From The New York Times:
Ever since a university gave me a literature degree certifying that I have read Chaucer in the original Middle English, my taste in books has reverted to very specific, lowbrow stuff. I like murder mysteries, heist books and spy books, preferably from the 1950s through the 1980s. These titles can be hard to find; many of them are out of print, unavailable on Kindle, and their presence in the New York Public Library is hit or miss.
But in recent years, my bookshelves have swelled. Old John le Carré and Donald E. Westlake and Lawrence Block titles are easier than ever to find online, along with pretty much every other book published in the last century. They’re all on Amazon, priced incredibly low, and sold by third-party booksellers nobody has ever heard of.
Better-known titles with more robust print circulation quickly obey the seesaw of supply and demand; after time, their prices can sink even lower, because of the increased number of copies floating around. Take Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From the Goon Squad”: You can buy a new hardcover or paperback copy for $18.82 or $9.19, from Amazon itself, or download the Kindle version for $8.56. Or, as with hundreds of thousands of other books on Amazon, you can click through to the “used” section and buy the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction for a penny.
. . . .
Enter the penny booksellers. There are dozens of sellers — Silver Arch Books, Owls Books, Yellow Hammer Books and Sierra Nevada Books — offering scores of relatively sought-after books in varying conditions for a cent. Even including the standard $3.99 shipping, the total sum comes out to several dollars cheaper than what you’d pay at most brick-and-mortar used-book stores.
“At some point in the next two to three years, I predict that ‘Go Set a Watchman’ will be selling for a penny,” says Mike Ward, president of the Seattle-based used-book seller Thriftbooks. Ward would know; though it isn’t considered in the same league as Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million, Thriftbooks sells about 12 million books a year, mostly on Amazon, and many for a penny. (In comparison, Barnes & Noble, the country’s largest book retailer, sells somewhere around 300 million books a year, but has the added weight of hundreds of enormous, expensive megastores to run and thousands of employees.)
“We are taking garbage [and] running it through a very sophisticated salvage process in our warehouses, to create or find or discover products people want, and then we sell them at a very, very cheap price,” Ward explains. Garbage isn’t a value judgment: His company, along with several other enormous used-book-selling operations that have popped up online in the past decade, is literally buying garbage. Thrift stores like Goodwill receive many more donations than they can physically accommodate. Employees rifle through donations, pick out the stuff that is most likely to sell and send the rest to a landfill. The same thing happens at public libraries; they can take only as many donations as their space and storage will allow, so eventually they have to dispose of books, too. (For libraries, the process is a little more complicated; they can’t legally sell books, so they essentially launder them through groups with names like Friends of the Library, which sell the discards and donate the proceeds to the library.)
Operations like Thriftbooks step in and buy these landfill-bound books, sight unseen, for around 10 cents a pound. Thriftbooks has 10 warehouses across the country, each with its own name. Ward says each of them is “about the size of your typical Walmart,” somewhere between 70,000 and 90,000 square feet. The enterprise is still largely a human operation: Between 15 and 18 people at each warehouse sift through the truckloads of books, sending more than 80 percent of the material immediately to the recycling plant. (Hey, it’s better than the dump.) That 80 percent may include stuff that’s obviously garbage: old three-ring binders, notebooks, half of a Bible. Anything that might possibly be sellable is scanned into the company’s database.
Link to the rest at The New York Times