Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

New or Used?

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?


Christopher M. Park said...

It's a tricky problem, and one that some other industries have had to face for decades now--video games, movies, and music all have a thriving used business. I guess that part of the reason why books never had that much of a used business before is that libraries already fulfill a lot of the needs of that niche.

I think the used market is great for a few things: introducing readers to new authors they haven't read before, as you said, but also for keeping out of print books in circulation. Most books eventually disappear from mainstream bookstores, but you can find some pretty cool older or niche stuff in used bookstores.

It's hard to say whether the used book phenomenon is overall good or bad, though. The movie industry was terrified of VCRs when those first came out, as you recall, but later it wound up making them more money than they had ever made on theater sales alone. It's hard to say what will happen here, but I will say that there is nothing like viral marketing--whether someone lends you a book or you find it at a used bookstore, if the story captures you then you'll hopefully buy all of that author's new books.

Let's hope.


~Em~ said...

My family owns a used bookstore. Has for the past 30 years. From what I've seen, it builds an author's fanbase when readers buy their older books at a used bookstore - usually that means that, once they find an author they love, they go out and buy their newest book (usually in hardback), full price, the day it comes out.

So I think used bookstores work for authors. Of course, I could be baised.

Janet said...

Used bookstores have been around for centuries and probably will be for centuries more. Why try to make an issue out of it? God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change... And the point is well made that people will take risks on unknown authors when buying used that they wouldn't when paying full retail for new.

Scott said...

I like both.

Most books I buy are new. I love the feel of a new book, the shiny cover, the clear pages, the unsullied spine.

Plus, since moving to the hinterlands, I live in an area without any of the great used book stores we had back in the SF Bay Area. There is one, about an hour away, a huge store that sells both new and used, but I don't get there very often. The nearby used book stores don't sell what I read.

As for buying online, condition matters. I can't pick up and examine the book and have to rely on the description on the site. My wife buys used online all the time but we read differently. Plus, I usually keep my books, so I want them to start out in good condition so I can wear them out myself.

That said, I did actually buy a used book online recently, a short story collection that included a few writers I know and several I don't. I didn't know if I'd like it enough to plunk down the big money.

Turns out I did like enough. as a result, I plan to buy novels from at least three previously unknown to me authors, and I'll most likely buy them new.

If I'm curious about an author or book, but not sure I'll like them, I go the library or buy used. If I like the book, I'll either buy it new or buy something else new from that author because I figure if I like one work, I'll like another. (Not always the case, but it's been a good system.)

The real fun of used books, though, is finding old stuff, rare stuff, and out of print stuff, or academically oriented books that cost way too much new. And there's just something cool about digging through dusty racks of used books in a good store. The quest is often more valuable than the objects I find.

Stephanie Leary said...

I am well aware that the publisher and author aren't making money on my used purchases, and I factor it into my choice. (I suspect this will be true of a lot of your readers, since this is more or less a publishing blog.)

"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."

That's precisely how I use them most of the time. Someone recommends an author who has 15 books in print? I'll try one at the $3 used price (or use the library, but due dates drive me up the wall) before I make my decision on the rest. More than once, a used purchase has led me to take a respectable stack of new books to the counter at B&N.

I'll also go for used books when I discover a deceased author whose work I love and I suddenly need to buy all of her books.

(By now it has probably become apparent that I am a completist. YMMV.)

If I'm hip-deep in a series and I discover at 8 p.m. on Saturday that I need the next book RIGHT NOW, I'll buy it at any local store that happens to have it, and damn the consequences. That happens at least couple of times a year. But you can bet that if I want the next book that urgently, the one after it is getting preordered on Amazon.

And of course there's the occasional OOP gem.

Bernita said...

People have a right to buy and sell their own property.
There is no "conditional" sale attached to books, and no "moral" issue either.
The benefits to the author may be indirect and unquantifiable, but they are real.
I have found many authors via a second-hand bookstore that I subsequently bought new.

Don said...

