the reader’s dilemma

December 28, 2008

Use me...dont abuse me.
Use me...don't abuse me.

It’s nothing new (pun intended)–used book sales have been a part of the publishing equation ever since the first undergrad sold her first college textbook back to the bookstore in order to get money for Christmas presents. A book is one of those things that is the same whether new or used, content-wise, anyway.

With online swap sites making it ridiculously easy to acquire books for little more than shipping costs, the impact is finally taking a heavy toll on publishers and authors. The book you buy for a penny + shipping is a sale that will never show up on a royalty statement. No one except the reseller and the post office will see a penny from the transaction. Yet it’s not the reader’s job to care about this. Like any responsible person, the reader is probably looking for the most economical way to indulge her passion. I don’t blame her. I’ve bought plenty of second-hand books in my time. The used book I buy today was once manufactured and sold new, and the publisher, bookseller and author each got their cut. Now the book has been released into the wild, and any further readers it finds are simply a bonus. In my genre, books go out of print quickly, often within months of their release, so having them available used is a way to keep the backlist alive. I don’t make money from those sales, but I might find new readers.

The New York Times weighs in here with “Bargain Hunting for Books, and Feeling Sheepish About It” by David Streitfeld. The headline sums up the dilemma. We love books so much that we can’t get enough of them. But we’d go broke, buying everything at premium prices, so we buy used books, even knowing that some publisher’s sales are going to slip, and some author might find herself out of work.

Streitfeld is frank about his motives and methods. He’s an avid reader whose appetite for books conflicts with his sense of responsibility. I do wish the article had offered the obvious solution. People who want books at no cost should borrow them from the library. That way, everybody wins. The reader pays nothing for the book, the library wins a patron, the publisher sells a new book and the writer gets her royalties. Okay, so maybe the independent bookstore is left out of the equation, but in my community, the library and bookstore often cooperate.

These days, many libraries offer the option of downloading an audio or e-book directly to your home computer, so you don’t even have to go anywhere.

Where do you weigh in on the debate? Do you buy books new to support the industry? Do you buy them used to save money? Or do you use the library?

I clicked the used-book aggregator link in the NYT article to look up my own books. Somebody’s charging $292 for a copy of my novel, The Lightkeeper. Good gawd. I’d sell it to you for half that price.

  • I can’t imagine feeling guilty about buying a used book. Do you feel guilty when you buy a used car to save money to buy more books? What about buying a used house, or inheriting one, especially if it came with a collection of books?
    I found a big stack of books by a dumpster the other day and took three of them. That’s the way the system works, and it works well – there are vast numbers of books in print. I buy used books and new books, and I borrow books and loan them.
    As an author the only way to make a living is to be popular, and what you may lose from used sales is more than made up for by the people who go on to buy your other books. Imagine if books couldn’t be sold used, or if people were ashamed to buy used – how many people would buy the hundreds or thousands of books an avid reader goes through knowing that they could only be rid of them by throwing them in the trash? (Not a problem in my case, but I’m kind of drowning in books.) Sometimes you have to stop obsessing over money that you really wish you could have, because really it was never in reach.
    Those of us who write software don’t worry about being paid for every copy, or even for most of them, we worry about making enough money to keep writing. I spend a lot of time making my software as easy as possible to pirate because nothing is as valuable as free advertising and people who like your stuff – that leads to future sales. Being neurotic doesn’t.
    If you could collect a nickel for every used copy of your books that’s sold you could probably have lunch. If you could increase the tiny fraction of the population who read by even a small amount every author and society as a whole would be vastly better off. So far the sale of used books is the best method we have for accomplishing that end.

  • I used to go to the library all the time. I worked there for 6 years as well. Then, I got all weird. The germs got to me. I used to only borrow new books where I was the first to borrow them. I buy most of my books. I do trade occasionally, too. I rarely buy used books because of the germs and people don’t treat them well. However, I will buy used books for out of print or books where I want more than one copy. I will say that almost all of the authors that I read and buy now I once bought from a used bookstore in college. The college library didn’t have a lot of fiction and I didn’t have a car to go anywyere (and it was pretty rural), but once in awhile, my family would bring me to the used bookstore where I’d stock up.

