What do you call a writer who insists that she “[does] not mind used bookstores” and then spends the rest of a fairly long essay inveigling against them? You might call her Kristen Lamb, because that happens to be her name.
In a post to her blog, Lamb complains about that Washington Post article I covered a while ago, about used-book stores making a comeback. She is puzzled that she sees so many writers reacting to this article as if it’s good news, when in fact writers don’t actually make any money when someone buys one of their books second-hand—and for all that a lot of publishers consider Amazon and e-books to be the devil, at least e-books do earn the writer money. She is concerned that many readers may not know this fact, and thinks writers should do their part to educate them.
Lamb clarifies in comments, and in the comments where the article is discussed on The Passive Voice, that she’s not arguing against used bookstores, per se, but trying to tell writers they should stop promoting them because they’re cutting their own throat. But when she actually directly compares used bookstores to piracy, because both broaden the author’s exposure without paying him, it becomes a little harder to take her seriously. (Even when she subsequently adds that she knows used bookstores are “not actually stealing.” The timbre of the blog post seems to be that it’s all right to tear down used bookstores as much as she wants as long as she says first or afterward that she doesn’t really mean it.)
The fact that used bookstores don’t pay royalties has been a concern for some time. In 2008, a group wanted to amend copyright law to require used bookstores to pay royalties on recently-published books when resold used. And even then, a number of authors went to bat for used-book stores, even though they knew used books didn’t pay them directly.
From a practical standpoint, for me and us, when one publisher gave up on us, it was the used bookstores that hand-sold our used books and kept us in front of readers, and when we went to conventions we autographed thousands of used books … for readers who wanted more. So, we support used bookstores, we sign used books at conventions, bookstores, and fleamarkets. Readers deserve the opportunity, especially in these times when jobs and cash are at a premium, to buy a used book. Yes we need to sell new books, too,but used book dealers are not taking food out of our pockets.
And Eric Flint wrote:
What I like to see are copies of my books available all over the place in editions that bring me no direct income—whether that’s in a library, a used bookstore, a remaindered table, or simply being passed from one person to another. Because I know that that “spillage” is simply the necessary lubricant for this very opaque market that my livelihood depends upon. It’s that spillage—that penumbra of free or cheap copies, if you will—that makes everything else possible in the first place.
What I don’t want to see are those books piling up, because they aren’t moving. (Or the library equivalent, which is not being checked out.)
When you get right down to it, authors do make money from used books. They don’t make it directly, but the fact that a used book can be resold to get back some of what was paid for it is taken into account by paper book pricing these days. People are willing to pay as much as a new paper book costs because it has resale value. And in order for it to have resale value, there has to be a way for someone to buy it, and the people who do buy it don’t have any reason to feel guilty—just by doing what they do, they help to inspire the person who originally did buy it (in a form that did pay the author) to do so.
The whole reason people find the publishers’ agency-priced e-books too expensive is that they cost the same amount as Amazon sells a new paper book for, but without the resale value the paper book has. That’s the whole reason paper books are selling so well at this point—if all else is equal, people will buy the one they can turn around for a partial refund if they don’t like it.
I also didn’t notice anything in Lamb’s blog post about how Amazon is itself one of the biggest used-book stores as well as the biggest new-book store, and for much the same reason—excellent selection and low prices. I know my parents rarely buy any book new, because they can usually find it less expensively used via Amazon and they don’t even have to leave their home to get it.
Used-book sales don’t make the author any money directly, but they help form the foundation of the market that is the reason new books can cost so much. Without that secondary market, you wouldn’t find many people willing to pay so much. As Lamb herself notes, we’re seeing that now, in the way that big publisher e-book sales are declining under agency pricing. People just aren’t going to pay as much for an e-book they can’t resell as for a paper book they can.
And that’s why those other writers are happy used books are selling. They show that there’s still a market for their paper books—at the same time as they help make that market possible.
(We previously covered a post by Lamb in 2012 about five mistakes that are killing traditional publishing.)