I love used book stores. Much more than new book stores. Back when I was a full-fledged bibliomaniac (I maxed out a $10k credit card over the course of a year mostly in book stores), I realized that book stores selling new books had almost identical selections in every store. Used book stores, on the other hand, are each unique. Probably at least half of my library was bought used. When I retire, my plan is to open a used book shop (and as long as it makes enough money to pay the bills for the shop, then nothing else will really matter).

Used book stores have been around forever. All the angst about the fact that you can buy books used on Amazon from the same page as the new book is misplaced angst. It's not going to make that big a difference in sales.

It's worth noting that being able to sell review copies of a book to a used book dealer has long been considered part of the remuneration for book reviewers (I'd also note that I remember going to a Hollywood used book shop back in the early 90s and seeing a whole book case labeled "review copies").

Scott said...

Kind of a follow-up to Nathan's question:

Were any of you frequent used book buyers who had a change of heart after joining the publishing industry?

By the way, Nathan, my man: help me get published and I promise never to buy a used book by one of your authors if it's available new. :)

Lauren said...

I drastically cut my book-buying budget about a year ago, and now most of my new-book budget is reserved for debut novels. I think it's important to support new authors (plus, I'm making deposits to the Bank of Good Karma in preparation for my own hoped-for future as a debut novelist), and I kneow there's only a small subset of book buyers who'll take a chance on hardbacks by new authors. I'm happy to be one of those people.

For older books, I usually go to the library. If there is an older book I truly want to own, it only takes a little searching to find a good used copy. Between Amazon, eBay, and the used bookstores in my area, there's a good chance I'll be able to find a first-edition hardback of a book that someone's let go for cheap. I've amassed a fair collection of first editions in the last several years, and the investment of time and money on my part has been surprisingly small.

Len said...

To me, it's like asking me whether I like it that birds fly. That's just how life is. Personally, I rarely buy used anymore and when I do, I'm looking for books that have been out-of-print for a while. Given the choice between buying my own pristine copy new or someone else's hand-me-down, new wins every time. Maybe it has something to do with being the youngest of three sons.

sylvia said...

Stephanie Leary said...

I am well aware that the publisher and author aren't making money on my used purchases, and I factor it into my choice.

Yep, I actively consider the issue that I'm not supporting the author.

1) Is the book still in print (my main used book buying is books that I can't find any other way, most recently "The Last Unicorn" )

2) Have I bought it before? If so, and I've lost my copy, I tend to feel that buying used is fair game. If I really really love the author and they are still active, I would buy new as encouragement, though.

3) Is it part of my "bad book motivation" stack? Lately, I've found that reading really bad books makes me feel "Christ, if they can get published, so can I" and helps me get back to work. By definition, I don't want to support them, so those books are bought used.

Anonymous said...

Were any of you frequent used book buyers who had a change of heart after joining the publishing industry?

That's something that just thoroughly ticks me off, when someone thinks, "It's okay for me to buy used, but now that I'm an author, used books are evil. Evil!"

I bought used a lot until I graduated college. It was the only way I could afford books. Now, only if the book is OOP. I like to support the authors. But I don't expect anyone else to feel the same, and I can't very well complain about other people doing the same thing I did for ten years.

Liz said...

My local library just had their used book sale...we raised just shy of $7,000 selling donated, used books. That money is given back to the library to purchase new books and programs to encourage people to visit the library. To me, that is a win-win.

I have to tell you, the die hard used book folks that visit our sales are buying both used and new. I heard over and over, "Did you read the latest from author so and so? I just bought it."

This is a non issue for me. Used books are here to stay. They serve a good purpose in our community. If in some way that $2.00 used hardcover improves literacy, I say read on!

I may not be considering the business end of publishing, but for me, literacy trumps all. Access to books is good for all of us.

Mary Paddock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laurel Amberdine said...

Dude, you need to update your profile. I don't see the homeboy phone number. Guess I'll just comment.

I never buy used books, except on the very rare occasions when I'm trapped in a library or museum or someplace else having a used book sale. And then, c'mon: books for sale.

My desire to buy new isn't because I'm trying to be supportive. The books are mine mine mine all mine. I don't want other people to have messed with them.

