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How Should an Author Look on Used Book Sales?

18 January 2016

From author Eric Flint:

I ran across this blog by the author Kristen Lamb:


…while reading this article by Rachel Kramer Bussel in Salon magazine:

Don’t feel guilty

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me or who has read any of the essays I’ve written in the past on copyright laws and online piracy that I generally agree with Bussel’s stance and disagree with Lamb’s. But there are some issues involved that Bussel doesn’t address which I think are actually more important than the ones she does. Another way to put it is that I don’t think she goes far enough. The essence of her argument is that the situation is more complicated than Lamb presents it as being, and is not an either/or situation. While it is true that a book sold in a used book store may represent an immediate loss to an author, it can be made up for in the long run by exposing more people to that author.

. . . .

The central and most critical aspect of publishing as a business, seen from the vantage point of an author, is that the market involved—call it the book market, if you will—is possibly the most opaque sales market in existence. It’s certainly one of the top ten most opaque markets.

What do I mean by an “opaque” market? It’s a market most of which is invisible to its customers. Hidden, in this case, not by subterfuge but by sheer volume of product. The characteristic that all entertainment industries share, and which makes all of them very opaque, is that each individual product has to be unique. Every book has to be different from every other book. Every song from every other song, every movie from every other movie—and every painting or sculpture or art photo from every other one of that type.

That is very unlike most markets. If you take the automobile market for comparison, there are not all that many auto manufacturers and each of them produces a relatively small number of products—perhaps a dozen models; not more than two dozen. So anyone seeking to buy an automobile can research the entire market fairly quickly and fairly easily.

In contrast, every year in the English language somewhere in the vicinity of one and a half million new titles are produced in the book market. Even if you narrow the market down to a specific genre, the scale still dwarfs that of most markets. To use my own genre as an example, the number of new titles in fantasy and science fiction coming out in the English language every month exceeds the number of automobile models coming out in an entire year.

Walking into a bookstore to look for a new book you might be interested in buying is analogous to walking onto the lot of an automobile dealer and being presented, not with many slightly different versions of a few models, but with thousands of models—or tens of thousands, in the case of big superstores.

Nobody can keep up with this scale of production. Not even professional book reviewers can do it, much less the average reader. It’s like being caught in the middle of a blizzard, except the individual particles are sales products instead of snowflakes. That’s what makes the book market so opaque.

The inevitable response of customers is to be very conservative in their buying habits. Some book-buyers (thankfully for new writers) are more adventurous than others, granted. But it’s still the case that the vast majority of books purchased are books written by authors with whom the reader is already familiar. That’s especially true in the fiction market, where there are many fewer “signposts” than there are in the non-fiction market. What I mean by signposts is that someone interested in reading about, say, the history of New England in the 19th century can do a search using those words and if they turn up a book titled The History of New England, 1812-1905 they’re off to the races. There’s no guarantee that book will be one that they like when they read it, but at least they’ve gotten a start. There are very few such signposts in fiction writing.

Link to the rest at Eric Flint and thanks to Chris for the tip.

Here’s a link to Eric Flint’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

The Business of Writing

28 Comments to “How Should an Author Look on Used Book Sales?”

  1. And here’s the TeleRead take, which necessarily does a lot of summarizing. (Flint makes great arguments, but he also makes them extremely wordy. 🙂 )

  2. There’s some fun comments at the source.
    I especially liked the one where they asked Mr Flint to pass a message to David Weber: “Step it up.”

    I would second that motion. 😀

  3. I think an author ought not look. Just keep writing. Not sure why this perpetual question about crick water that’s long LONG gone– downstream.

  4. “How Should an Author Look on Used Book Sales?”

    As reaching more readers …

    • In the 90’s, most of the new books I bought by authors I “knew” were by authors I discovered with an initial “new author” purchase from a used bookstore. I bought at least as many titles by extant midlisters as I bought by “older” authors whose books were so long out of print the only place I could find their books was in a used bookstore. So, yeah, this reader was definitely reached by buying used first.

      • It’s a straw-man they’re meme-ing as if it has suddenly become a ‘bad thing’.

        It’s from the same ones that believe that a borrowed book from the library or from a friend is a ‘lost sale’ and they didn’t get their money. (And more exposure of course means nothing to these types without that extra penny in their pocket.)

        I see it as the ‘in it solely for the money’ types flapping their gums about something they know isn’t going to change.

        (off to go check to see if the Baen free library has anything new (to me) in sci-fi — I may find a new writer to follow up on …)

  5. Automobiles. Is it wrong that automobile manufacturers, the creators of automobiles, get nothing out of used car sales?

    • Exactly! Cars are a great comparison.

      Writers need to stop expecting to be treated like some kind of welfare state. There are many ways writers get taken advantage of, but the fact that someone who buys your print book (that you were presumably paid for) and then sells it at a used book store is NOT one of them.

      I know there will be a flood of special snowflake treatises about how “books are not cars!” But the fact remains that they are physical items that owners have every right to sell.

  6. I definitely agree with Mr. Flint’s views on this. Of course, my opinion is probably swayed by being such a huge fan of his writing.

