used books and your favorite authors

There’s another round of letters about the Jane Austen Doe article mentioned here a few days ago. The thing about an on-line magazine like Salon is that there’s no space limitation, so they can bung two or three dozen letters up rather than picking and choosing the best. Thus you’ll find a lot of repetition, and a great deal of self promotion, most particularly a few of the lit-criterati waving their hands wildly in the air like the over-achievers in English class, wanting to be called on. I plowed through a lot of the letters and found only a few that made any new contribution to the discussion, most particularly this paragraph from a letter written by Kay Murray [edited to add: I think this must be the Kay Murray who is General Counsel and Assistant Director of the Authors Guild Foundation.]

Readers who want to support midlist authors should buy new, not used, copies and donate their used copies to people who can’t afford books instead of selling them online. Alibris, the used and rare bookseller that is going public this year, has revealed that it earns some $30 million in commissions alone on used and rare book sales. Imagine how much Amazon, which markets used copies aggressively, cuts into publishers’ sales.

This is a topic that few take on because it’s pretty contentious, but it is relevant. Used books are a sore point for any published author. We all have stories about this. My favorite happened to an acquaintance who was invited to speak to a bookclub here in town about her latest novel. This is something I’m happy to do locally, too — as are many authors — you spend an evening talking to friends of friends and answering questions about the book, your writing habits, your inspiriation. At any rate, she goes along one evening to a bookclub of about twenty people, and is told, right up front, that some of them had read the book as much as a year ago because (I’m still astounded even as I write this) — they had bought one copy and were passing it around. The novel cost $24, which means they each put in a whopping $1.20, and then on top of that, they ask the author to come by for nothing and entertain them. She was furious, and I was furious for her, when I heard the story. It’s rude, and insulting, and shows such a tremendous lack of respect that it’s going to be hard for me not to ask, the next time I’m invited to such a bookclub, what their buying habits are.

It’s a different matter completely when you’re talking about readers who can’t afford a book, but then that’s what the public library system is for. I am not upset when somebody tells me they got my novel out of their local library before deciding whether or not to buy it; that makes sense, certainly. On the other hand, if somebody tells me with great glee that they got all of my softcover books off of ebay for a total of twelve bucks plus shipping, I start to run numbers through my head. How much of a profit is the used bookseller making on my novels? Is s/he actually pocketing more from the re-sale of those three books than I did when they were first sold? Sometimes the answer is yes. And this is, to put it simply, frustrating. No wonder it’s hard to make a living at writing.

What to do about it? Nothing. We live in a free market, and some things can’t be legislated, but sometimes I wish people would think a little about what it means when they buy used books. Most especially I think about a used bookseller I once saw interviewed on television who said, very proudly, that his goal was to resell every book so many times that he put publishers out of business. Is this the height of stupidity, or greed, or some wondrous combination of the two?

I try to follow a few simple rules that make me comfortable in my own purchases. (1) I never buy an ARC before a book is published; (2) I never buy a used book unless that book is out of print; (3) I try to buy all my books from independent booksellers;* (4) I buy hardcover copies of books by authors who I admire and who are struggling to make a name for themselves — I think of this as a professional courtesy; (5) I donate books that are still in print and I can’t use any more to schools and non-profits who don’t resell them. I do use Alibris and Abebooks quite a lot, but only for stuff so old and musty it’s not available anywhere else. That’s what the online used booksellers excel at, and that’s what I use them for: finding esoteric books on particular research topics, old newspapers, and oddities.

There was one other letter to Salon’s editors that really got my attention, and not in a good way. It made me so spitting mad that I had to go walk the dogs to cool down. More about that, maybe, another time.

*updated August 31, 2007 to say that my stance on this has changed. See this post.