Even better than merely buying new books, I sometimes buy additional copies of the same books when a new release with a spiffy cover or different binding comes out!

Sherri said...

If it weren't for the library and used books I wouldn't be able to afford to read as much as I want. And not because I spend the money on a homegirl phone.

My vote: they are a benefit.

Meiran said...

Well, I'm in the middle. I go to used books a lot because books I want to read are often out of print. Or, they're books that I read and liked but didn't like THAT much.

I actually had a discussion today with somebody about how good a book had to be before I considered it "hardcover good." World War Z was hardcover good, even though I had a free ARC of it already. Heart-Shaped Box, while good, is not hardcover good.

So that extends with me to used books as well. If I can find a book that is in print, that I liked but not THAT much, I'll buy it used online (NOT through the bookstore, because our used book prices are stupidly jacked up). For example, that's how I'm filling out my Cat Who series paperback collection. I like the books, but I just LIKE them.

I buy all my graphic novels new, and most of everything I read really. But I get a discount because I work there. But I do wholeheartedly believe that if you really like something, you have to put your money where your mouth is. In our culture, it doesn't matter if you think Christopher Moore is the next best thing to pre-packaged brownies if you only check his books out at the library and then never tell anybody how much you liked them.

So my key is this: if I like a book, I talk about it. That way even if I'm buying it used I might encourage someone else to buy it new. And when the author puts out new work, I buy it new.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Sharing books is part of the culture of reading. Which means that used books are with us whether we like it or not (I like it). This doesn't hold true in the same way for music: I can't tell you the number of bands I used to encounter because someone would play me some music and say, "You've got to get this for yourself!"

Clearly, file sharing's changed that. And raised issues among us book lovers, too -- about royalties.

Yeah, I feel like I should be supporting authors by generating royalties. Hell, I'm a writer. You'd think all my protestations of "we're all in this together" would ring true when it's MY almighty dollar on the line.

The reason I'm this seemingly two-faced is because I haven't bought so many new books since I tapped into online book trading and swapping. Most of it comes from the fact that for $2.07 it cost me to mail a book, I've been exposed to a new author and now when I go out and buy a book, it's because I:

1. Want a copy for my personal collection
2. Want another copy to share among friends
3. don't want to wait until I can hunt down a used copy at a trading site
4. am getting the books for my book club members.

Used books are often the gateway to a new reading experience. When it's a positive reading experience, that generates a larger number of sales from me.

When it's a negative reading experience, I'm glad I saved my $30 for a hardcover. Now I can spend it on someone whose royalty check I'm proud to support.

Roxan said...

I recently purchased a used book only because new copies were not available and I wanted to read it again. If there had been a new copy available, I would have bought it.

Dr. Dume said...

I rarely give away my books, but once in a while I'll donate a few to the local charity shop to make room for new ones. Unfortunately I usually leave with more books than I took there.

Okay, the publisher and author aren't making money on that sale, but in order to become used books, they must have been bought new at some stage, right? So the availability of 'used' depends on the sales of 'new', and is always smaller because people like me don't part with them easily.

As others have said, used books are the best way to try out a new author without risking the full price. If I find an author I like, I'll look for more of their books. Buying them used depends on the random chance of a used-book store having one available, but Amazon sell new ones at reasonable prices and I can have it in a day or so. Amazon will also give me a list of books by that author. A used-book seller usually can't do that.

The Internet can be a good resource for hard-to-find books but as someone said above, you take your chance on the condition. I'd rather pay a little more for a book I really want and have a new one.

In order to find out whether I'm willing to pay for that author's work, I have to try it out. The best way to do that without parting with too much cash is to find a used copy.

Yes, I'm cheap.

Dan Leo said...

Not buying new books saves me more money for buying new beer.

But, really, what's nicer than browsing through a musty old used bookstore? Ah, the many happy hours...and, yes, I still drop into my wonderful public library every few weeks.

If you can afford to buy new books, that's great. New or old, books are good.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

To be read or not to be read, that is the question...