    I just wish he’d put out a definitive timeline for his Ring of Fire series. None of that ‘you could read this before that but maybe you could try this other bit first…’

    I’m in the middle of the series and have no idea where to go. Also pretty sure I’ve missed a few instalments along the way.

    Given his reasonable pricing, I’m not surprised he isn’t afraid of used book sales.

  7. What everyone seems to KEEP missing about the point I was making is that the ORIGINAL article BASHED the main places writers make money—DIGITAL and ON-LINE retailers.

    I have NO PROBLEM with a used bookstore…IF they are not BASHING the ways we make our money (then saying in the same breath “We support writers!”)

    The original WP article that started ALL this hullabaloo made these claims:

    1) It is GOOD there are used bookstores popping up because bookstores (where people can browse and buy NEW PHYSICAL BOOKS) are so rare. This means they have all but been wiped out by B&N and Borders. That is a given. This means PHYSICAL POINT OF SALES places are rare.

    2) The article then bashed digital (even though writers make most of their money there).

    3) The article bashed on-line retailers (even though it acknowledged bookstores are rare).

    So then the article CLAIMS IT SUPPORTS WRITERS by giving them EXPOSURE. Fine. But it is not as if exposure IN AND OF ITSELF FEEDS US.

    Let’s look at the argument. Bookstores (for new books are rare). Amazon = Satan and Digital =Bad. So, according to the ORIGINAL article, exactly HOW is this exposure going to benefit writers financially?

    I get that this benefits the used bookstore and I am a capitalist so go for it. But don’t then act like this is some cultural revolution that is helping writers because you just spent an entire article essentially lambasting every single way we get paid.

    And no, Jay, we don’t act like a welfare state. We ask to be paid like everyone else. I have no problems with used bookstores selling used books. I have a problem with them undermining the ways writers then make an income…considering if we write no NEW books, then they have a rather silly business model.

    There was NO reason for this article or the used bookstore to throw the best ways writers are paid under the bus. They could have focused on the benefits of the used bookstore without hamstringing the artists they claim to represent.

    Cars are not an equal parallel but even if we went there, how successful would used car dealers be if no one EVER bought new? Even used car dealers understand the importance of consumers buying new, which is why dealerships very often mix new AND used. Because if one acts as a parasite off the other then they both die.

    I had no problems with libraries and used, but if no one ever buys new, writers cannot work for free. This is a great way to discover new works…but then someone somewhere HAS to make a purchase.

    Just like buying a used Apple computers off Craigslist is a FABULOUS way to see if you like Apple products. But if EVERYONE bought used off Craigslist, Apple would not make money to innovate and make new and better products.


      • Na, just misuse of the shifting key as it won’t shift other people’s views of what it looked like the OP was trying to say. (and not wanting to take it down or change/edit/fix it to more clearly say what they mean, they are left with the more difficult task of trying to defend it …)

    • I had no problems with libraries and used, but if no one ever buys new, writers cannot work for free.

      God Bless the free market, for the writer can then do something else.

    • Okay, Kristen, I’m not looking to give you a hard time, but what you are saying makes no sense, none at all.

      You say buying a used Apple computer or a used car is fine, but it would be a problem if everyone bought used.

      Are you implying that you believe the majority of book buyers are purchasing at used book stores? That all books sold are used? You don’t offer any evidence to suggest that…and it certainly appears that an enormously vast majority of books are sold new. Yet you compare the book situation to some made up notion of all cars or all computers being sold used.

      This is why you’re getting so much blowback. Because you’re not comparing things evenly. You’re twisting reality to try to make your point.

      Used book sales were 8.4% of industry sales in 2004 (googled that), and the subsequent advent of inexpensive ebooks has likely reduced that number. So, exactly how does that not compare exactly to cars (where a higher percentage are sold used)?

      Authors who want to make a living need to start thinking like professionals, not people who look resentfully at every used book sale and complain about getting paid. If you sell your books, you’re getting paid. You don’t need to try to guilt used book buyers because you’re not getting paid again.

      Also, don’t fall into the trap that everyone who buys a $2 book to read on a train or at the beach would have bought the same book at full price. And also consider, in a world where authors spend money advertising free books to get discoverability, someone who grabs your $2 book in the used store might like it and buy something else from you.

      • I sometimes buy a book by a new writer at a used book store. If I like it and want to get more by that writer, I don’t search through every used book store in town, I order what I want… new…

        Bam, someone just got a bit of discoverability.

        Then again I also don’t get bent out of shape when I see people requesting my titles on pirate sites. You know who gets books at pirate sites? It’s the people who hang around pirate sites. I doubt it’s a lost sale and I might just get a mention at the water cooler.

    • FWIW: I understood the original article to be about the hypocrisy of the media that simultaneously bashes a direct revenue generator (for low prices) while simultaneously lauding an indirect (at best) and cheaper source.

      That message got lost in the “used, yay or nay” crossfire.

      No need to debate the delivery mechanism when the gripe is with the hypocrites in the media establishment.

