I’m an avid used book buyer. It’s the only way to support my biblioholism. Some say that buying secondhand books is bad for authors because they see none of that money. Others say it gets their work in front of more readers. We posed the following question to this week’s panelists:
Here’s what they said:
The used book market is great. It lowers the bar to trying authors and books one may not have otherwise, keeps books “alive” that might otherwise entirely vanish, and lowers the price of new hardcovers–that is, one might buy a hardcover knowing that it can be sold. And, of course, with the used book market comes the secondary market for limited editions and other small press-type books, which is often what helps those titles sell out in the first place.
The used book market is also handy for revealing the “real” price of ebooks: they should be between a quarter and a dollar. What’s the market price of a book with no book attached? Well, the little paperbacks with the wrecked spines and sliced covers suggest that such a book should be much cheaper than ebooks generally are. Maybe someday someone will take the hint.
I am not a publishing industry professional, so it’s hard for me to answer your question from that perspective. There is a lot of worry at the moment about the international economy, and it feels like we are constantly seeing some kind of bad publishing news or other. In this climate it’s easy to understand why the publishing industry might take the position that the used book market damages them by making books available more cheaply than publishers can, by reselling the very books *they* produce, and without paying the publishers (or authors) anything. That position is underscored by online retail stores like Amazon.com, which offer access to used copies of books on the same pages that sell new copies.
While I can see some legitimacy in the publishing industry being concerned about cases like Amazon, I think those concerns are mostly misplaced and overlook the fundamental value of the used book market.
I started reading when I was five or six, had my own library card when I was seven or eight, and was using my pocket money to buy books at eight or nine. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I could afford to go to a little used bookstore not from where I sold newspapers. I would go in, pour through their shelves and find obscure, difficult-to-find, and out-of-print books, or just ones I wanted. That was where I found copies of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels one summer, and where I was introduced to Clifford Simak, to Poul Anderson, and to many, many others. Some of the books I bought there were traded back to the store, but many I still have. By the time I was thirteen I was holding a regular part-time job, and have been employed ever since. And every week, rain or shine, some of the money I’ve earned has gone into buying books, most of which were new. I’ve been buying new books for more than thirty-five years.
The obvious point I’m trying to make is that the greatest problem for writers — who earn no royalties on books borrowed, loaned, traded, or bought second hand – isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity. The greatest problem for publishers isn’t finding books to publisher or venues to sell them in. It’s making readers. The used book market, for all that it represents an untapped source of revenue, is for many both an entry into reading and into reading widely. It helps make new readers. It’s a kind of outreach program, if you like. And often readers who buy in the used book market buy in the new book market.
It has other benefits too, ones that I doubt publishers are deaf to. If publishers and writers allow that readers are their allies and that reading is a good and important thing, then a cheap, easy source of books is good the for the community at large. It keeps a cultural asset available.
I’m not sure any of this answers your question, though. Does the used book market help or hurt the publishing industry? I think it *looks* like it hurts the book market because it creates a revenue stream that they can’t tap into, but it actually helps them by both making books available to new readers and by allowing existing readers to expand their horizons economically. It also is part of an involved process that enriches our community as a whole.
I don’t know about that, but I bought six books this week from Oxfam for less than a fiver, which was pretty sweet. Also, two of my own books are in the Sue Ryder charity shop in Morningside, Edinburgh. Would someone please buy them because it’s getting more embarrassing each time I go in there and see them still on the shelf.
I don’t think the used book market hurts the industry overall. Obviously we’d prefer that people buy new books, but used books is one of the best way to try out new authors that you haven’t read before, and often people then become big fans and buy new books, etc. Much like libraries–if people try an author and like them, they may keep reading them at the library, or they may buy them, but if they don’t have a way to try them, then everyone loses. (Netflix is much the same). But if they love them, even if they don’t want to buy them new themselves, they’ll tell other people, and so on.
It’s not so much that there is a used book industry, but the type and structure of that market that affects the publishing market. To begin with, I don’t see that the used book market has had any negative effect at all on hardcover sales, or if so, a very minimal one. From what I’ve observed over the years, most readers who want a hardcover want a new hardcover.
In the case of mass market paperbacks, the issue is far from clear. When the used book industry consisted of individual used book stores in local communities, I suspect, although I’d have to admit that I don’t have figures to support my suspicion, that the national impact was minimal because time is also a commodity and valuable. In that kind of market, even frugal readers hesitated to try to drive to an inconvenient or distant location to save a few dollars unless they were intent on buying large numbers of books and knew that the titles were there. Today, with used books available in multiple locations on the internet, there’s more convenience involved, particularly for mass market paperbacks. The sales figures for new mass market paperbacks have continued to decline over the past decade, but from where I sit, it’s hard to tell how much of that is due to the greater availability of used paperbacks and how much to the “standardization” and centralization of wholesale distribution, since the two feed off each other, at least partly. The wholesale situation has effectively reduced the range of new F&SF mass market paperbacks available in local outlets such as grocery stores and Wal-Marts, but it hasn’t changed markedly the direct distribution to bookstores. This would suggest to me that internet-based used book sales may well be filling a need, particularly for readers in areas not served by bookstores or readers with limited budgets. In both cases, the result would be lower revenues for both authors and publishers, but by how much is another question.