Saying used books are wrong is like saying libraries are wrong. Many people live on a fixed budget. Even trying to make a living at writing, I'd rather be read, even if it's a used or borrowed book. I, too, save most of my book money for debut books and books from author-friends.

Anonymous said...

Used books have the same effect on an author as a borrowed book, be it from a library or a friend. If there weren't used book stores, friends would still be lending books to one another. Authors don't get any revenue off of that either. But what authors do get through borrowed books, as well as purchased used books, is the possibility of a new loyal reader who may buy the authors next book new. Wheras, without the borrowed or used book, they may never have even bothered to give the author a second look at $24.95 a book.
I borrow alot of books, as well as lend them. I usually buy my books new, unless I'm looking for something out of print or a particular edition, and then I'm fortunate in that I have at least five good used bookstores near me.

Mary Paddock said...

What Dr. Dume said.

I confess, I freely make use of Amazon's used book market, used bookstores and $1.00 store bookracks. But wait! I have a good excuse . . .

I have four homeschooled kids. They are all readers--or will be when I'm done with them--so books are a big part of our life. In order to keep from completely blowing our working-class budget and still provide a variety, I frequently shop for bargains. The library is great, but when I want to keep a book for a month or more, it's easier to buy than pay late fees (or worry about what it will look like after a week in my briefcase).

For myself, once an author has my loyalty, I don't hesitate to buy their books new. But first they have to convince me they're worth it.

Nathan Bransford said...

Just to play a little devil's advocate here: there's a common refrain in publishing that it's easier to sell a first novel than a second novel, meaning that if an author's first book doesn't sell it's really difficult to try and sell a second novel when publishers can try for the next big thing with someone else.

So -- if a lot of people buy first books used before they decide whether or not to buy the author's books new, doesn't that cut into the possibility that the author will even have a second novel?

Also, I'd also like to suggest that perhaps the used bookstore is quite a bit different than buying used books online. In a used bookstore, you'd be hard pressed to find something you were looking for specifically -- it's much more random. But with online stores, you could very easily buy exclusively used books and it's very easy. Is that a problem?

Anonymous said...

It's the chicken and the egg dilemma:
Who am I first: the reader or the writer?
If I am the reader - I want used, If I am the author - I want to sell.
What do I do?

If you do get the homeboy cell, let me know.

Like butter!!!!!!!!

A Paperback Writer said...

The reader in me likes new, shiny books -- unless they come with a ridiculous pricetag, like many required for university courses do. In that situation, I buy used. I also buy out of print books, used, but that doesn't hur the author.
The author in me wants everyone to buy new, of course.
The teacher in me wants people -- especially my students -- to read as much as possible. And most of my students don't come from families with lots of spending money. Used books, libraries, borrowing from friends are all happy options. They may hurt the authors now, but if the used books get the kids hooked on reading, those kids will be buying books in the future.

Dr. Dume said...

Well, a first novel can't become a widely-available used book unless it was a widely-sold new book first.

So the initial problem is the same as it always was: how to get readers to buy it in the first place.

Once that book starts cropping up on the second-hand shelves in quantity, the author should have the second one ready to go. That first book has had its run, now it's advertising for the second, third etc.

I'd be more scared of ending up in the supermarkets' 'bargain bin' than in the second-hand shop!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Well, Nathan, to answer your devil's advocacy, I have two responses:

Maybe publishing needs to catch up to its book buying public.


I ran a contest last winter that featured Debut authors. I'll do it again this upcoming winter, too (eight months from now, we're already gearing up for it). Again, maybe publishing needs to catch up to their own rules and help those debut novels sell.

Bryan D. Catherman said...

Maybe this begs us to think about this differently.

If indeed it’s all about sales and volume and whatnot, what do publishers and authors think about libraries? Yes, libraries buy a copy or two, but then potentially hundreds of people can use that book without counting toward the dollar signs.

Like bookstores that sell used books, libraries are a place for the author to promote the book and her work. The librarians often put together book clubs and summer reading lists. Libraries usually promote and encourage reading, which I would think is good for the book industry. Aren’t bookstores that sell used books helping in this roundabout way?

