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New York Times Blames Used Bookstores for Downfall of Publishing

Thanks to JFerg for the link to this op ed piece in Sunday’s New York Times. Staff writer, David Streitfield, argues that used bookstores are primarily responsible for the declining publishing industry. In other words, the sky is falling because of the secondary market.

Don’t blame this carnage on the recession or any of the usual suspects, including increased competition for the reader’s time or diminished attention spans. What’s undermining the book industry is not the absence of casual readers but the changing habits of devoted readers….In other words, it’s all the fault of people like myself, who increasingly use the Internet both to buy books and later, after their value to us is gone, sell them.

One owner of an independent bookstore chain calls this “tragic.” Another bookstore owner told the writer that by buying a used book, he “was taking Ms. Lesser’s work while depriving her of an income, and that [he] would regret [his] selfish actions when all the physical stores were gone.”

The author herself viewed the resale optimistically saying she gained a reader.

The idea that the internet UBS is killing the publishing industry is a balm to publishers who have run their business into the ground by using outmoded business practices, allowing retailers to force the burden of the sale onto the publishers shoulders, by paying out enormous advances on books that were never going to earn out, by not paying attention to the quality of the product being put out (i.e., underpaying the editing and copy editing staff). If all of publishing thinks that its decline is due to external factors, there won’t be a revolution. It’s time for publishing to re-invent itself. As Huffington Post book blogger wrote the other day, it’s “exciting times.”

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

47 Comments

  1. kirsten saell
    Dec 28, 2008 @ 21:30:59

    Blaming the UBS for killing publishing is like blaming pneumonia for killing a person with end-stage AIDS. If publishing was an able-bodied, healthy, vital industry, something like a thriving trade in used books wouldn’t be able to hurt it.

  2. Leah
    Dec 28, 2008 @ 22:21:35

    That’s just crazy. As someone who has sold used books on Amazon, I can tell you that with most common titles, it’s glutted. That’s why you can, apparently, buy a Dean Koontz book for a penny. Yet the man is still selling books off of his backlist, collecting royalties, etc. I’m just not seeing it.

  3. Caty
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 05:28:55

    What, the trade in used books is something new? Secondhand-book shops never existed before? How about libraries? Noooo, those never existed before, not at all. Completely new trend. Until the past few years, everyone always bought all their books brand new. Until the internet came along, no-one ever sold anything they owned or bought anything second-hand, right?

    And paying out six figure advances to twenty-something ‘celebrities’ for ghost-written autobiographies that’ll sell 5,000 copies is such sound business sense.

    *goes off to bang head against brick wall*

  4. Antonella
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 07:25:50

    Following Streitfield’s logic, I guess I caused the collapse of the auto industry by buying my last car used…

  5. jmc
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 08:15:39

    There’s an interesting article in the Washington Post today about a local UBS, and how it has evolved in order to grow and stay afloat. The contrast between that UBS owner’s attitude and that of Streitfeld is significant and amazing — Roberts is all about evolving to stay in a competitive business, while Streitfeld seems to look at publishing as having an entitlement to a market without competition.

    The parallel he draws between the music industry and its drop in CD sales due to downloading and the proliferation of online used booksellers and their alleged damage to the publishing industry isn’t quite congruent in my mind. One has to do with format, and the other to do with business model. You could say that format is part of the business model, but that would turn the discussion into one that isn’t as nice to publishers (their resistance to ebooks and their inability to adapt and evolve as markets change), and would make it harder for Streitfeld to blame the UBS for the industry’s problems.

  6. Kimber An
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 08:58:47

    Gee-whiz, I’m constantly saying what you just said in the last paragraph, only not as eloquently.

    By adhering to trends and blockbusters, the new bookstores are not offering the variety readers want. And so they go to the used bookstores and libraries instead. Duh.