4 Replies to “used books and your favorite authors”

  1. I hope I don’t step on toes here, and obviously I don’t know nearly as much about this as you do, but the way I see it, authors/publishers aren’t paid for each set of eyes that read an author’s work — they’re paid for copies of books. If I buy a used copy of a book, that means that the person who bought it new doesn’t have it anymore; it’s not as if it was Xeroxed and now two copies exist where there was only one before. I can see how authors would prefer to be paid per pair of eyes (which is essentially what would happen if we all paid full price for every book we ever read — in which case I, personally, would have to read FAR fewer books than I do), but that’s not the way the system works.

    Granted, I can see that it’s more courteous to buy new when we can. And in the case of an author I trust, a book I feel like I need to own even if I don’t get around to reading it right away (mostly classics in this category, and obviously those authors don’t care…), a book that’s been heavily recommended by people who know my taste in books, or a series, I’ll spend the money. But for impulse, “hmm, this looks interesting” kind of reading — most people I know can’t afford to do that with any regularity, and from an everyday consumer’s point of view, it would be a senseless waste of money in a lot of cases when the book didn’t live up to its initial appeal.

  2. no worries, you haven’t bruised my toes.

    You’ve made some good points, but consider this. Say there’s a print run of 10,000 copies of Author X’s book. 5,000 of those sell (she only gets paid for what sells); 5,000 get returned to the publisher, who has now incurred a pretty big loss. Author X has not ‘earned out’ her advance (advances are just that — you actually have to sell enough copies to cover the amount fronted before you start to earn royalties) and is less likely to buy Author X’s second book, no matter how good it might be.

    Now there are 5,000 copies of this book floating around out there. Of those, some unknown number moulder in bookcases and attics, read or unread. Let’s say a thousand make it into the used book market, each of which is sold (I’m making this up as I go along) 2.3 times in its lifetime before being tossed or stuck in that attic. Another 150 are passed around from hand to hand, two or three times each.

    It’s great if a given copy of the book is read by fifteen pairs of eyes, sure. But you can see how that impacts on the author’s financial viability with the publisher.

    I understand that most people can’t afford to buy every book they’d like to read new. Mostly, I hope they go to the library (and I know you do this). If they end up buying books used, I would hope that if they find a book they really like and admire, they’d go out and buy a new copy, as well. I know most won’t, it’s just what I’d hope.

    Finally, there’s a difference between selling a used book and loaning out the same book ten times, but keeping it so you can read it again when the whim strikes you. That is a little bit like making a copy.

    And I agree with you about deceased authors. My daughter wanted to read Dante, and I went out and found the best edition I could, used. Beautifully printed and bound, lots of footnotes. Cost me less than a new Penguin edition, will last longer. Is this good for the publisher? No. Does Dante care? No. I confess I’m less worried about the mental and financial health of the publisher than I am about the author. Which is somewhat inconsistent, obviously.

  3. Forgot to mention in my list of books that I’ll buy new: Obviously if I’ve read a book from the library and I enjoy it I’ll buy it, usually new. Also, if I start out with a used copy, frequently I *will* end up with new ones sooner or later, generally so that all my books from each author match each other. (Just one example: I had some really strange-looking Austen covers until I treated myself to new Penguin editions of all six novels — and again, Jane doesn’t care, but maybe Penguin does.)

  4. Most of the books I’ve bought used turn out to be books I don’t finish reading, which I then pass on to the local library or to any interested friends. This year I’ve figured out to stop buying used, now that I’ve got the logic figured out: if I’m that doubtful over a book recommended to me, I’m more on the mark about my reading interests/tastes than the recommenders are.

    A possible problem for the future – my guess – is about fan fiction. A huge generation on The Net is being trained to expect stories tailored to their specific needs/quirks/requests for free. I’m not interested in writing or reading fanfic in any story world, but I notice online that people who do are less and less satisfied with works in (traditional) print.

    And I don’t see much difference in stiffing an author of their royalty by purchasing their book used and in encouraging fiction that riffs on their creations. The first puts money in other pockets, while the latter leads audiences away from storytelling where authors get paid.

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