I buy new, mostly. Often I want to support the author (and I guess the publisher). I want that nice book on my shelf. I want to crack the spine. You just don’t get that used. But there are those times when I would never have spent the money for new and therefore never have learned about the author or read the work.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Nathan,
I'm afraid Dr. Dume is right on this. I work in a library and take in donations of used books. Let me personally guarantee that the books that come in to the library are for the most part either bestsellers that we can't add to the collection because the library has already bought 49 copies or are out of print books that came from someone's attic. Assuming this is also true of used bookstores, it invalidates your devil's advocate play.

As to your first question, if it weren't for used books, I might not buy books. I generally only want to own books that have some intrinsic value of their own and I can always borrow books I don't want to own from the library.

Pat Logan said...

I buy used when I'm not sure I'm going to like the book, for whatever reason. Otherwise I buy new paperback.

I dislike hardcover immensely (a phobia from 22 years of schooling, I suppose) and only buy a hardcover book if nothing else is available and I have to have the book for some reason.

whitemouse said...

My understanding is that word-of-mouth is the one thing that can make a book a hit. Advertising doesn't work nearly as well.

So if people reading used books tell their friends which novels they liked, that will generate sales.

Kate said...

Have you heard of the heavy metal band called the 'Bloodhags' out of Seattle? They consider themselves to be 'edu core'. They only sing about their favorite authors and they huck USED BOOKS into the audience during their gigs. They insist that they're followers read read read! They're motto is "lose your hearing sooner so you'll have more time to read." Cool huh?

Gerri said...

I pick up out-of-print and early series books at used book stores. I also get books that I bought new originally, then lost over the years and want to replace.

For instance, I've been hunting for years for Michael Moorcock's Corwin series. I read it when I was a teenager, and I wanted to see if it held up to the test of time. (It didn't, btw.) I finally found copies in a used book store.

Newer books, I don't even look at the used book store to find. I want to keep most of my books, so I shop for new.

L.C.McCabe said...


When I'm doing research, I'll find titles from bibliographies or footnotes then check to see if my library has a copy. If it does, I'll put a hold on it and pick it up when it's available at my branch. If after reading it, I decide that I would like to have it on my bookshelf for further reference then I look to buy copy.

At that point, I am the same comparison shopper that I am with other things in my life. I see if it is available new or used. Sometimes it is out of print and the only way you can get it is used. Other times it is available both used and new. If there is a dramatic price difference say, $40 new and $12 used, I go for the used every time.

I'm not picky about its condition as long as it isn't falling apart. That's because I'm likely to use highlighters and sticky notes in MY reference books. I can, because they are mine. (Hold over from college days.)

Frankly, I can buy more books with the money I save buying used books. If there isn't much difference, say two or three dollars, I'm more likely to buy a new copy.

If for no other reason, then I can bundle the new book with others and save money on shipping.

Yup, I'm looking to save money any way I can. I'm the daughter of a Depression Era baby and I learned at my mother's knee the value of a dollar.

I'm sorry if it doesn't provide income to authors and agents through royalties, but I am providing money for people in the book industry as a whole.

And, looking around myself at my numerous bookcases filled with books, I think my money has gone to a wide variety of people over the years.

Helen DeWitt said...

I think the question is being framed in the wrong terms.

Look. A paperback of my first book is on sale new at Amazon for $11.99. 118 used copies are on sale starting at 0.61. I've just had a royalties statement according to which 352 units were sold at $14.95 between July and December 2006: that is, $5,262.40 net dollars, of which I get 7.5%, giving me a heartwarming $394.68.

In other words, a reader has to spend $14.95 for me to get $1.12, $11.99 for me to get 90 cents. If a reader wants to support the author, why not spend 61 cents on the book and send me a dollar by Paypal?

The present system means that I get paid only when a new physical object is made and sold. If 1,000,000 objects are sold, I get $1,000,000, give or take the odd K. If 100,000 objects are sold, I get $100,000 or so. But whenever I see the phrase "1,000,000 copies sold" it triggers a Pavlovian reaction: GLOBAL WARMING GLOBAL WARMING GLOBAL WARMING. I don't WANT to sell 1,000,000 copies.