  7. Jane
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 09:08:10

    @jmc I think Streitfeld operates under the “unlimited discretionary funds” doctrine for readers in that he assumes that readers will buy the same number of books no matter the cost. It has less to do with just saving a buck and more to do with getting the most amount of reading material for a set amount of money. While I had a generous book budget, I still tried to keep my purchases within a certain dollar amount which is why authors going to hardcover was such a killer. In order to buy the one new hardcover, I would have to forgo at least two other books. This required the hardcover to be worth at least three reads.

    In other words, readers who cannot buy used books will only read less, not spend more, netting, I believe, the same economic impact on the authors that they currently enjoy/suffer which is to say that the more popular authors will get purchased new and the new and midlist authors will be purchased less.

  8. Leah
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 10:03:42

    @jmc I think Streitfeld operates under the “unlimited discretionary funds” doctrine for readers in that he assumes that readers will buy the same number of books no matter the cost. It has less to do with just saving a buck and more to do with getting the most amount of reading material for a set amount of money.

    That, and the comments about format make excellent points. I got a Kindle for Christmas–and I am not an “early adopter” kind of person. Before I got the wonder that is the Kindle, I figured I’d use it for fluff pbs, and not for more “serious” books. Was I wrong! I was able to get the new Andrew Jackson bio for less than $15, as well as 2 3-novel compilations of Michael Connelly mysteries–reguarly $20, for slightly less than $8. This enabled me to also buy both The Luxe, and Rumors–all this in a tight paycheck week, heretofore impossible! I still love regular books, and the local Books a Million. I’ll still buy new books (and frequent paperbackswap). But I’d have to be a moron not to buy e-books when I can get them so quickly and so cheaply.

    Like I said, I’m not an early adopter, and not a gadget-freak. But this thing is so easy, fun, and convenient. I’m sure that as it gets cheaper, format issues get sorted out, and more books are available, many, many people will have e-readers–just like DVD-players, cell phones, laptops, MP3players, etc. Music has been able to adjust to the rise of the Ipod and its ilk. Publishing needs to get a big grip, and do it quickly.

  9. Jody W.
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 10:18:25

    I don’t think it’s the UBS’s. It’s all those greedy, borderline criminal readers selling their books at garage sales! For a dollar! They’re going to regret selfishly putting the publishers, the cheap clothing manufacturers, the toy manufacturers and the dishware manufacturers out of business some day.

  10. Ann Bruce
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 10:49:01

    Nah, it’s not the UBSs. It’s people like me who give away boxes and boxes of books for free.

    Bad, Ann.

  11. Genrewonk: thoughts and opinions by author S. Andrew Swann » Blog Archive » Stupidity Backflow Redux
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 11:17:44

    […] Dear Author again graces us with examples of the paleoithic thinking of the old media. […]

  12. MaryK
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 11:26:34

    I’ve been house-hunting and looking at older houses to get the most square footage out of my small budget. Now, I’m starting to feel guilty about all the sub-contractors who are going to be out of work if I don’t buy a new house.

    /sarcasm

  13. Jeanelle
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 11:33:48

    My greediness for lots of books and reading, led me to libraries by the time I was a 3rd grader. I treasure so many books that I have owned from that age, to being a retired Reading Specialist. Making books accessible and affordabe, as with UBS, is as important, IMO, as feeding the hungry and homeless. There has never been a time in my life that my “disposiable income” would allow me to buy all the new, hardback books that I wanted. Generally, I read a book every 1 or 2 days. My favorite thing is to buy a brand new book. But if it were not for all the UBS or libraries, I would just have to go hungry for reading as much as I want.

    I have a precious seller in Vermont, who wrote to me that if it were not for people like me, she and many other used book sellers would be selling apples on the street. I happened to have found a 1933 unabridged copy of “Silver Chief” from that lady…a childhood favorite and one that I could not find unabridged and new.

    Shame on David Streitfield’s theory of the cause of declining publisher’s market. For as long as books have been published, there has been resale of previously owned books. Why should a perfectly good book, mold on a shelf, unread, when there are “hungry readers” without the money for a new book?

