Thursday, March 22, 2007

Cheap books

Buying used books: A sin? Acceptable? Well, that depends…

This is a question that has more than one angle. Consider the comments a published author often hears: “I loved your book! I lent it to my mother and my sisters and they all loved it, too.” or, “Your book sounds so interesting. I’ve reserved it at the library.”

For the fan who lends my book to everyone in the family or at the office, my reaction is always something along the lines of, “That’s great.” Sure I’d be happier if she’d given mom and company their own copies for Christmas. But there’s always the hope that mom and company will like that borrowed book so much they’ll go out and buy my next book, or maybe even my entire backlist. It does happen.

The library-reserver gets the same, “That’s great,” although it’s less sincere. This is supposed to be flattering? Well, in a way it is. I’m flattered she wants to spend her time reading my story, and I realize most people don’t stop and think that an author depends on sales to be able to continue writing those stories. But sales to libraries are sales, and haven’t we all checked books out of the library? As a child, I never gave a thought to the borrowing vs. buying aspect. For one thing, many of the books I was reading were written by people like Twain, Kipling, and Dumas, who were long dead.

For most people, money is tight. I understand that very well. And it isn’t as if I never patronized a used bookstore. When I was living in Australia, I’d come to visit my mother every year and a half. During the interval, I’d accumulate a list of books people recommended, then visit the local used bookstore and buy enough books to send back to Australia book rate (they’d arrive in big canvas U.S. Mail bags). Most of those books were simply no longer available in bricks and mortar stores, and wasn’t an option. Through used bookstores, I found new authors I never would have tried if I’d had to plunk down the full price of their books. I also read dozens and dozens of losers who’d have enraged me if I’d paid full price for their turkeys.

But the situation has become dire with the arrival of online used bookstores. It is now as easy to order a used book as a new one. It isn’t exactly cheap—one still pays for postage and handling, which is where the online bookstores make their money. The person who doesn’t make any money is the author. And that’s why on-line bookstores make me red in the face.

What can be done about it? Well, one could theoretically make used booksellers collect a royalty payment for authors of books written within, say, the last twenty years. With the new scanning technology that is possible. But it would be expensive and cumbersome, and the legislation will never be passed. Which means that online used bookstores are a fact of life.

The repercussions, however, are ugly, and they’re daily making themselves felt: falling sales, falling printruns, falling advances, the continuing disappearance of the midlist author, the growing dominance of the “blockbuster” author. If the bestselling authors were also the “best” authors, I wouldn’t mind so much. But the sad truth is that “bestselling” usually means “fast-paced and shallow with pedestrian, assembly-line prose.” The only reason I read bestsellers is to study them in an effort to analyze WHY they’re bestsellers. I don’t read them for pleasure. In fact, I’ve read so many lately that I’m reaching the point I don’t enjoy fiction anymore. My friend Laura Joh Rowland said to me the other day, “I think you need to stop reading bestsellers for market research and go back to reading books for fun.” Reading for fun? What a concept!

I have developed a loose rule: If I want a book by an author I admire, or by a recommended up-and-coming writer, I’ll BUY the book. If it’s a book by a bestselling author I’m analyzing for research purposes, then I don’t care where it comes from—the remainder table at Barnes and Noble, the Friends of the Library sale, whatever. This isn't something I want to own, and I'm not reading for pleasure. If I were better organized and had more time, I'd get these books from the library.

I also shop sales to accumulate research books for my personal library that I simply couldn’t afford otherwise. But most of those are out of print anyway, and I buy so many research books at full price that I can do it without guilt. Plus, now that libraries have instituted that “use it or lose it rule” (any book not checked out in two years is thrown out), I find I need to keep a larger personal research library. In fact, since my local library started weeding out its collection, I find I rarely go there anymore. It’s just a waste of my time. Ah, for access to a university library.

One last motive for haunting library sales is my quest to find hardcovers of books I own and have enjoyed in paperback. This started one Christmas, when Steve tracked down first US edition hardcover copies of Dorothy Dunnett’s LYMOND series for me. Now I’ve decided to start replacing other paperbacks I know I’ll always want to keep. Thus, I’m accumulating a collection of hardcover Brother Cadfael mysteries. Would I buy them if I had to pay more than $2 for them? No.

