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Do authors still get paid royalties for their old works? For example, If I decided to buy a copy of the "Odessa File" by Frederick Forsyth or "Kane and Abel" by Jeffery Archer, do the authors get paid royalties for them?

Another example would be me buying the Harry Potter series for my kid, maybe 10-15 years down the line (it would definitely be considered a classic by then). Would J.K. Rowling benefit from it?

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    I see you are in India, which may have different copyright laws and different authorized publishers. The trick is, verifying that the publisher is authorized to sell the book. See my answer about how to avoid buying ebooks from an unauthorized seller. ebooks.stackexchange.com/questions/8307/… – idiotprogrammer Aug 18 at 18:29
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In the US, an author holds the copyright to his work for all his life, and his heirs hold it for 70 years after his death, at which point the work becomes public domain. (source) In other countries the number of years after the author's death may vary, but I do not know of a single country nowadays where copyright expired before author's death. (This used to be the case in the beginning of last century - copyright would only last for X years after publication. It isn't the case now.)

A publisher pays the author royalties in exchange for the rights to publish their work. Since the author holds the copyright, the publisher cannot just go ahead and publish - the right needs to be paid for. That's what royalties are. (Source)

So to answer your question, yes, a living author continues to get paid royalties for their older works.

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    @WeckarE. Are you just confirming that it's true in the US or are you saying it's not true in some other countries? – Cyn Aug 18 at 13:50
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    Death+ 70 refers mainly to works published in the USA after 1977. Before then, it is 95 years after publication date. copyright.cornell.edu/publicdomain – idiotprogrammer Aug 18 at 18:11
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    @Cyn: It is generally true in other countries; although in India and China and some other countries, copyright may be getting violated without being punished (including the cover art, copyright notices and all, it can be indistinguishable from the legitimate publication). Also important to realize royalty only applies to new copies sold by the rightful publisher(s) (there can be more than one, e.g. foreign publishers for foreign markets). – Amadeus Aug 18 at 22:48
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    In the US and all other countries that are signatories to the Berne Convention, which includes the entire EU and most of not all of the English-speaking world. India signed it in 1928. – user207421 Aug 19 at 5:07
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    An edge case that may be worth mentioning: Assuming a legit published copy, authors are paid based on the publishing contract, which usually includes a royalties component, but 'one-time-payment' options do exist where a publisher buys their printing rights directly without an ongoing licensing agreement. [These however are fairly uncommon in decent mainstream literature, but may be found when selling more 'questionable' materials.] – TheLuckless Aug 19 at 17:35
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Minor point as I've met people who don't get this - authors and publishers are only paid for the new copies of their books. When you buy books from any kind of second-hand store, it's only the store owner getting the money.

I came to the belated realisation that my years of finding old SF books in such stores wasn't helping authors and started buying e-books instead.

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    I remember once, around 2001, reading an online argument that we should never buy books in a used-book shop because it deprives the hard-working author of royalty money. My attitude was: "So what? I don't buy books in order to make an author wealthy; I buy books at a price that I am willing to pay in exchange for entertainment. A few authors make me fall in love with their work to the extent that I buy each new book as soon as it comes out. Hundreds of other authors have failed to make me feel all that entertained, so they're out of luck. I wait for used copies or library books." – Lorendiac Aug 19 at 2:32
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    Buying a secondhand book boosts the demand for new books by some tiny increment, both because the next secondhand buyer doesn't find it and because buyers of new books have better expectation of resale value. – Anton Sherwood Aug 19 at 2:47
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    I think that a book publisher should reasonably expect that a copy of a book is likely to exist for longer than the first owner wishes to possess it. The "second hand" effect should therefore be built into the original price. – Dawood ibn Kareem Aug 19 at 5:50
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    If one shouldn't buy secondhand books, I suppose according to you libraries too should be closed? There one can read without paying anything at all? And obviously no lending books to your friends? – Galastel Aug 19 at 8:45
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    @AndyDent and so do second hand shop owners – Hagen von Eitzen Aug 19 at 17:06
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Assuming that you are referring to works published in the USA, it depends on:

  • who owns the copyright and the specific terms of the contract. In some cases, the publisher owns the copyright. In some cases, the author is entitled to royalties only after the publisher earns the amount paid as an advance. Often books don't earn more than the initial advance, and so the author can hypothetically not earn anything from the sale (even though the sale can ultimately lead to more earnings).
  • Is the book being sold for the first time, or is it a used book? Used books don't earn the author any money directly (although there may be indirect benefits). Authors don't earn anything from review copies either.
  • Are you buying an ebook version? Generally speaking, the author earns more money from an ebook sale than a physical copy.
  • Is the book seller selling a book or ebook with the consent of the copyright holder? This can be difficult to tell sometimes (especially with printed books), but some common sense will usually provide the answer.

You should generally make an effort to acquire a book or ebook legally and cheaply. On the other hand, I pick up free and cheap books all the time -- and feel no guilt about doing so. Most authors publish several books, and so even if you get one title for free, chances are more likely that you will buy additional volumes by the same author. Giving away free and discounted titles is a legitimate part of building brand awareness.

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