  14. Kalen Hughes
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 11:55:38

    What, the trade in used books is something new? Secondhand-book shops never existed before? How about libraries? Noooo, those never existed before, not at all. Completely new trend. Until the past few years, everyone always bought all their books brand new. Until the internet came along, no-one ever sold anything they owned or bought anything second-hand, right?

    But it’s a totally different market place now, so they do kind of have a point. Before the rise of used book sales on the internet, you had to browse your local used book shop and see if they happened to have the book you wanted. If you REALLY wanted to read something (esp something hot off the presses) you bought it new, or you waited until you stumbled across it used (which might never happen, depending on the title).

    Now you can find almost ANY book used for a fraction of its original price (often before the book’s release date!). If you don't think the rising availably and accessibility of used titles is hurting the publishing industry (and more specifically, negatively impacting many authors), then you're seeing a very different trend than I am.

  15. kirsten saell
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 12:41:09

    But it's a totally different market place now, so they do kind of have a point.

    Yes, they do, and it’s one I think could be partially addressed by Amazon and other online sellers having a separate section (or separate website altogether) for used copies of books they offer new.

    But to be honest, that’s as far as the rest-of-the-world adjustment is likely to go. I can’t imagine NINC’s push for changes to copyright law will ever pass, because government won’t care enough about it to funnel man-power and revenue into such a cumbersome, costly system. (I keep having visions of Canada’s gun control registry debacle, which was supposed to pay for itself, but ended up costing something like ten times more to administer than the gun registration fees covered.)

    All of the traditional publishing industry’s responses to new technologies thus far have been to keep doing things exactly how they have for decades, and try to mash, cram, and otherwise squish their same old, outmoded business model into the new reality. Eventually they’ll realize that’s not going to work–it’s starting with the experiment at Harper Collins. It remains to be seen whether the rest of them will wise up in time to save their own asses…

  16. Kalen Hughes
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 14:03:48

    Yes, they do, and it's one I think could be partially addressed by Amazon and other online sellers having a separate section (or separate website altogether) for used copies of books they offer new.

    Or something as simple as a moratorium on selling used copies until a specific amount of time has passed from the date of publication (doesn’t solve all the problems, but it would give books/authors/publishers at least a small window in which to sell and make a profit).

  17. Jane
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 14:33:35

    @Kalen Hughes I’m sorry but I don’t see UBS or the online convergence of UBS availability as a trend responsible for the diminishing financial viability of publishing. There are too many other factors. Factor the A) Book buying accounts for 6% of a consumer’s entertainment budget as opposed to the 25% that music, videos, computers, and video games comprise. Factor the B) every retailer is going to hell in a handbasket right now because of the doomed economy. Everywhere I look there are retailers filing bankruptcy and economic forecasts of gloom. It’s not all about the books. In a healthy economy, publishing was doing okay but in a tight economy, publishing’s outdated business model is just adding to the dire situation.

  18. Kalen Hughes
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 15:07:10

    @Jane, I guess where I’m sitting and where you’re sitting just have very different views. Most of the authors I know DO see a problem and a trend growing out of the current online availability/accessibility of used books. We also see a problem with the trend towards Wal-Mart being the one and only major force in new book sales, and with places like esnips, where you can find pirated copies of ebooks. All of these pile on top of the bad economy and are simply a few more nails in the coffin of publishing as we know it (and in the careers of mid-level and entry level authors).

    Will something come along to save books/reading/publishing? I sure hope so (I'm betting on some combination of ebooks and print-on-demand technology, but I'm not holding my breath). As someone pointed out on another thread, if publishers embrace the 21st century and switch over to ebooks, they'll leave an enormous number (the majority) of readers behind. MP3 players were able to become a sustainable commodity and a market force because there is a HUGE audience for them, allowing a trickle down of market penetration, and a rapid decrease in price. Unfortunately (sadly, IMO) the number of readers is a drop in the bucket next to the number of music fans. Also, the portability of the iPod was a huge advance over the CD player or Walkman (and replaced something that the user would have purchased anyway). An ebook reader doesn't have these same positive forces going for it (esp as the majority of readers don't read/buy enough books to make the several hundred dollar outlay for an eReder make sense).

