Second Hand Words

What's your take on used book sales, via Amazon, Alibris, ABE, eBay, et al., and their impact on author royalties, publisher sales, etc.? What about sales of ARCs (which Alibris allows sellers to do a year after pub date)?

In a perfect world, everyone would buy brand new beautiful hardcover books at full list price.

Oh wait, Miss Snark is on a different planet.

The reality of the marketplace is there is ALWAYS going to be a secondary market: used clothes, used books, used dogs (down Killer Yapp, you're NOT for sale!).

The original producer doesn't ever benefit from those secondary markets. You hear a lot of screaming and yelling about this in the art world: paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat that he sold from his studio in the Village for hundreds of dollars now command hundreds of thousands of dollars in galleries. He (or rather his estate) gets none of the mark up.

A first edition James Lee Burke is worth hundreds of dollars on the secondary market. Mr. Burke realizes no monetary benefit.

You'd think any agent with an eye on the bottom line would be mortally opposed to that wouldn't you?

You'd be wrong. Here's why: Secondary markets can create cachet. If you're willing to spend $500 for a first edition James Lee Burke, you're probably going to buy the upcoming book too. More than one, in fact. People were collecting T. Jefferson Parker for years before he won two Edgars for best novel. Collectors are smart people.

The other reason is secondary markets create readers. On any sunny day in Manhattan you will find a very interesting group of people, mostly men, mostly old hippies, selling books on the sidewalks of New York. (Arthur Nersessian wrote a novel about a street bookseller called CHINESE TAKE OUT-it's a good read). For $6 you can have pretty much any used trade paperback you want. I'm much more likely to buy three of these used books than one hardcover new front list book. BUT, buying Philip Roth novels as used books made me a huge fan. When The Plot Against America was published I bought it front list, hardcover, full price. I wouldn't have done that if I hadn't read him in used books first.

Now, about ARCs. For Snarklings who do not have the Snark Guide to Publishing Acronyms at hand ARC means Advanced Reader Copy. They are the "paperback" advertisement/first look that publishers send to long-lead review outlets like Publishers Weekly, the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, LA Times etc. They used to be rare. A publisher printed 100 or so and sent them out.

Then someone got the bright idea of sending them to booksellers to talk up the book before they placed orders. More ARCs get printed and sent out.

Pretty soon so many are printed it's no longer uncommon to see print runs of 1000 or more and mailing to everyone who's ever been associated with publishing.

In economic terms we call that a glut on the market. Enterprising booksellers took to selling them. Devoted collecters of authors like T. Jefferson Parker or James Lee Burke soon wanted not just the first edition of a book, but the ARC for the book as well. All those folks at the varioius newspapers discovered they could sell these things and donate the proceeds to charity. Less scrupulous people sell them to used bookstores. There are long running debates about whether it's ok to do that but The Ethicist in the New York Times magazine says its ok.

ARCs are fearsomely expensive. MORE expensive to produce on a per unit basis than the actual book itself.

There's no easy solution to the problem of ARCs flooding the market: publishers are desperate to get attention for their books and bookstores aren't going to not sell them cause that money is pure profit. (ARCs are given way free by publishers).

I don't worry about ARCs or used book markets very much. I firmly believe that readers who find MORE of what they like will buy more. It's a truism of non profit fundraising that the person most likely to give to the organization is someone who has given before. If a reader buys your book on the street, or buys an ARC cause it's cheap, s/he’s going to get hooked and buy it front list full price one of these days.


Maya Reynolds said...

The Book Industry Study Group has just finished a comprehensive examination of used books sales. The study generated a lot of interest because all the major players in used books (Amazon, e-Bay, ABE, Alibris, Powells, etc.) agreed to participate. You can go to the BISG website (www.bisg.org) and read some of the findings under "news." Included among them: Sales of used books from 2003 to 2004 increased by 11%. In 2004, used books accounted for one out of every twelve books sold; in five years that number is expected to be one out of every eleven. Sales of used books online increased by 33%.

Keep in mind that a large chunk of used book sales are textbooks.

The big change in the used book business is the Internet. Now, using ABE, I can find an obscure book in a bookstore in Maine and purchase it in less than five minutes.

I'm curious if Miss Snark sees this trend as impacting the print run/sales of paperback books (following the sale of the hardback). If I can buy a used hardback six weeks after the book is published, why wait six months for the paperback?

Mr. Breese said...

Part of the problem here, I think, is that hardback books are way over priced.

Unless the hardcover is a bestseller, I usually have to pay around $25-$30 for it. Quite frankly, who wants to pay that sort of money for an unknown author? Michael Connelly, maybe. But not a first-time writer.

Most of my friends who are voracious readers usually go to the library or a secondary market. They also exchange books with friends. Or they just buy the latest bestseller in paperback. I have a couple of friends who buy second-hand books off Amazon for a penny. A penny! I guess the seller makes money off shipping and handling fees.

I would love to have my first novel published in hardcover, but I just have to wonder why anyone would pay $30 for it.

After all, why pay $30 for a book if you can get two DVDs for that price? And DVDs are much more popular than books.

Unknown said...

I agree. Several of my favorite writers I discoverd on the shelves of Strand. Strand has (or used to have, as it has been years since I was back in New York) rows and rows of just proofs, advance copies and non-advance reviewer's copies of all the latest books.

I even lucked onto a marked up bound proof of one soon to become unexpectedly famous book that somehow found its way there.

lady t said...

ARCS help me alot at my job;I became a fan of writers like Jennifer Weiner,Chris Bojahlian,Tracy Chevailer and Sue Monk Kidd in part to getting a free crack at them. I agree that hardcover prices are too much-even with my bookseller's discount(40% off),HCs are pricey,especially nonfiction,where the going rate for a historical biography
is $35.00 and up.

I used to only shop at thrift stores to get any books(which is why I donate books to my local store when my shelves get too full)and any bargain you can get is a good one. I went to a rummage sale over the weekend and found a copy
of My Name Is Charlotte Simmons in HC for 2 bucks! Sweet-that's way less than even buying it in paperback. They also had the new John Irving(which I already had)-ironic,since I'm more of a Irving fan.

Dee Savoy said...

Although I am against the selling of ARCs (it should be illegal, immoral or fattening to do that, if it isn't already), since that's tantamount to making money off a freebie and the author sees no return on that at all, I'm not opposed to the used book market. Speaking as an author here, I made my money once, so I'm happy. Since the reason I write is to communicate, the more people who read my books, the happier I am. If the book goes up in value and I don't see a cent of that, I'm okay, since I'd assume the increased value of the book would signal an increase in prestige of my name as an author. What I do mind is places, especially on line, that sell the used right there with the new. As I've said on my own blog, that's the same as going to shop and Macy's and being told the same item can be found cheaper around the corner at SYMS. To me, that's cheapening the product you are supposed to be selling.