Book Passage is a quirky little bookstore situated in the Bay Area of California. Sure, it sells books, but it also does so much more. Every year the shop hosts over 700 author events. During these events, authors often sign books, and if any signed books remain after the crowds have thinned, Book Passage sells copies in the store. Because the shop wants to keep these items accessible to everyone, they sell autographed copies for the same amount of money as the mundane editions to books.
This practice is a wonderful one, but Book Passage may soon have to stop selling autographed books all together.
Late last week I saw a troubling press release put out for the Book Passage by the legal group the Pacific Legal Foundation. On May 11, 2017, the Foundation filed a First Amendment lawsuit on behalf of the bookstore. (If you are legally minded, you can read the full PDF of the filing here.)
Since I don’t live in California, I don’t keep up with their state laws, but it seems that its autograph law has been adapted so that it places bookstores who sell autographed books and host author events in danger. The law is now relevant to any autographed item sold for over $5, including books. This means that stores selling autographed books must:
- Note the purchase price and date of sale,
- specify whether the item is part of a limited edition,
- note the size of the edition, anticipate any future editions,
- disclose whether the seller is bonded,
- divulge any previous owner’s name and address,
- if the book was signed in the presence of the seller, specify the date and location of the signing, and identify a witness to the autograph.
If a bookstore fails to notice, for example, that Neil Gaiman has stealthily signed several books that were on sale – something he does without informing bookstores frequently – the shop could be liable for penalties. A shop that sells ten signed copies but doesn’t have all of the paperwork could have to pay $2,000 in damages. And a shop that sells a thousand signed copies, something that happens frequently in stores that do a lot of author events, could be liable for $200,000.
The regulations make sense for shops selling sports memorabilia – people want to guarantee the authenticity of works after all – but people selling books don’t want to operate that way. It is also interesting to note that though the law is intended to protect consumers, online retailers and pawn shops do not have to follow it. Because of the difficulty of tracking items that are processed by pawn shops, I would think that they need regulations like this the most.
Regardless, I hope that the California legislature works out the kinks in this law. There has to be a way to balance protecting the consumer with supporting bookstores. Author events and signed books play such a large role in literary culture that I would hate to see them disappear.