    NY will HAVE to come to terms with the modern era, but just how and when this will happen is anyone's guess . . .

  19. Robin
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 15:29:35

    Is it wrong to feel no sympathy for a bloated, outmoded, inflexible system of publishing that is on the verge of cannibalizing itself?

    And count me in as another one who thinks that blaming the secondary book market on publishing’s failure is both ridiculous and insulting. Does anyone have anything more than anecdotal evidence to even entertain such a claim?

  20. Jill Myles
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 15:34:00

    This is just a thought, but the way the used books work on Amazon are as follows:

    Dealer offers for $0.01 (or whatever the dealer wants to charge).
    Shipping + Amazon fee = $3.99

    You’re still paying $4 for a used book, right? Since Amazon is taking the trouble to match-up the sales with the ISBNs so they can get paid, I don’t see why they couldn’t tack on an additional $1 (or whatever) for a publisher fee. Amazon can send that on to the publisher when sales are reported, the author would get a cut (however small) and so would the publisher. To me, paying $4 for a book is not that different than paying $5.

    I don’t really want the z-shops (Amazon’s used system) to go away – I just bought an out-of-print-no-hope-ever-for-reprints book for $12 and was gleeful about it. The reader in me is selfish about that. But with Amazon’s 4 for 3 system, half the time buying the books used doesn’t make sense. If you buy more than one book used, they ship from different people so you have to pay for shipping from different sellers. No money savings there. Plus, a lot of the time the books are stinky, water-damaged, and generally in crappier condition than advertised. Once in a great while you don’t even get your books.

    I have to admit that I freaked out with delight when Amazon started carrying used books on their site, but after a couple of iffy buys, I buy new all the time because it’s just not worth it to save 2 dollars, IMO. Unless the book is completely out of print with no hope of return, I buy new so I don’t have to constantly scrub my hands with hand-sanitizer while I read. ;)

  21. kirsten saell
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 16:04:13

    Also, the portability of the iPod was a huge advance over the CD player or Walkman (and replaced something that the user would have purchased anyway). An ebook reader doesn't have these same positive forces going for it (esp as the majority of readers don't read/buy enough books to make the several hundred dollar outlay for an eReder make sense).

    NY will HAVE to come to terms with the modern era, but just how and when this will happen is anyone's guess . . .

    There are multi-function devices that can read ebooks, too, though. I know several people who read off their iPhones, their PDAs, their Asus EEEs. But no one with an iPhone is going to download an ebook that costs the same or more than its print equivalent. And who, you might ask, sells ebooks for the same or more than print? Why, it’s NY publishers, missing the point again.

    I agree, the internet used book market hurts new book sales. But there are plenty of other nails in that coffin, and one of the worst is the extreme reluctance of the industry to embrace change in any meaningful way. The answer isn’t to wring hands and blame UBS for the downfall of publishing, or rewrite copyright legislation to create yet another bureaucracy that will likely eat up all the dollars it collects.

    If traditional publishers really wanted to stanch the cash that’s hemmorhaging from them, they could always get together and make a stand against big box booksellers who hideously and flagrantly abuse the mass market ppb returns system. That might save them a few bucks…

  22. rebyj
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 16:49:09

    Used books or bookstores are not the whole of the problem. New book stores are mostly big box franchises,and just aren’t the convenience they used to be. They pick what they want to stock and if it’s not on their buyers list I’m just out of luck . Yes, books a million or barnes and nobel will offer to order a book I want and I can pick it up at the store a week or so later when their truck comes in but why bother? I just look for what I want online and order it and get it quicker and delivered to the door. I rarely bother to stop and go into the stores anymore. Too many times I’ve gone in looking for a new release and they don’t have it and don’t expect to carry it.

    Walmart and Target have such a limited selection anymore that it’s barely worth my time to walk to that department and browse. Target is marginally better than Walmart but still not much to offer. Walmart is pathetic. I don’t know who the idiot is that orders books for this walmart but they should be F I R E D! If it’s not endorsed by Oprah or Jesus it’s not in the store.

