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.