March 01, 2009

Used Book Sales (and Sellers) are an Author's Friend

by Alan Beatts

[Editor's Note: SF Signal <>  is a science fiction blog with news, reviews and commentary.  They run an occasional feature called Mind Meld, where they ask a bunch of authors, editors, and other genre professionals to all answer the same question, and then they post the question and all the answers.  The results are usually fascinating.  This month, they've asked Alan, Borderlands' owner, among lots of others, to answer the following question: "I've seen arguments for and against the used book market.  What's your take?  Does the used book market help or hurt the publishing industry?".  I thought the discussion was interesting, so we've decided to run Alan's answer here in the From the Office column.  Check with SF Signal later in the month to read all the other responses. - Jude]

Whether used book sales hurt or help the publishing industry is a complicated question.  This is mostly because the publishing industry contains several subsections, all of which have their own discrete and sometimes mutually incompatible goals and economic pressures.  To really look at the question comprehensively one has to consider readers, authors, booksellers, and publishers separately.  Before going to to that, let me point out two assumptions - one, that the only person who receives any payment for a used book is the person who sells it (i.e. no royalty goes to the author and the publisher doesn't get a penny) and two, that used books are sold based on the current model (i.e. mostly directly to the consumer in a face-to-face transaction but with a significant and increasing number of sales happening on-line).
Readers clearly benefit from used book sales.  It provides them with both a low-cost way of getting books and access to out-of-print works.  Readers also gain a way of recouping some of their investment in reading matter by giving them an outlet to sell books that they no longer want to own (often due to space considerations).  As long as used books sales don't do serious damage to authors' ability to make a living (and therefore remain authors) or publishers' ability to remain in business, then readers will benefit from used book sales.

Authors probably benefit from used booksales but only in a modest way.  On the plus side used books allow potential readers to try an author's work cheaply and, if they like what they find, the reader may become a "fan" of that author and buy new copies of the author's work in the future.  The used market also helps authors of series if the earlier books in the series are out-of-print since new readers will be able to "catch up" by buying used copies, which improves the chances that they will buy new copies of later books.  Finally, authors tend to acquire large numbers of books in both the usual way and due to their connection to publishing so they have the same desire to sell used books as readers.  On the down side, some percentage of used book sales equate one less new book sale which cost authors royalties.  Also, if there are large numbers of used copies available of a specific work it may decrease the chances of the author reselling that work to another publisher when the rights revert to the author (which happens once the original publisher takes the book out of print).  Neither of these outweigh the advantages to authors but I think the margin is relatively slim and the equation could shift.

Booksellers generally benefit from the used market, even if they aren't currently participating in it.  The margin for profit is much greater in used books than new (about two or three times better) and it's easy for a new book store to build a used section.  Adding such a section has been a technique that bookstores have been using for years to help improve their viability and profitability.  Prohibition of used book sales would eliminate that "emergency plan" at a time when stores are under significant economic pressure.  Secondarily, the ability of readers to sell unwanted books encourages them to buy more books, both because they have space to house them and because their total book-buying expense is reduced.

Finally publishers do not benefit from the used market.  The small advantage they gain by readers being able to discover new authors and turn-over their library (i.e. sell books to buy more books) doesn't outweigh the lost income when a used copy is bought instead of a new one.  Simply put, people are going to spend a certain amount of time reading and they'll buy books to fill that time.  If the only books available are new ones, they'll buy them.  Likewise, if someone needs a book for information related to their profession or hobby, they'll buy that book (as long as the price isn't outrageous).  Publishers are in the business of selling books and a market that costs them sales is a bad thing.

However, all this is beside the point because the publishing industry and the subsections that compose it exist in the larger world.  Taking the larger view into account, prohibiting, restricting or monitizing the used book market for the benefit of authors or publishers would strike at a basic assumption of our social and economic system -- the doctrine of First Sale.  In essence, First Sale means that, when I buy a book, actual ownership of that specific physical object is mine.  Though the author and/or publisher retains the copyright, the book is mine and I may do whatever I wish with it -- sell it, lend it, gift it, or throw the damn thing away.  If restrictions are placed on this I am, in essence, no longer the owner and, instead of buying the book I've bought some sort of ambiguous right to control over the book that's been presented as ownership.  Such a change is not likely to be good for anyone in our society, be they a publisher, reader, author or bookseller.

At this time, used book sales don't harm the publishing industry in any appreciable way.  That market has been part of the business landscape of publishing for as long as the business has existed and the business is thoroughly adapted to it.  But, over the last ten years, internet sales have been changing the equation and the effects of that are hard to predict.  Used book availability has historically been very regional.  At any time, only a small fraction of all the books published in the last 50 years were to be found on the shelves of the stores that were within reasonable traveling distance for buyers.  Supplies of popular titles where also sharply limited.  For example, in the early 90s I spent over six months searching in the San Francisco Bay Area for the first book of a series I wanted to read.  It wasn't anything particularly unusual -- paperback, printed by a big publisher in 1987.  I finally found a copy but it was quite difficult.

Right now there are 30 copies listed at a single used bookselling web site.

This expanding access to used books may change how much their sales affect the publishing industry.  It is possible that the change will be severe enough that publishers will be truly hurt by lost sales and that the balance of cost and benefit will shift for authors.  If I was a smarter man, I might have a suggestion for what can be done about that without eroding the concept of First Sale but all I can see to do is watch and wait.

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