Surely a much smaller number would be enough to go around; surely readers should not have to support paper manufacturers and book warehousers and the overheads of a bookseller simply to get a dollar to the author. Surely it would make more sense, anyway, for authors' payments to be linked to readers' interest rather than to the vagaries of publishers. If a publisher decides not to reprint a book, after all, the author then has no way of getting an income from it.

I especially love books no one else ever seems to have heard of. Irene Handl's The Sioux. Margaret Kennedy's Troy Chimneys. IH and MK are dead -- but if they were alive I would happily send money as an expression of my admiration.

One final comment (this IS long). It often happens that a book goes out of print because it was before its time. Kennedy's Troy Chimneys came out when Lucky Jim was a bestseller; it's a sophisticated book that belongs with (say) Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor and Charles Paliser's The Quincunx -- 30 years ahead of its time and went soon out of print. But once such books go out of print secondhand sales are the only place where a change in taste registers -- publishers have no access to that information.

It would be helpful to authors to have an income through the lean years; it would also be helpful to have secondhand sales data (over and above the actual dollar). My book came out 7 years ago. If 10,000 secondhand sales have taken place over and above the sales of new copies (unlikely but possible), that would be a useful piece of information to take to publishers when selling a new book.

So, long story short, we should aim at a system where a writer gets $10 from 10 sales of the book rather than sales of 10 books.

Annalee said...

I prefer certified pre-owned books.

Twill said...

There are three kinds of readers: those who would never buy a new book, those who would never buy a used book, and those who vary between them based upon circumstances.

People float between tendencies to be one of the three types. It is not up to you to determine which type any person should be. If there were more of all three types, then writers make more money. More of the first type pull books away from the third, creating more of the second. Yay, readers!

Stuart said...

I tried calling your homeboy phone, but all I got was Vanilla Ice covers. Tell me that wasn't you?


Most used books I pick up for three reasons: try something new (easier to take a risk for a buck fifty), replace my withering paperbacks with hardbacks, or FINALLY reading something I've been meaning to read for years (finding a bargin used book is like finding an excuse to just read something).

Think of a used book as a ARC: it a way to grab future (paying) readers. In my reasons 1 and 3 above, if the book is good/justified its position on my "need-to-read" list, I'll certainly search out more from that author.

Maya Reynolds said...

I started the thread on used books last week, not because I hate used books, but because I was struck by the irony of a writer urging other writers to open used bookstores. The disconnect between her obvious enthusiasm and her lack of awareness of the economic implications prompted my post.

Like most people on this thread, I buy my books both new and used. I buy new books when they're written by favorite authors and by my friends. I buy used by unknown authors, out of print books and quirky impulse buys.

And therein lies the crazy-making aspect of this conversation: the need of a writer to think with both sides of her brain, as a creative person and as a businesswoman.

I love to write. I will never forget the joy of signing a contract with an agent and then of selling my first book.

But, from that point on, I was no longer "just" a writer. I was now the operator of a small business--a very small business on the bottom of the publishing industry food chain. And economic reality is a sobering thing.

I now have to be conscious of marketing as well as the deadlines of my next book.

I'm receiving advances, which is a good thing because new books by debut (and midlist) writers have a very short shelf life. It's a small window of opportunity during which a writer earns royalties and hopefully gains an audience for her future work.

That window has shrunk over the past fifteen years as the publishing landscape shifted. It used to be that your choice was to buy the new book, hunt around for a used book or wait for the paperback to come out. But lots of things have changed. First, the big box stores came on the scene with their deep discounts. And then the Internet made it easier for readers to find used books. Readers can now buy the book at a 35% discount or wait a few weeks and find that same book used for 50% of the retail price.

And don't forget the consolidation of the industry. The majority of books are now published by a half dozen mega-conglomerations who have shareholders breathing down their necks, looking for ever-increasing earnings. Your contract is your invitation to the party. Your sell-through percentage determines whether you're invited back again.

But will I continue to dress up and arrive at the door, hoping to be admitted? Of course, I will. I'm a writer. I believe in happy-ever-afters.

