When Autographed Novels Put Bookstores in Danger

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.

Image via Wikimedia, Adam Jones, “Bookstore Display for Gavrilo Princip – Assassin of Archduke Ferdinand (1914) Belgrade, Serbia, 17 November 2014.

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:

  1. Note the purchase price and date of sale,
  2. specify whether the item is part of a limited edition,
  3. note the size of the edition, anticipate any future editions,
  4. disclose whether the seller is bonded,
  5. divulge any previous owner’s name and address,
  6. 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.

33 thoughts on “When Autographed Novels Put Bookstores in Danger

  1. Very interesting post. I agree, it would be a shame to lose author events and those lovely signed copies due to such laws. After all, there are few things as exciting as than meeting your favourite authors in person or coming across an autographed book in your favourite bookshop.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. No offense to California, but they are passing a lot of strict legislation. I get the concept, but this is kinda ridiculous. It would make sense to me if they were charging more for the signed copies, but they aren’t. They’re just selling them. So they aren’t making money off the sale of “memorabilia.” I would think then that they would be exempt from this kind of legislation. And yes, Pawn Shops do it all the time…and sometimes they have fake signatures…plus they make money off the item being more “valuable” for the autograph. What about sellers on eBay? They’ve been doing it forever! Ugh, makes me think about the Happy Meal toy fiasco. (Did that go through? Do kids get toys in their Happy Meals in CA?)

    Liked by 7 people

    1. It is such a strange law. Honestly, I imagine that the folks in the legislature just didn’t think much about the repercussions of expanding it. (Though obviously they thought enough about the law to exempt certain groups…)

      And now I have to go down the rabbit hole of reading about the Happy Meal law. I have a vague recollection of it, but now I have to know more.


    2. I agree with TeacherofYA. If the book is being marketed as a signed copy, and users are paying more for said copy, that’s one thing. But if a book is simply being sold as “a copy of X”, and it happens to have a signature in it, I don’t see the issue. The bookstore could simply put up a statement along the lines of “Unless otherwise noted we do not authenticate or guarantee that any name written on or in a book is in fact the signature of the author.”
      I’ve certainly bought used books where someone had written their name on the first page, and I never batted an eye at it.
      This seems like something that the store or vendor itself should be able to choose to authenticate, or not.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It would be great if a disclaimer like that was the answer! (I like the simple way through things like this.) With any luck, things will work out so that authors can continue to sign their books, and stores can continue to sell them easily.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Reblogged this on Wind Eggs and commented:
    I believe in the law of unintended consequences. Bookstores routinely sell books at the price listed on the cover. They don’t boost the price, and the only indication the book might be a “collectible” is a protective cellophane cover. E-Bay sellers might try to rip off unsuspecting customers, but to treat bookstores like memorabilia collectors could stop time-honored traditions, like readings by the author. Kristen Twardowski explains…


  4. I see this as another way for “the man” to get money out of something. If I sign a copy, then it is my business. If I give that signed copy to someone, then it is their business. They should be able to do whatever they want with it; the same goes for bookstores. Their books are their business, and they should get to determine how they sell them and at what price.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes… it won’t be the first time that legislators have designed a law to deal with one sector of the community to wake up and find that they have inadvertently also targetted a group of people who are now being harmed… Somehow it doesn’t surprise me that the book-buying public were overlooked in the drafting of this law.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For some reason, legislators don’t seem to think of us as a vocal constituency. 😉 I am glad that the bookstore is bringing the issue to the public though since it is one that I think many people will have an opinion about.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is so sad. At one point in my life I went to many signings and discovered new-to-me authors that way. I’ve also unexpectedly discovered that a book I’ve purchased is signed. If there’s no difference in price and no guarantees, this law should not be affecting them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do wonder if there is a loophole hiding somewhere. Or it may simply be that legislators didn’t think of all of the various groups that the law would impact. I suppose we’ll learn more as the case progresses.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I imagine the law is aimed at the massive sports memorabilia market that is about 50% corrupt and perhaps the fake signed art that is for sale at Cons and online. Sketches from dead artists/cartoonists is a real problem. I’m sure it will be adjusted in time. I would worry a little less that The Man is after anyone here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly. The real law in action here is the law of unintended consequences. I doubt that the legislators gave a second’s thought to books. I expect that it will get sorted out eventually. And part of me wants to say “caveat emptor” to all the people who complain that the signed baseball they bought turned out not to be real. If you care that much, then you can insist on proof and provenance. Certainly if you are paying real money, you should do so. Let me sign my books in peace.

      Liked by 1 person

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