California threatens to shut down small booksellers

May 11, 2017 | By ANASTASIA BODEN

Today we filed this First Amendment lawsuit on behalf of beloved Bay Area bookstore Book Passage, and its co-owner, Bill Petrocelli.

Book Passage is a hub of literary activity and free expression.  In addition to selling books, it hosts over 700 author events a year—in which authors give talks, read passages, interact with readers, and sign books.  Bill keeps copies of signed books from these events to sell later at his stores—signed books are scattered all over the store.  Book Passage also procures a monthly book club, wherein readers are sent a first edition signed book by an up-and-coming author.

Book Passage doesn’t charge a premium for the signature; all of its books are sold for their cover price. But a newly enacted California law makes it extremely risky, if not impossible, for Book Passage to continue selling autographed books or hosting author events.

Acting on purported consumer protection concerns, the legislature recently expanded its autograph law (which formerly only applied to sports memorabilia) to include any signed item worth over $5—including books.  Under that law, sellers must produce a certificate of authenticity and maintain detailed records of every sale for seven years.  Sellers must, among other things:

  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.

Bill showing me his impressive array of autographed books.

Failure to disclose any of the required details, or to keep the certificate for the full seven years, results in outrageous penalties.  Even an inadvertent omission can subject a seller to actual damages, plus a civil penalty of up to 10 times the damages, plus court costs, plus reasonable attorney’s fees, plus expert witness fees, plus interest. Professional plaintiff’s lawyers must be chomping at the bit.  If Bill sold just 100 signed copies of a $30 book, but six years later, couldn’t locate the records noting the size of the edition, he’d be liable for (at minimum) $30,000.  Bill sells tens of thousands of signed books each year.

For many like Bill, this massive threat of liability will make selling signed books too much of a risk.  And the loss to California’s marketplace of ideas will be gargantuan.  Book signings aren’t just central to Book Passage’s business model, they’re vital to up-and-coming authors with less represented views, who use book signing to lure new readers.  Many famous authors got their start by doing signing events.  While Book Passage hosts such big names as Isabelle Allende and Khaled Hosseini, it also frequently hosts local poets, fiction writers, and even chefs who have authored cookbooks.

There’s something even more pernicious: despite the law’s vast breadth (it also covers paintings, sculptures, and auctioneers), certain sellers have secured exemptions.  Online retailers and pawn shops, those places where uninformed buyers are most vulnerable, do not have to comply.

We are challenging this poorly written, overbroad, yet underinclusive, bill in court.  To find out more, visit our case page here, or watch the video below.