Maya Reynolds said...

"Well, a first novel can't become a widely-available used book unless it was a widely-sold new book first."

Unfortunately, a first novel CAN become widely available in used bookstores without ever selling as a new book first. When it is sold as a remainder, a book that didn't sell new, but which is sold by the publisher simply to recoup printing costs.

Economic reality bites.

Scott said...

Here's another thing about buying used.

Say I go into a used CD store just to browse, with no particular CD in mind, and I see a kazillion copies of some hot-selling disc. I don't buy one. I figure, sure, it was popular, but people didn't love it enough to keep it.

I have the same reaction in used book stores. If I see a bunch o' copies of a book, even if they look well-read, my gut reaction is that the book was popular enough to sell a bunch of copies, but not good enough to be held on to. A lot of times, I recognize the book as a fad-seller from the 1970s or something.

There are flaws in this reaction, I'm sure, and if I'm curious enough about the book, I might pick it up and look at it anyway, but unless I know the book or the author and know it's something I'd like, it's hard to get past that initial prejudice.

As for the devil's advocate question--sure, I'd like to support the author, but I'd also like to read the author, and sometimes I can't afford to do both.

I guess it's kind of like how people with money can afford to boycott a certain obnoxious big-name retailer and get all self-righteous about why they don't shop there, but for most regular people, being able to get can of soup for five cents less is a big deal.

There's a pretty big piece of the reading population, I'm sure, who would rather get 10 books for their precious $20 than wait until they have another $20 so they can afford one new hardback with enough left over for a cup of coffee, even if they'd like to give the author more money.

For the record, of the 18 books I've read so far this year, I got two at the library, bought two used (one because I wanted to check out an author who I've heard was good, and the other because I didn't know if it was really something I'd like but I was curious about it), and re-read one that I bought used way back when. I got the other 13 new.

Liz said...

As the last two posts indicate, at the heart of everything is money.

Another thing to consider for book lovers of all types, budgets are being tightened everywhere.

Our library's materials budget will remain the same in the next fiscal year, 230K. Out of that, books of all types must be purchased. Sad to say, debut author's books often don't make the list of items to add. For adult fiction, the majority of the money is spent on a select group of authors. We'd automatically get five copies of any new release from the heavy hitters (Patterson, Roberts, Grisham etc.)

So, if you buy new authors' books, you may want to visit your local library and see if they'd take the book in donation after you've read it. Most small libraries are glad to take them. We always were.

It would be great if the libraries had the money to buy the books outright, but local government just isn't providing enough funding.

A donation may just spur library patrons to pick up a new author, read and perhaps become loyal book buying customers in the future.

Zen of Writing said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heatheness said...

I still don't think the question for publishing is "How can we make/convince/cajole readers to stop doing the wrong thing for our business plan?"

The question should be, "What are WE doing wrong?"

And anyway, the answer to the first question is surely not "Let's patronizingly educate readers about their irresponsiblity, and then guilt trip them into doing what we believe is the right thing for us." That implies that we're all either naughty or ignorant, and that's not an especially good way to approach people whose dollars you want.

IMO, the answer is an array of solutions that can originate at the house itself: first, quit overproducing new books by established authors - suck it up and be content with smaller consecutive runs over time that won't flood the market concurrently with the new and the used; second, quit knee-jerking to the lowest common denominator and selling crap books no one wants to keep or ever re-read; and hey, here's a novel thought - look to the future - every other year, spend PR money only on new authors.

I mean, if you want us to buy new, then frigging sell something new, with sell being the operative word. Publishing spends money by the truckloads, but not on the authors who need promotion -- they spend the gross majority of it on the ones who don't. Instead, they created and perpetuate a reward system for PR dollars. Only those who can show they already earned promotion, as if it were a privilege, are entitled to enjoy it. This is bad, dumb and short-sighted business. And look! It's not even good for the authors! The best sellers lose out on future earnings, the midlist loses out because that's what the midlist does, and obviously the reader loses out too. Yeah, he may be able to buy used books easier than ever, but there'll be less he wants to buy anyway, given enough burns taken.