  23. Marianne McA
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 17:09:12

    Is publishing actually failing?

    My perception is that – while I love books to pieces (often quite literally) – there are a ludicrous number of books being published. While in my childhood books were kept and cherished, now we (my family) almost treat them as ephemera – bought in passing, read quickly, donated on.
    I googled, and can’t find any statistics for books published per year – except for the current set on Wikipedia (200,000+ new titles published in the UK, 2005), but I’d be interested to know how that compares across the years. Were there really that many books published each year in the 1960s, or the 1930s?

    Which sentence made me think of a different way to google it, which produced this:

    The growth in per capita book title output in America increased from about 7.6 per 100,000 people in 1950 to 43.2 per 100,000 in 2000.
    In the same period, the corresponding figures for Britain increased from about 19.8 in 1950 to 212.2 in 2000.

    That’s, in the UK at least, a tenfold increase in titles over the last half century. Is publishing really in decline? And, if it is, how much does it have to decline before it’s actually problematic from the readers point of view?

  24. Ann Somerville
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 17:50:44

    @Robin:

    Is it wrong to feel no sympathy for a bloated, outmoded, inflexible system of publishing that is on the verge of cannibalizing itself?

    If it is, we’re going to hell together.

    This special pleading for publishing to receive a right that no other commodity producer receives, just because it uses a deeply screwed up business model and refuses to change it, makes me sick. Selling used goods is lawful, and harmless. If your business/career can’t cope with that, then you’re in the wrong business/career.

    Frankly, seeing any author whining about used books stores is shameful. How greedy do you have to be that you want to claw money out of honest purchasers’ hands, or ruin lawful, hardworking businesses – especially in this climate? Shame on *any* one pushing this line.

  25. Robin
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 17:57:38

    Dealer offers for $0.01 (or whatever the dealer wants to charge).
    Shipping + Amazon fee = $3.99

    You're still paying $4 for a used book, right? Since Amazon is taking the trouble to match-up the sales with the ISBNs so they can get paid, I don't see why they couldn't tack on an additional $1 (or whatever) for a publisher fee. Amazon can send that on to the publisher when sales are reported, the author would get a cut (however small) and so would the publisher. To me, paying $4 for a book is not that different than paying $5.

    Except for the fact that this practice would violate the First Sale Doctrine and fundamentally unravel the Constitutional purpose of copyright.

    Among the powers granted to Congress in Section 1, Article 8 of the US Constitution is the following:

    To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries

    The limits of copyright are just as important as the grant of rights for the reason the Constitution gives: “to promote the progress of science and useful arts.” So while it might seem like nothing to tack on an extra dollar for the publisher on a used book, it undercuts one of the most important bedrocks of copyright, the First Sale Doctrine, which keeps those on the “creator” side of the equation from maintaining rights over the work in perpetuity. Which is critical if more creative work is to be produced within a culture where there is already a great deal of creative influence and inspiration from works already in existence. So while on one level it just seems like one more dollar, it’s a whole boatload of creative rights being extended that would further prevent the cycling of work through the public sphere in such a way that there’s room for more innovation and creativity and profit among more creators and more creative works. And, of course, the fact that readers (consumers) would once again bear the burden for publishing’s lack of planning, restructuring, and general stewardship of their economic viability within a supposedly free market.

    Also, I rarely see books offered for a penny used on Amazon until they have been in circulation for a looonng time – that is, when there are so many new and used books in circulation that the market pushes the price that low. If anything shows the supply-demand dynamics of the market, it’s the rare book trade, and Amazon is a great example of it.

    More generally, though, IMO publishing has had at least two years to prepare for the current economic climate, and what have they done? Massive layoffs do not a corporate revisioning make, although they certainly result in restructuring as everyone now burdened with more work must compensate for the lack of human capital. If publishing falls, IMO it has tripped itself on its own lack of foresight and whatever else kept it from revising a business model whose inefficiencies were clear even in good economic cycles. And I’m sorry that it is impacting human capital in the likes of editors, for example, who are already so terribly underpaid and who are undoubtedly suffering even more in the current economy (not to mention other “expendable” employees).

