Friday, July 6, 2012

The Trouble with Used Books

(Note: I wrote this piece in response to an article in the September 2005 Writer’s Digest, “At What Cost?” by James Grippando. Unfortunately, I could not find a link to the original article, and I don’t have access to my original copy - if, in fact, I still have one. The only action I can suggest if you want to read “At What Cost?” is to order a back issue from Writer’s Digest. You don’t need to read it, though, in order to “get” this post.)

I have not been this worked up over a Writer’s Digest article in years, not since the days when it was heavy on the text and light on the pictures. (This is why I am writing this long past the time I should be in bed.) The new/used book dilemma is one I face off with every week, and it’s as slippery as a puck bouncing just out of reach of a hockey stick. This is an intractably gray issue.

Few are those who have the unlimited funds to buy any book they wish to read new, or the unlimited space to keep every book they buy. People who love books just can’t throw them into the trash when they’re done with them, so we need the used bookstore (or the used book webpage) for the dual boons of purchasing text at a discount and finding a home for books that are ready to move on.

But a used book, unlike Harry S Truman’s buck, does not stop at just one “here”, and this is where the trouble starts according to James Grippando. As a book passes hands along the used-book chain, it ups the numbers of those who will never buy that book new -- and thus never give a cent to the author who wrote those precious words or the publisher who took a chance on them.

Last July, in a fit of summer self-indulgence, I purchased two hardcovers at the same place on the same day: The Interruption of Everything by Terry McMillan and The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella. (It didn’t hurt that they were both 20% off at the Barnes and Noble.) Those two books were leisure-time fun - until I was finished reading them, at which point they became clutter. As a dutiful daughter, I called my mom and asked if she wanted to read these books, because she is retired now and her reading budget is even more restricted than mine. She said yes, and I put them in a box headed for Las Vegas - a little annoyed with myself for not adding them to the cash-for-books pile. That was before I read this article.

If I had taken these two as-close-to-new-without-actually-being-new books to the used bookstore, the manager would have accepted them with no hesitation - and with remuneration for me, no doubt. These books are on the bestseller list and would have been out the door seconds after going on the shelf. But then those buyers would never buy the books new - and would then likely resell them online.

Grippando warns that if buyers keep choosing used books over new, “publishers may well be able to publish only those authors who can make the bulk of their advance in the first few weeks of hardcover publication. That means fewer authors will get published, and in turn, fewer choices for readers.”

Those words grabbed the writer side of myself and shook it fiercely - the hand you bite may someday be your own, it warned. The reader side of myself stared at the tall stack of books I was about to exchange for cash at the used bookstore, slightly relieved that most of them were out of print. (But then I see a copy of David McCullough’s Truman, purchased at a UBS for $6.99 when a new softcover would have been $20. Damn, damn, damn. Perhaps I should buy 1776, while it’s still 30% off, to make up for it.)

Oddly, Grippando made no mention of real-life used bookstores like the one I’ll be going to, nor of public libraries, nor of informal book exchange groups such as Bookcrossing (which is about leaving books in public places for others to pick up and read) - all of which also potentially bite into new book sales.

Should we feel guilty about buying anything at the used bookstore which accepts in-print books for resale, because there we can also find books that are no longer available new? Should we feel like we are stealing something if we check out an in-print book at our public library, the holy temple of readers? If I put a Bookcrossing label on my book Medgar Evers and leave it on a park bench, am I stabbing myself in the back with the flagpole that hoists the banner of reading?

Perhaps used bookstores and online sellers should not sell used hardcover books until six months after their release date (maybe less for paperbacks, and one month for category romances). That would eliminate the dilemma of going to the Amazon page of a certain book I’m looking for and seeing this:

$23.00 list price
$15.64 Amazon price
80 used and new from $3.25

I see the mass-market paperback in the Barnes and Noble today. I think I’ll get that instead.

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