On the other hand, the availability of less expensive titles of authors a reader hasn’t read may spur later sales of new hardcovers or paperbacks, and I do know that some of my readers have written and told me that was exactly how they came to read and eventually buy new versions of my work. So…I guess I’d have to say that there’s probably a slight loss in present sales that may be offset in the future.
As a former poor kid and later a poor college student and still, frankly, not all that especially rich a guy, I’m a great fan of used books. I’ve got nothing against libraries or borrowing books from friends, either. What I care about is reaching readers, however I can. Even from a mercenary self-interested perspective, though, used books are no evil — someone might well take a chance on a two-dollar used book that they’d never pay full price for, and that might turn them into a lifelong fan of that author, someone who can’t wait to read the next books and buys it in hardcover. (There are certainly authors I discovered through libraries or used books that I snatch up on publication day now.) I think expanding readership will lead, inevitably, to expanded sales.
Most books I buy used are older out-of-print works, and if they couldn’t be sold, it would be a horrendous loss. Fortunately the doctrine of first sale is a well-established legal precedent. If somebody buys a book, the book — the physical object — is their property. They can sell it to someone else, give it away, use it to start a camp fire or level a table or squash bugs. I’m always a little bemused when I hear this is still somehow a matter of debate.
As an author, he was first published in 2004 with his short story “Perfect Assassin” appearing in the sf/fantasy bi-monthly periodical, Inferno! Several more short stories followed and in 2006 his first novel, Back from the Dead – a dystopian fiction based in the hive city of Necromunda – was released. His other novel works include the fantasy story, Oathbreaker (2008), the science fiction novella Assault on Black Reach (2008) and his most recent novel, Honourkeeper (2009). His next novel, the science fiction story Salamander, is due for release Fall 2009.
Honestly, it’s not something I’ve given a huge amount of consideration. But now I ponder it, two schools of thought seem to suggest themselves and can be articulated with another question in direct response to the above: Are you a reader or an author?
The obvious, potentially negative aspect of the used book market for the author is his or her novels are being offered at a cut down price – effectively reused – to the reader. This reduces the revenue stream from said novel for both author and publisher, and could be considered harmful to the continued longevity of both.
It’s like creating a giant one-use only/borrow-buy for keeps public library with an extended loans period. Not, on the face on it, a good thing for publishing or the author.
However, whilst ignoring the obvious financial benefits to the reader, there is of course a flip side to this: exposure. It begs another question: Would said reader have bought the book at full price anyway? Who knows? If they’re a fan, probably so. But it might also encourage a reluctant reader to buy an author’s book if it’s at a cut down price.
As readers, we all have a limited amount of funds to spend on books. That fund is increased thanks to the used book market, thus allowing us (as readers) to partake in different books and try out new authors. Suddenly, an author’s fan base is increased and more people are reading their books. Now consider how many of those new acquisitions will become full converts and buy their books new, even in hardback, and the benefits of the used book market start to surface in a very meaningful way.
It’s extremely hard to quantify, as there’s no obvious physical data to put your finger on that could explain that if author X’s book reaches Y number of customers it equals Z amount of additional sales. It sort of feels akin to that classic marketing ploy of the “loss leader’, selling a new novel for a nominal fee to get people reading a certain author or giving a novel away for free online in the hope that readers, being the tactile kind of individuals they usually are, will like it and buy it later in physical form later on.
Ignore the opportunities for perpetuating the life of out of publication novels at your peril, too. This is a very real fringe benefit of the used book market. It’s not all about clicking on your favourite online used book site and bagging a bargain in the Web’s answer to a global public library; it’s also about seeking out those extant tomes that you just can’t find in your local book store.
Suddenly, an author’s backlist becomes very accessible and even engenders a sort of thrill in the reader in tracking down and finding certain old books. This takes me back to whole exposure argument, in that if people are reading an author’s books – whether they’ve paid for them, or the author has seen remuneration from that transaction or not, then that is no bad thing.
Regarding the used book market, the benefits to the reader are pretty obvious; but the boons for the author are pretty palpable too. I think it’s fair to say that the used book market is an integral part of the publishing industry, whether they like it or not. Most importantly, it encourages people to read and share books/experiences with one another. Without that, the publishing industry would be pretty screwed.
