, will be looking to share that pain. That said, should you pass on the final days of the Borders sale? Probably not. People are going to get screwed whether you buy that book or not. I say take a chance on an author you’ve never read before, and if you like the book, buy the author’s other books from places not in bankruptcy. I think a lot of authors would be willing to make that trade.