    This is one of those subjects that just makes me see red (albeit a different sort than the publishers’), because blaming readers for protecting their own economic interests while publishers have been riding the artificial economic boon with nary a wink to an inevitable downturn just comes across to me as quintessential entitlement — a distilled version of the lack of respect for the reader, lack of respect for the quality of the product, and self-interest that bugs me about the publishing industry more generally. I understand that authors want contracts, and that they’re not responsible for the number of books published every month, but neither is the reader. And certainly readers can’t be held responsible for contracts negotiated between publishers and authors — that would violate the entire sense of autonomy that authors assert so strongly in other contexts (e.g. free artistic agency).

    I idealistically believe that really good work will prevail in the marketplace (assuming it’s marketed, of course), but l also think that trying to make the reader responsible for the success of any author is unfair and ultimately alienating. Because I’m the reader who takes the story in this post (and the NYT op ed) and feels motivated to buy as many books used as possible. And I can’t be the only one.

  26. kirsten saell
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 18:15:46

    Selling used goods is lawful, and harmless.

    And most industries find ways to cope with resale of used goods that don’t involve rewriting law. The Ford Festiva was one of the cheapest new cars around in the 80s and 90s, and rated as one of the most trouble-free used cars, too. But a cheap car that lasts is the exact opposite of profitable for a car company, and Ford simply stopped making them.

    Buy a vacuum cleaner, a DVD player, even a TV, and unless you pay for the highest quality, you’re looking at replacing them every few years. When products last forever, they generate less new revenue for their manufacturers than when they are engineered for obsolescence. If you want something that will last for 10 or 20 years, you’re going to pay for it.

    If NY publishers really wanted to make the used book market irrelevant, they would pursue ebook technology (which has no lawful used book model) in an aggressive and realistic manner. That is, instead of trying to force ebooks to conform to the print model, offer a quality product for a price that offsets the compromise readers are forced to make when they choose to purchase intellectual property without the tangible.

  27. kirsten saell
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 18:21:29

    So while it might seem like nothing to tack on an extra dollar for the publisher on a used book, it undercuts one of the most important bedrocks of copyright, the First Sale Doctrine, which keeps those on the “creator” side of the equation from maintaining rights over the work in perpetuity.

    Not just with copyright, either–this applies to patented merchandise, too, if I’m reading it right. I mean, if I sell my patented “Salad Shooter” or whatever at a garage sale, even while the product is still protected by patent, should I have to forward a cut to Ronco Industries or whoever dreamed up the notion of shooting salad? I mean, do I own the thing, or what?

    If publishing falls, IMO it has tripped itself on its own lack of foresight and whatever else kept it from revising a business model whose inefficiencies were clear even in good economic cycles.

    Hear hear. To everything Robin just said, pretty much…

  28. GrowlyCub
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 19:22:55

    Can I just point out to all those authors, who say that readers who are buying used books are responsible for their livelihood not being assured, that telling your potential customers that you think they suck is a really bad marketing strategy?

    It makes me add such authors to the ‘never to be bought again’ list really fast. I’m like that with all entities who want some of my hard-earned cash, but show their disdain for their customers when they think I’m not looking.

    Publishing has many problems, no doubt about it, and they are all self-inflicted. I’m all for a POD system for books so we don’t continue the insane shipping of books all over the place or the pulping of paperbacks, but nixing UBS and telling your customers that they are evil cheapskates is not the way to go.

    There are many times I’ve picked up a 30cent paperback by a new-to-me author and then bought future books by that author new. Any author who discounts how often this happens, is doing her/himself no favors.

    Could I have spent $75 at B&N or Booksamillion this weekend when I traveled 85 miles one-way to the next bigger city instead of at 4 different UBS and thrift stores? Sure, but why would I when I could buy those same *new* books for less online and the authors still get the royalties?