Whether used book sales hurt or help the publishing industry is a complicated question. This is mostly because the publishing industry contains several subsections, all of which have their own discrete and sometimes mutually incompatible goals and economic pressures. To really look at the question comprehensively one has to consider readers, authors, booksellers, and publishers separately. Before going into that, let me point out two assumptions – one, that the only person who receives any payment for a used book is the person who sells it (i.e. no royalty goes to the author and the publisher doesn’t get a penny) and two, that used books are sold based on the current model (i.e. mostly directly to the consumer in a face-to-face transaction but with a significant and increasing number of sales happening on-line).
Readers clearly benefit from used book sales. It provides them with both a low-cost way of getting books and access to out-of-print works. Readers also gain a way of recouping some of their investment in reading matter by giving them an outlet to sell books that they no longer want to own (often due to space considerations). As long as used books sales don’t do serious damage to authors’ ability to make a living (and therefore remain authors) or publishers’ ability to remain in business, then readers will benefit from used book sales.
Authors probably benefit from used book sales but only in a modest way. On the plus side used books allow potential readers to try an author’s work cheaply and, if they like what they find, the reader may become a “fan” of that author and buy new copies of the author’s work in the future. The used market also helps authors of series if the earlier books in the series are out-of-print since new readers will be able to “catch up” by buying used copies, which improves the chances that they will buy new copies of later books. Finally, authors tend to acquire large numbers of books in both the usual way and due to their connection to publishing so they have the same desire to sell used books as readers. On the down side, some percentage of used book sales equate one less new book sale which cost authors royalties. Also, if there are large numbers of used copies available of a specific work it may decrease the chances of the author reselling that work to another publisher when the rights revert to the author (which happens once the original publisher takes the book out of print). Neither of these outweigh the advantages to authors but I think the margin is relatively slim and the equation could shift.
Booksellers generally benefit from the used market, even if they aren’t currently participating in it. The margin for profit is much greater in used books than new (about two or three times better) and it’s easy for a new book store to build a used section. Adding such a section has been a technique that bookstores have been using for years to help improve their viability and profitability. Prohibition of used book sales would eliminate that “emergency plan” at a time when stores are under significant economic pressure. Secondarily, the ability of readers to sell unwanted books encourages them to buy more books, both because they have space to house them and because their total book-buying expense is reduced.
Finally publishers do not benefit from the used market. The small advantage they gain by readers being able to discover new authors and turn-over their library (i.e. sell books to buy more books) doesn’t outweigh the lost income when a used copy is bought instead of a new one. Simply put, people are going to spend a certain amount of time reading and they’ll buy books to fill that time. If the only books available are new ones, they’ll buy them. Likewise, if someone needs a book for information related to their profession or hobby, they’ll buy that book (as long as the price isn’t outrageous). Publishers are in the business of selling books and a market that costs them sales is a bad thing.
However, all this is beside the point because the publishing industry and the subsections that compose it exist in the larger world. Taking the larger view into account, prohibiting, restricting or monetizing the used book market for the benefit of authors or publishers would strike at a basic assumption of our social and economic system — the doctrine of First Sale. In essence, First Sale means that, when I buy a book, actual ownership of that specific physical object is mine. Though the author and/or publisher retains the copyright, the book is mine and I may do whatever I wish with it — sell it, lend it, gift it, or throw the damn thing away. If restrictions are placed on this I am, in essence, no longer the owner and, instead of buying the book I’ve bought some sort of ambiguous right to control over the book that’s been presented as ownership. Such a change is not likely to be good for anyone in our society, be they a publisher, reader, author or bookseller.
At this time, used book sales don’t harm the publishing industry in any appreciable way. That market has been part of the business landscape of publishing for as long as the business has existed and the business is thoroughly adapted to it. But, over the last ten years, internet sales have been changing the equation and the effects of that are hard to predict. Used book availability has historically been very regional. At any time, only a small fraction of all the books published in the last 50 years were to be found on the shelves of the stores that were within reasonable traveling distance for buyers. Supplies of popular titles where also sharply limited. For example, in the early 90s I spent over six months searching in the San Francisco Bay Area for the first book of a series I wanted to read. It wasn’t anything particularly unusual — paperback, printed by a big publisher in 1987. I finally found a copy but it was quite difficult.
Right now there are 30 copies listed at a single used bookselling web site.
This expanding access to used books may change how much their sales affect the publishing industry. It is possible that the change will be severe enough that publishers will be truly hurt by lost sales and that the balance of cost and benefit will shift for authors. If I was a smarter man, I might have a suggestion for what can be done about that without eroding the concept of First Sale but all I can see to do is watch and wait.
