Spencer from The Hills has a homeboy phone. I may die. He has one cell for his girlfriend Heidi and one for his homeboys. This seems perfectly sensible. So attention authors: I will no longer be reachable on my regular work phone. If you need to reach me you need to call my homeboy phone.
Wow. Anyway, a few days after I posted the You Tell Me about bookstores vs. online, there was an interesting discussion at the end of the comments section that I thought would make for and interesting You Tell Me. To wit: how do we feel about used books?
You might not have given too much thought to used books, but here’s the thing: authors and publishers don’t make any money off of used book sales. So while of course an author might appreciate that you read their work, that used book sale doesn’t count as an actual sale, and thus won’t count toward the books sold tally and won’t go to the author’s royalty account. Sure, it’s all about the love of writing and all that, but when a publisher looks at the author’s sales and decides whether or not to publish their next book, all those used book fans don’t count toward the total.
Now, of course, used booksales might help an author develop a fan base and might help with the next book sale. Used books are a great way to find a new author that someone might not have otherwise risked $24.95 on. But used books, even for very recent publications, are increasingly easy to find and buy — before you had to stumble upon a bargain in a used book store, but now you can find a used book online extremely easily.
So you tell me (preferably on my homeboy phone): how do you feel about used books? Are they an overall benefit to authors or are they something an author should be worried about?
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Okay, my thoughts are, some people cannot afford to buy all the books they read. For whatever reason. What people fail to mention in this conversation, is that if they have a $30 book budget for the month, and they read their $30 in the first week, what happens?
If they don’t find an alternative, more affordable way to read, they’re going to get out of the habit of reading.
That doesn’t serve anyone, because then they won’t spend that $30 on books next month.
As far as personally, I buy way more books new than I can really afford. WAY more. I try my best, I swear to God I do. But there comes a point at which I have a choice: used or not at all? I’m sure I’m not the only one who faces that choice, especially when facing an uncertain book or new author.
I have gone out and bought books new that I’ve already read used, because I liked them. Gosh, this conversation makes me feel majorly guilty every time it comes up. I swear to God, I buy TONS! As much as I can! I’m sorry!
I’m a very poor, very very poor person. My book budget wouldn’t serve many folks’ coffee budget. Without used books and the library, I would be unable to read. I CANNOT afford a $9 paperback, or even a $7 paperback. It’s just too much.
One day, when I stop being poor, I’ll be able to be all “moral” and “do the right thing” by buying new… but until then, my right to read trumps any author’s right to earn money.
And when I become a world-famous best-selling author, you can be damn sure I’m going to work hard to support literacy and reading programs (including libraries) to ensure that other people like me can have access to the books they need, and want.
Maya Reynolds says
I don’t think there is a right or a wrong here. How one buys a book–or even whether one buys the book versus checking it out of a library–should not be a moral decision. Only if you choose to steal the book are we talking morality.
Making a lawful purchase of any kind is purely a matter of economics: for the reader, for the writer, and for the publisher. Awareness of those economics does not suggest the need for guilt.
God knows we live in a world that tries to turn every decision we make–from eating to using energy to voting to hiring overseas workers–into an litmus test of our characters. To my mind, this isn’t morality; it’s organizational influence and control.
I try to save my guilt for the really important stuff.
Peter R says
I can’t believe everyone is missing the point by so many miles. By the sounds of it Heatherness has created a great business by knowing her customers and serving their needs with a great product – well done. Whether the product is use or not should be irrelevant in a market economy.
The fact it is an issue in the publishing world only serves to highlights the antiquated expectations of the publishing industry. If I manufacture a can of beans I sell it to the retailer to sell to the customer in anyway they like. I do not then demand an additional payment based on every can of beans sold. I’m afraid the scrapping of royalty payments is the only logical end game in the upheaval the publishing industry is currently going though. Market forces have been strengthened by advent of the internet and publishing’s old centralised economy is simply dying out.
Instead of trying to work out how to get royalties out of the used book market (which is impossible) publishers should be tackling the issue of how to make money/publish good literature/make the most out of their writers, in a world without royalties.
Clearly, without knowing the volume of used book sales publishers will never know the true market for a potential book, but just as libraries report lending volumes I do not believe it is impossible to compile volumes for used books either.
Time for publishers to face the real world: you no longer control the market, your customers have taken over.
Nathan Bransford says
When you eat a can of beans, it’s gone. You also don’t have to worry about competition from millions of used cans of beans that have been produced for the last fifty years. Beans go bad. You can bet if there was a used beans market, the bean industry would be worried about that too.
Peter R says
Nathan, ok, bad analogy. Perhaps the car industry would be a better analogy as there is direct competition between new and used products, although there are no royalties paid on cars. However, the argument still holds – the inmates have taken over the asylum. It’s the same in the finance industry where I have my day job – customers now rule and margins have been squeezed until in some cases they are non-existent – current and savings accounts are now viewed as loss-leaders. So taking the car industry as a model how could we apply it to the publishing industry? And the answer is …
Well, it depends who you are really: if I were a publisher, I’d ensure every book I printed included an advert for my website and a substantial money off code in respect of additional books purchased through my website (loyalty/discount scheme, cut out the retailer). I might also consider carrying printing sponsored adverts in my books.
If I were a book shop I’d give customers loyalty cards, with credits for returning used books so I could recycle them (for charity, as I doubt there are large profits here) – the credits would be paid for by the publisher of course. I would also ensure my website included a section where customers could source books which are no longer stocked or are out of print. And if I were a large chain I’d start a used book division under a different brand and consider buying up successful used book shops, selling my own surplus stock, poaching their staff/owners (loyalty scheme, taking used books out of circulation, diversification, playing the competition at their own game).
If I were an agent I’d supply every writer with a website and help them use it to build a fanbase with discounts on forthcoming new publications (maximise the customer base).
And if I were a used book seller, I’d do exactly what Heatherness is doing, because there will always be a healthy market and good margins for quality used books.
Nathan Bransford says
Very good ideas, all! Thanks very much for posting them. I agree that authors need to publicize as much as possible online to capitalize on those first sales.
I buy most of my books used. When you read 2-3 books every week it can get very expensive to buy new books when you can get them for $1.99 at the Salvation Army. Someone in my neighborhood who is donating them has great taste and seems to get rid of them right after they’ve been read. I’ve picked up recent bestsellers that way with the price sticker still on them.
I found my favourite book series of all time in a used book shop-4 of the 1st series of it and went on to buy the rest of the series and i now own the whole saga-I think that helped the authors sales,so i think used book sales are good if the author has more than one book out/coming out