I suppose we all come up with our own moral guidelines, and everyone draws the line someplace else. Where’s your line?


liz fenwick said...

It's an interesting discussion. Since I have been writing and learning the ropes I certainly wouldn't buy second hand from Amazon unless it was the only option to find the book. I still scan the books in charity shop and sales and do buy. My book budget is huge as we have a family of readers - thankfully. What I find intersting is that author in the |US gain no benifit from library reads. In the UK the have the Public Lending Right (PLR). So each time a book is taken out the author receives something. Not a lot and total is capped but at least they receive something. I had assumed the US ran the same system.

Where do I drawn the line - I now think before I pick up a book and buy second hand but I still do it. Most of my book comes from the local independent book shop or Amazon (new) though.

Thanks for raising the subject.

cs harris said...

Australian authors also get a few pennies every time their book is checked out of a library. I suppose the problem they have in the States is that they have a hard enough problem funding libraries as it is. Jackson County in Oregon recently had to close ALL their libraries. That hurt because I lived in Medford for five significant years as a child and have many fond memories of browsing the stacks in their lovely old library (probably long ago replaced with something new and ugly).

Steve Malley said...

When I got serious about my writing, I also got serious about my book buying. Seemed to me, if I hoped to get paid, it was only fair that I paid my fellow authors.

It was scary as. The words 'starving' and 'artist' don't travel so often together for nothing. I barely had rent but was splashing out $25 for a paperback novel?! (Prices are higher for those exotic imports here)

Must've been the right move, though. I made more money to afford it, and now I have all these lovely new books.

Lovely.... new.... books....
Its Precioussessss....

Chap O'Keefe said...

Interesting and interesting-er. Liz makes the point about PLR in the UK. But only current EU residents can claim it. So all those writers from the US and elsewhere have their books read "for free".

I write for a line that's produced for the UK library market, which is where most copies of my books circulate. Because I live in NZ, I can't claim any PLR. I can try for Authors' Fund money in NZ, which is something vaguely similar, but the scheme has very limiting criteria, and can bring in little income in a country with an all-up population of only 4 million.

As for the online used-book sellers, I thought we were talking about cheap, and that they are not. I've seen copies of the older Chap O'Keefe westerns listed at more than $100. This for a slim, 160-page novel! Some folks think I should be flattered, but I'm not, of course, since not a cent of the money comes to me. I wonder where these dealers get their stock and how much they pay for it. Maybe I should be selling off my complimentary copies in a controlled release. At the highest prices, and if I sold them all, they would bring me more than the publisher's original advances.

If readers really are spending their book money on high-priced secondhand stuff, it's no wonder little market is left for new fiction.

Charles Gramlich said...

My line? Older books or those that are out of print, I will buy used. Books by bestselling authors who sign for big advances, I'll buy used, although with writers like Dean Koontz I will often buy new ones because I'm eager to read them. If I'm at a book sale and see a book by a current author who it looks like I might enjoy, I'll buy it used. If I do enjoy it and decide to buy more I'll go for new copies. This is what I did with David Gemmell. I bought his first book used but liked it so much that I began buying them new. For books that I purchased as paperbacks and liked, I will buy used hard covers if I find good copies at sales. I use libraries only for research related books, not for reading books.

Sphinx Ink said...

In my recent "Bibliomania" post on my blog (, I mentioned that in the early 90s my love of buying books expanded into mania. One of the reasons for that, which I didn't mention in the post, is that after I joined RWA, and began meeting real live published authors in my RWA chapter, I learned how crucial it is to buy an author's books new while they're in print, since so much of an author's future career depends on sell-through. I have faithfully supported every author whom I know personally, and many whom I don't know but whose work I like, by buying their books new, and as close to the time of release as possible, in order to help their numbers with the publishers. I have tried to keep my used-book purchases to books that are out of print.

Alas, due to changes in my circumstances, recently I've cut down considerably on my book purchases, and that will affect my buying books of authors I know. Nevertheless, it's important for people who love books to support the people who write books. I try to make that point with every reader I know.

Kate S said...

Before I started writing and learned the hard truths about the publishing world, I never gave a second thought to buying used books, borrowing from friends, or getting as much as possible from the library.

NOW, however, if I'm just researching, I'll get it from the library; if I like the author, I try to buy new. Only if a book is unavailable new will I go to ebay or buy used elsewhere.

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