    As for how I discovered Susan Wiggs, it was a combination of That Summer Place (which I bought for the Jill Barnett story) and finding a book at RWA lying around by itself. I felt bad that it was sitting there by itself and bought it.

  • In Australia, authors have Public Lending Rights paid annually by the government. The government recognises that the author misses out financially by having one library copy borrowed and reborrowed over and over, so they do an audit of the number of libraries holding our books and we’re paid a pro rata bonus.
    It’s much appreciated, I can assure you.

    That said, as a reader, I almost always buy new and I often have new books sent from America, but I will search for an author’s backlist in used books stores. That’s how I found “Home Before Dark”, Susan. Loved it!!!

  • Musing:
    I have often thought about how the used book store owners can let the powers that be know when author’s used books are being snapped up. I’ve wondered if the used book sellers track author’s used book sales, especially ones which fly off their shelves and is there a list out there somewhere? If they are flying off the shelves then reprints can be printed much quicker – seems logical to me. Then again it comes down to money.

  • Excellent discussion! Like many of you, my favourite place growing up was the library and still is. (My daughter-in-law is a Librarian.) Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, & Margaret Mitchell – favourites. Once I was able to afford hardcovers, I purchased all their books for my bookshelves, oten re-reading the favourites over and over again. The libraries also take donations of used books to add to their collections. All my Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt books went to the library several years ago and now I miss them terribly!

    As for used book stores – (I hadn’t read novels for many years only to return with a vengence to feed the need to read), I discovered your books at a lovely new and used books store. There it was on the shelf, the spine with your name on it just shouting out to me “pick me, pick me.” That is how I discovered Susan Wiggs. Hooked! I did not rest until I read most of your books available (new) at the local bookstore, the New & Used bookstore and yes, even some on used books store on-line – The Chicago Fire Trilogy. It is the last resort. There are still several earlier books I have not read. (Waiting for the reprints.) The majority of your books are purchased new. Even your Husband for Hire on a clearance table – new.

    I love to support authors and will purchase all books available new or older books NEW in reprints at the local bookstore. If I absolutely cannot get it (out of print books) any other way, I resort to used book store or the last, last resort an on-line book stores. And even then I have waves of regret because the author and publisher are bypassed. 🙁

    As for e books – HOW can you possibly enjoy a book that way! In our family the sight of a new book just waiting to be opened with the characters, plots, sub-plots and laugh out loud moments would just not be the same in ebook form! Sheila Roberts’ On Strike For Christmas scene with the children visiting in Santa definitely would not have been the same laugh out loud moment. Or Susan’s book with Olivia up the flag pole (Lakeside Chronicles) or Sam discovering he has a son in The You I Never Knew, or so many more scenes.

    A book is to be treasured, the author applauded, the publisher acknowledged so they can support an author and discover more authors to keep the circle going. Once you have found a favourite author whether at the bookstore or the used bookstore, support the author and the publishing house.

    So – those who can, purchase books new or visit the library and an absolute last resort for out of print books, a used book store and never, never, never down load a pirated book. To do so, is to thumb your nose at the author.

  • I was so please to see your post about supporting libraries! Before devoting my days to writing, I worked in the Library Marketing Department at one of the major publishing houses. For years, I attended Library Association trade shows and can honestly say that the librarians I met had such an awe inspiring passion for books. In the current economic climate, I hope readers remember to support their libraries as cities and towns may look to cut library funding in the coming months.
    Personally, I have always purchased books to support my favorite authors and the industry in general. You never know when you might wish to reread one of your favorite books or share a copy with a friend!

  • Susan: I’m a big fan of libraries, have been haunting them since I was five. Getting my first library card was far more thrilling to me than getting my first driver’s license! Like me, I imagine most readers discover “new” authors at the libraries and then purchase copies of books they love themselves or go find the author’s backlist at bookstores.