      • FWIW: I understood the original article to be about the hypocrisy of the media that simultaneously bashes a direct revenue generator (for low prices) while simultaneously lauding an indirect (at best) and cheaper source.

        Yes. Exactly.

        Flint’s points are excellent, and I enjoyed his post. I agree that an author needs “that huge penumbra of free books…surrounding the much smaller number of books which get sold in a way that brings direct income.” I disagree with Lamb’s opinions concerning free and/or used books.

        But I also perceived her main point – lost in her views on free/used – to be the flawed perception of those who bash entities such as Amazon that provide a large portion of a writer’s income.

  8. Is this a topic currently – after more than 100 years of used bookstores in the world – because Amazon made it possible for such stores to not die in the digital economy?

  9. And if Apple engineers were promoting articles that consumers didn’t need to go to an Apple Store, just buy used off Craigslist…that would be DUMB if they wanted to continue having a job. That behavior erodes their financial solvency and is BAD business.

    Does it mean Craigslist should be outlawed? No. Does it mean no one ever bought a used Mac off Craigslist and later bought a new one because they “discovered” how much they liked Apple buying used? No. Does it mean people should throw away old Apple products instead of reselling? No. Does it mean Apple is acting like it wants welfare for people to come into an actual APPLE STORE and buy NEW? No.

    It’s called doing business. IF you work for Apple, probably want to promote people buying new. And if they do buy used, encourage them at some point to buy NEW.

    Because if people don’t buy new? Your name is “Radio Shack.”

    • “And if Apple engineers were promoting articles that consumers didn’t need to go to an Apple Store, just buy used off Craigslist…that would be DUMB if they wanted to continue having a job.”

      No, they wouldn’t, because an apple product can only be bought used AFTER IT’S FIRST BEEN PURCHASED NEW.

    • Did it ever occur to you that whoever sold the used computer went out and bought a new one?

      You think anyone ever took a box of old books to the used bookstore and then went and bought a new book or two?

    • I know quite a few computer engineers, I was one myself at one time, and I think places like Apple think like this:

      “We produce valuable cutting edge computers. More than anything else, we sell the cutting edge. We build each new model to be so great that our customers will dump their old one and buy the new one. If our customers can sell their old one on Craig’s list, wonderful! They will be better able to afford to buy the new model.”

      In addition, a brand is more desirable if it retains its value on resale. I think that applies to books as well as refrigerators and computers. Selling used stuff helps selling new stuff by more than just exposure. It’s part of the basic economics of buying and selling.

      All I am arguing is that resale of physical objects like books is expected. Other industries accept this and use it to their advantage as best they can. Authors could do the same thing. I’d like to figure out a workable scheme for and indie publisher that would be the equivalent of trading one new book for four old ones as they do is some used book stores. I haven’t been able to think it out, yet.

      On the other hand, I am with Kristin in this: I don’t much like booksellers who talk out of both sides of their mouth.

  10. Thanks Marvin. You are getting what I’ve been saying.

    And Jay I’m getting blowback on this article simply because people have a right to disagree with me. I am also getting WAY MORE people who apparently “got” what I was saying all along.

    I don’t care if people buy books at a used bookstore. I was pissed at the article, not the used bookstore.

    Since many of you are not in the industry you are not aware of many of the problems writers are up against. There is this Digital versus Paper War….where digital is considered a bastard child and not a “real book” whereas paper is “real” and therefore preferable.

    But it actually isn’t. Writers are paid far better off digital. Readers can actually get way better prices on digital.

    But traditional NY publishing has invested a lot in protecting paper. They inflated e-book prices to protect paper. So when the NYT hails that digital sales are shrinking and paper is BACK! It’s bunk. People just aren’t willing to pay $15 for an e-book, so they buy paper (or just don’t buy at all and wait for a used copy).

    And had the article not bashed the ways we writers make money, again, no gripe from me. Had the article not completely misrepresented reality, no gripe from me.

    Yes, used bookstores serve a purpose. I don’t begrudge them any more than I begrudge giving away my blogs for free. But at least on my blogs, I can actively direct people to BUY. Used bookstores aren’t doing that. And that article was actively discouraging almost all venues for new sales. So again, what good is the exposure? Exposure is only valuable if it translates into a sale.

    • So again, what good is the exposure? Exposure is only valuable if it translates into a sale.

      If consumers are not exposed to a book, they can’t buy it. Exposure is necessary for a sale.

  11. People just aren’t willing to pay $15 for an e-book, so they buy paper (or just don’t buy at all and wait for a used copy).

    Kristen, I agree with how this starts but I think the problem with many publishers is they don’t see a third option in this equation.

    Or they buy something else, something that’s priced reasonably.

    I’ve done that as a reader. Writers who I’ve followed for years lost me as a customer when they started issuing overpriced eBooks. Not necessarily out of anger, but just because I moved on and then no longer had enough interest in their story to start back in, even if the prices came down.

  12. I’m grateful for anyone who reads my books in any format. I’d prefer if they didn’t get the books by illegal means (pirated) but otherwise HAVE AT IT. And that’s how I feel about used books or any books for that matter. I realize I don’t get paid again when people buy used. Oh well.

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