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.