The only ones in publishing well served by this system are THIS QUARTER'S executives and boards of directors. When they fail, they just leave and go on to fail somewhere else, because nowhere is the Peter Principle more alive and kicking than corporate America. We just have to face it, neither the authors nor the readers are at fault here. There is a sweet spot between the stockholders and the readers, and sometime around 1990 a bunch of assholes found it.

Nathan Bransford said...


I'm afraid I disagree with your reasoning. If there are a flood of copies out there on the used book market (with the exception of remainders), it means that a whole bunch of people bought the copies new, and therefore the publishing industry is making a product that people want, not just cranking out crap.

Zen of Writing said...

I concur that buying used books supports the local library. I get most of my used books at local library sales where the proceeds go to buy new books. I also re-donate the books after I've read them, along with whatever books I've bought and decided not to keep.

Buying used books online enables me to buy far more books than I could at new prices. I prefer new books, who doesn't, but there I often go for less established authors. But not always.

I probably buy as many new books as I would otherwise. Used books are a nice bonus.

RE: your question about publishers finding it harder to sell a second novel, and looking for the "next big thing" -- well that's the problem isn't it, that they're looking for the next big thing while most of our literature was not the big thing. It came from the old tradition of nurturing writers, which incidentally, is the tradition most readers here seem to be in harmony with.

Looking exclusively for "the next big thing" will give us a literature that consists of Publishing's Greatest Hits from Jonathan Livingston Seagull to The DaVinci Code.

Nathan Bransford said...


One interesting thing to note is that Dan Brown is actually a case where his editor stuck with him and built his career, which paid off with THE DA VINCI CODE.

Heatheness said...

Now, to reward Maya R. for her consistent misinterpretation and spinning-askew of my comments, she wins this: Me, hand-selling her used book for a whole $.50 under list price....And the profit is mine {insert evil cackling} all mine.

No, I wouldn't do that. Her book sounds good, so I'd probably read it myself before selling at the wicked profit. The truth is, it was both easy and NOT WRONG for me to encourage writers to open bookstores. I spoke to my own experiences, which have been all good ones. Also, I'm not green. I'm not even particularly young. I was a jounralist and in business for 15 years before I opened my shop. I think most people reading Nathan's blog realize any sole-proprietorship business, up to and including being an author, is no primrose path. It didn't seem necessary to to add such a cautionary warning to my story.

Nonetheless, maybe folks were, at my mere joy and enthusiasm, ready to leave their current careers in droves for the lucrative field of used and rare book sales. So you covered my ass on that one and probably saved lives. Keep up the good work. Thanks.

Heatheness said...

Oh, and Nathan, my point about cutting back on the print runs of established authors wasn't intended to speak to instantaneous reader fulfillment (meaning having enough copies available in the first week to satisfy everyone who wants one EVER).

I was speaking to the industry's specific complaint that there are used books hitting the market while the new ones are still on the current year's list. My reasoning was, I think that is less likely to happen if the runs weren't so large that a new title in January is still seen (by the publisher) as a new title in December, just one with a chunk of the run yet unsold; and then to go on to blame the author for underselling to boot. Because, be serious, the reason publishers do it in one large run is to save money for themselves. They're not serving the readers who it's well known, if they want the book by their favorite author that badly, will do one of these things: pre-order it, or simply read it as soon as it can be acquired.

As a general rule, scarcity not overabundance feeds desire. So disagree with Darwin's logic if you must, as it wasn't mine in the first place. Caio.

Maya Reynolds said...

Heatheness: It was certainly not my intention to offend you or to twist your words.

I wanted to make a point about the economics of publishing. Frankly, last week, I thought I was the one whose words were taken out of context.

Let's agree to disagree. Please feel free to make obscene profits on my forthcoming book. I hope to be able to do the same :)

Have a good weekend.



spyscribbler said...

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!

Heather said...


Thank you.

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 said...

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 said...

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 said...


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 said...

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 said...


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.

Lisa said...

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.

S.W said...

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

Related Posts with Thumbnails