As an author, one of the biggest obstacles facing me at this time is ensuring my name and work appears on the radar of people awash in thousands of books published every year, DVDs, games, TV shows and the constant, distracting chatter of 24-hour 21st century life. With publishers spending less and less on marketing, any avenue that allows you to connect with a potential reader becomes valuable. The used book market can work in the same way as Cory Doctorow providing a book for free download as a loss leader to entice new readers – a cheap read that may encourage someone to pay for new volumes. In this model, the onus is then on the author to make their work so compelling that the new reader can’t wait to scour the used book market for other novels and will *have* to buy new.
Rapidly-changing technology is making just about every business model extinct, and we’re seeing new models form before our eyes. The music industry is still reeling from these changes, and the big companies are failing to keep pace with new ones. We’re going to see the same in book publishing. The net is rapidly becoming a global lending library, where one book can cycle through numerous readers in a way that it never could have under old tech. It’s bought second-hand, read quickly, and slammed on to Ebay, often for a few pence/cents. In the middle of a recession/repression/depression, this kind of behaviour is only going to accelerate. That’s going to be hugely damaging to authors who are being deprived of royalties, and the tiny payments they get from a true lending library, and damaging to publishers’ profits too. But this has got to be a short term problem.
Sooner or later, the producers of books are going to catch up with the technology, and e-books may well be the thing. The rapid rise in e-books will drive the used book market back decades, and will hopefully deliver stories at a price that the reader finds acceptable for a one-off payment.
This may well be leading into a mind-meld for another day, but the e-book will then present massive challengers for the publishers. In the music industry, one of the big arguments why bands don’t by-pass the record companies is that the labels spend vast amounts on marketing to ensure the consumer knows the product is available. In book publishing, where relatively very little is spent on marketing, the question could then be asked by authors: what are you actually doing that I can’t do myself?
If you believe that every used book sold means that a new book is not getting sold, then it follows that the used book market is bad for publishing. I don’t think anyone takes that idea seriously outside of publishing offices, though. Expand your frame of reference a little, and a couple of things become clear. One: every copy of a book that is out in the world being read is an advertisement for that book and all of the author’s other books. Two: someone who might not pick up a new book for $28 (or even $15) might well take a $5-8 flyer on a used book…and then, when he loves it, go and pay new prices for all of the author’s other books. I’ve discovered plenty of favorites that way; looking at my bookshelves–at least where they’re organized in author clumps–I see a number of such clumps in which one of the books is used and the rest are new.
This question sounded vaguely familiar, so I dug into my capacious archives (Note: Mr. Wheeler is lying; he just used Google. All hail Google!) to see what was triggering that déjà vu feeling. And I discovered that I was part of a similar, but not identical, Mind Meld fourteen months ago, about how the Internet has affected bookselling.
So, now that I have my cheat sheet to keep me from inadvertently contradicting myself – which anybody who takes strong opinions on the Internet must beware of – what about used books?
Well, the first thing I notice is that a lot of people are assuming that they will be going away. The conventional wisdom of that argument is that e-books are expanding, and e-books can’t seem to break free from DRM, which keeps users from selling or passing on the books they read. Ergo, e-books conquer all and everyone has to buy everything new. But I’m an e-book skeptic – I’ve seen several waves of e-book readers in my time in the publishing salt mills, and they all came with precisely the same hype as this time – so I tend to think used books will be with us for quite some time.
And, as a reader, I like used books, and the shops that sell them (even though, or possibly because, they have been dwindling recently). I even like used books found via the Internet. (Not quite as much as I like books in libraries, of course.) Anybody who reads more than the average two-to-three books a year of the average American likes used books; we all have things we like that are obscure, or hard to find, or just published twenty years ago in another country – and the way to get those books is to track them down used.
As someone working in publishing – first as an editor; these days as a marketer – I’ve never felt that the existence of used books caused problems for my new books. When I was editing SF, I used to buy quite a lot of old paperbacks to mark up and turn into omnibuses; having a healthy used-book ecology was a definite help to me. And I then sold new editions of those same books, usually to people who were replacing their own old paperbacks…which probably headed back out as used books to yet other readers, and so on.
Now I work in a boring area of publishing that’s very time-sensitive; people might try to stretch their use of an annual for another year, but they’re not going to buy a ten-year-old accounting reference instead of buying the current book new. So I suppose I’m insulated from strong competition from used books by that dynamic. But, actually, I’d turn that around: to be successful in publishing new books and new editions, there has to be something special and vital in those new books that makes them more compelling and useful than a similar old book or edition.
Used books keep us honest, I guess. If we’re not putting out books that are better and more worthwhile than some old tattered paperback from the local exchange, then we’re not going to get the consumer’s money – and we won’t deserve it.