    Far more troubling to me than used bookstore sales are sharing sites that put up–for free–the entire text of your novel for anyone in the world to download. I’m talking about brand new, print-published yesterday novels, not just e-books (although those are out there in droves too). People get a hold of pdf arcs or whatever and up they go.

    The people posting and downloading these pirated copes have no idea they’re violating copyright or doing anything wrong–and they don’t care. We’ve created a “download for free” generation, who don’t want to pay for any artistic content, be it novel, music, TV show, or movie. I probably don’t have to say here (but I will), that the author and publisher don’t see a penny from these downloads. The argument is that authors and publishers make millions of dollars, so they can afford to give a few things away. Any attempt to explain the reality of author earnings falls on deaf ears.

    I think this new dilemma, unless checked, will rise and hurt the industry far more than any used book sale will. A used book is a fixed entity, changes hands a few times until it falls apart and is thrown away. A downloadable book can go to thousands of people in one day, can be copied by each of them and sent out to thousands more.

  • Interesting topic Susan, and great commentary ladies – a topic which I have often wondered about. My background is a lot of this and that, but some years spent in the production of television and movies doing various jobs. It made me very conscious of bootlegged tapes, vhs, dvd etc. Of course printed books as well, and it is snowballing, and it just well, it irks me to no end.

    I too have a local library which is very sparse in novels of Wiggs extraction………so I have bought a lot from Amazon. I originally noticed your books Susan in WalMart a couple of years ago. I was amazed by the huge display (never had seen so many titles by one author in one place) and ended up buying I think 11 of your books that day VBG 🙂 Turned out to be one fine investment too !!!!!

    Such interesting commentary always on your blog Susan, I appreciate it !


  • Some libraries will take a “request for purchase” form. I’ve put up a handy one on my web site here and also found a few online:

    Not sure if it will help with older books. So that’s why I’m not screaming TOO hard about used bookstores. Sometimes they’re the only source for older books.

    I am out of Chicago fire books myself! Otherwise, I would send them to you. I believe they will all be repacked and reissued in 2010. I need to lay in a lot of spare copies!

  • I get all my books from the library. With reading 2-3 a week, I couldn’t afford to buy them, and I would have no place to store them at home. Sadly, the Pierce County Library, only one or two counties away from you Susan, does not carry all your books, and they only purchase recently published books. So I would be tempted to use a swap website where I would not have to pay very much. The library only had one book of the Chicago Fire Triology, and I really want to read the rest. How can they tempt me with carrying only one book of a series?

    Awhile ago, you posted about NoveList, a service available at the library, and I have used this to find other authors I like once I read all your books that the library offers. Thanks for the tip!

  • Yes, to all three for me. I love owning my very own copy of a favorite book by a favorite author. I am busily collecting so I have lots to re-read in my old age. But I’ve done my share of used book buying, too. It is a great way to take a chance on a new author. And the library has been a great second home for me since I was a kid. Before I even heard of “used books” I was at the Queen Anne branch (a gorgeous old, Carnegie library), working my way through Daphne DuMaurier, Mary Stewart, and Victoria Holt. The library is the best friend of the student, the child, and the newlywed on a budget, and a favorite hangout for senior citizens. I always go into a library and am awestruck by the sheer volume of words, thoughts, and lives represented on those shelves. But when it comes to economic benefit for the author, I’m not sure it’s much of a step above used books. One or two purchases carries hundreds of free reads that could have been sales. How is that a win-win financially? It’s a wonderful win for patrons. Not so much for writers, at least not financially. But writing is not just about making a living. Writing is about sharing information or telling a good story, and since we writers want people to read and enjoy our stories, that makes the library our friend. I hope readers will share my philosophy – support your local library and take advantage of all it offers. Support your local used book store and use it to try out new authors yo might not readily find in the library. And support authors by, when you find one you love, buying her books new, either for yourself or to give as presents. That way, everyone continues to win. And here’s an extra bonus – every time you buy a new book, you help keep the economy humming. And there you have the Sheila Roberts formula for a win-win-win situation. 🙂

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