Sunday, April 20, 2008

Revisiting The Used Book Controversy

Here's an edited post from 4/2/07:

Well, it happened again. I torqued a reader of a blog by a comment I made to her post.

It all started with Nathan Bransford's post for Wednesday,
March 28, titled "You Tell Me: Brick and Mortar or Plastic and Silicon." Nathan asked for predictions for the future of bookstores.

One enthusiastic reader talked about her recent venture into the rare book business. She ended her post by saying: "So you other writers, save some start-up bread, quit the day job, and open a used bookstore already. You won't regret it."

Here is a portion of my response:

While I appreciate your joy in your used bookstore, understand that the proliferation of secondhand bookstores is viewed with dread by most writers, who fear such operations are cutting into their revenue. Writers are, of course, only paid on the sales of NEW books. The writers' fear seems to be that the purchase of a used book *may* prevent the purchase of a new book.

I think the flip side of that is that used books are often the place that writers can pick up new readers. A reader who is unwilling to risk $25 on a new book may very well be willing to spend $12 for that same book. And, if the bookseller deals in rare books as you do, that sale is unlikely to take dollars away from anyone but your own competition.

Everyone is balancing on a thin wire. Publishers worry about the cash flow problems created by the "returns" system and about answering to their corporate parents. Bookstores worry about the thin margins created when big box stores or internet operations deeply discount the best-sellers. New writers worry that both publishers and bookstores will be unwilling to give them a chance since best-selling authors are less risky investments.

I actually think that, as bricks-and-mortar chains like B&N and Borders seek new ways of boosting revenue, they might look into selling used books alongside the new books. In my opinion, that is a better move than selling unvetted self-published books, which Borders appears to be considering.

The rare book dealer was apparently so outraged by my comment that she didn't read it carefully. Here are portions of her response to me:

"Maya, do you think that authors view used and rare bookstores as competition for THEIR profit? Really? I've never heard that. Not once. Not anywhere.

"I hazard to contradict you and say that real writers don't think that. At all. Ask any published author if they'd rather see their used or remaindered books destroyed rather than turning on a new reader. Because that is the real choice here: garbage or new reader . . .

"That said, the used and rare bookstores I know ALL promote real authors exclusively. We frigging HAND-SELL their books, giving those authors new readers on a silver (albeit dented and somewhat dog-eared) platter . . .

"Just out of curiousity, do you view thrift stores as bottom feeders on the apparel industry? Or aluminum recyclers as sycophants on the beverage industry? How about used cars? Is that wrong too, is it hurting the auto industry irreparably?

"I just don't get your beef at all. Why aim a shot at used bookstores and not at every single person who lists their already-read books online and resells them? Those people aren't a stablizing force in their communities as I am . . ."

The rare book dealer, was obviously so incensed by my comment that she neither read it carefully nor understood it. Of course, the fact that she had never heard of such an argument before has no bearing at all on the subject.

I've been so busy this past week that I missed following up on this post. Nathan jumped in to assure her that this really WAS a serious issue.

I posted a very late response:

As Nathan says, this IS an issue. Important enough that the Book Industry Study Group did a huge study on it about 18 months ago. Their findings indicated that, in 2004, about one out of every twelve books sold is a used book. They projected that, within five years, the number is expected to be one out of eleven.

The Associated Press said in 9/05 that "this is a troubling trend when sales of new works are essentially flat; [and] authors and publishers receive no royalties from used buys."

Nathan is exactly right. Readers once had to drive from one used bookstore to another to find a book because inventories weren't computerized. Nowadays, buying a used book takes seconds on the Internet.

This kind of debate is what happens as technology changes the dynamics of an entire industry. If you doubt me, just take a look at the upheaval in the recording industry. IMHO, until now, music executives seem to be trying to hold back the tide instead of figuring out how to adapt to a changing landscape.

The Internet is revolutionizing publishing. The industry needs to make changes. In addition to issues like the growth of used book sales, publishing MUST address the practice of permitting retailers to return unsold books for credit. This is adversely affecting publishers' cash flow and is hurting new novelists' chances for getting published. If publishers and bookstores don't adapt by creating a system fair to everyone at all levels of the food chain, they risk seeing their profits cut even more and their business shifting to the virtual world even more rapidly as writers seek other venues in which to share their work.


Megaera said...

Have you ever been to Powells in Portland, Oregon? One of the biggest and best bookstores in the country, and the used books are right there on the shelves next to the new ones.

The new-and-used model works. In spades.

Maya Reynolds said...

Megaera: I buy from Powell's all the time and now, while I'm personally boycotting Amazon, I expect I'll be buying from them even more often.

Thanks for posting.