the reader’s dilemma
December 28, 2008
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.