    I bought 54 used books for that 75 bucks, which may have bought me 8 new paperbacks, and since I suck down 1-2 books on a good day, the math is easy for me (apart from the fact that I couldn’t even list 8 available new paperback titles that I would want to buy at this point in time). Out of the 54 books I picked up, 3 are still available new online, only 2 may be in stores, which leaves 51 books I couldn’t have bought new if my life depended on it.

    Yup, my used bookstore and thrift store purchases are surely responsible for the demise of the publishing industry. /sarcasm off

  29. Ann Somerville
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 19:34:12

    @GrowlyCub:

    What you said.

    UBS are doing what publishers don’t seem to be capable of doing – growing a market for the product. How many people’s libraries started out with a collection of beloved, used books? How many people discovered a treasure while on holiday, revelling in ultracheap paperbacks, and when back home, looked for more?

    New bookstores intimidate me. They carry too much non-book crap – gifts, wrapping paper, non-book ‘books’, dvds, CDs, coffee, cake – and when I actually find any real books, they’re overpriced and undercontented. No way do I want to spend AUS$40 on a novel by an author I’ve never tried.

    I don’t love UBS the way I used to – I’ve got picky in my old age about where a book has been, so libraries are out for me too, mostly – but I care about them, and I want them to flourish for all those readers yet to be made, and yet to be awakened to the joy of owning your own books.

    Used book readers become new book owners. Could someone put that on a memo and send it to the knobs in New York?

  30. Jill Myles
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 19:54:34

    Except for the fact that this practice would violate the First Sale Doctrine and fundamentally unravel the Constitutional purpose of copyright.

    Whoops! I didn’t know that. My bad. Strike everything I said. :) I fully admit that I am an ignoramus when it comes to copyright laws.

    More generally, though, IMO publishing has had at least two years to prepare for the current economic climate, and what have they done? Massive layoffs do not a corporate revisioning make, although they certainly result in restructuring as everyone now burdened with more work must compensate for the lack of human capital. If publishing falls, IMO it has tripped itself on its own lack of foresight and whatever else kept it from revising a business model whose inefficiencies were clear even in good economic cycles.

    Actually, I kind of find it ironic that publishing does layoffs and suddenly the demise of the book industry is at hand. I’m curious to know what company ISN’T laying off right now. And if they need a technical writer (wink wink).

    Seriously, every business just about sucks right now. Layoffs are not exclusive to publishing and I wish everyone would realize that (not you, Robin, just a general ‘everyone’). Try working in finance right now – it’s ‘challenging’.

    Also, to Growlycub – totally hear what you are saying. I live 2 minutes from a UBS and a 30 minute drive (against traffic, which is fun) from the nearest B&N or Borders. I probably shop both equally – the UBS when I need a quick fix and B&N when I want to treat myself. Amazon when I can’t find it anywhere else.

    Actually, it’s ironic. Amazon is totally my last resort shop-stop. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? :)

  31. kirsten saell
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 20:03:17

    I know there are authors out there I would be happy to buy new–either in print or in ebook–but whose backlist is out of print. This is a revenue stream so many publishers are too dense or un-forward-thinking to take advantage of, thus far.

    Honestly, how hard would it be for a publisher to contract those out of print backlist titles in ebook or POD, available through their own website? My mom has this problem all the time when she finds a great book, and I’m sure authors with titles no longer in print would be happy to give them new life. And it would be nice when I discover a new-to-me author with 20 books under their belt, if I had the option to purchase their entire backlist brand-spankin’ new, without having to go on some hopeless quest for a copy that won’t fall apart before I’m done with it. (Although please don’t even try to charge me 12 bucks for a digital version.)

    There, NY pub. I’m desperate to give you my money. Take it, dammit. The UBS has caught on to the internet as a sales tool. Why can’t you?

  32. GrowlyCub
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 20:04:00

    Jill,

    :). I buy all my new books online at BooksAMillion or Better World because their prices are the best and they aren’t evil Amazon (even though I have to pay 9.25% sales tax at BAMM) and buy solely used books in actual physical stores because I only get to the big city about once every 8-12 weeks.

    I can’t even imagine living 2 minutes from a UBS. :) Oh, the envy!

  33. GrowlyCub
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 20:10:06

    Kirsten,

    yeah! I just got outbid by $9 on a batch of old Mary Baloghs (her 53 OOP titles) which went for 468 bucks. Some of these titles go for $20-25 on ebay each. There’s mucho money to be made (they’ve actually started to re-issue some of her books (10 more to come over the next 3 years), but the publishers could make a KILLING if they issued these as e-books for 5 bucks a pop right now.

  34. kirsten saell
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 20:16:33

    Yeah, GC, and since POD is an entirely digital technology, and a book can be printed in something like an hour, I don’t know why they don’t just offer out of print titles through POD, too. Even for 10 or 12 bucks apiece, ffs. No huge initial investment in 20 000 copies, no returns issue, and it could be addressed in a separate section of the author’s contract–maybe even with a different royalty than for a traditional print run. It’s a gold mine, and they’re just ignoring it.

  35. Robin
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 20:16:41

    Seriously, every business just about sucks right now. Layoffs are not exclusive to publishing and I wish everyone would realize that (not you, Robin, just a general ‘everyone'). Try working in finance right now – it's ‘challenging'.

    Actually, I was thinking about this when I was typing out my response, Jill, but I didn’t comment on it because I was still (am still) working out my feelings about this issue.

    OTOH, I have this knee jerk reaction of ‘authors aren’t special — look at employees, not independent contractors, but employees, who are losing their jobs left and right with no paid out book advance in their pockets.’ OTOH I sense a feeling of powerlessness in authors who feel squeezed between publishers and readers both trying to save money. And then I wonder if we’re back to the myth that ‘readers rule the market,’ thus a shifting of the burden to the reader/consumer. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in many of the recent financial woes, consumers *don’t* rule the market, although businesses that refuse to face the necessity of change might want to place the blame there.

    Ultimately, I think authors, readers, and publishers have different interests, which, when things are good, coincide in critical places. However, when things are not good, these interests can come into competition, and then the blame game starts. Now I really feel that it’s a losing proposition to blame consumers for the state of publishing, but I also realize that authors probably aren’t going to be out there criticizing their house. Which, IMO, illustrates another complicated issue here, which is how authors perceive publishers (and vice versa).

    If it’s truly an independent contractor relationship, than each party is autonomous and basically working together to maximize profit for both. And authors would feel that their publishers are working for them as much as the opposite. But in a sense there seems to be a sense of employee/employer sometimes in the way authors seem to talk about or refer to their publishers. A protectiveness toward the publisher that has less to do with innate respect and more to do with fear of being dropped or whatever. It’s an interesting dynamic, at least to me, as a total outsider. And as someone who voluntarily gives away my own intellectual property every day in my own job (to my employer, and ultimately to the public we serve), I have very, very mixed feelings about the way some authors sometimes advocate for their economic viability.

    I think there’s a very fine balance to be struck between negotiating sometimes competing interests and pressures and seeing others as responsible for one’s professional success or failure. Too much in one direction and it seems like entitlement; too much in another and it seems like servitude — and certainly the complicated interactions between readers and authors adds to the mix.

  36. Robin
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 20:20:32

    I fully admit that I am an ignoramus when it comes to copyright laws.

    One of the problems, IMO (and I’m not saying this about you at all, Jill, just generally), is that copyright is so often talked about merely in terms of piracy or ARC sales or file sharing and not in the broader sense of what the *purpose* of copyright is — why we have the concept of intellectual property and why a balance must be struck between the rights of creators and the rights of the public (as well as the ways in which the balance benefits both sides). Unfortunately, a lot of people aren’t really interested in these bigger issues, even though they can easily be snagged by the unintended consequences of changing copyright laws. In other words, what looks good up close can be an absolute disaster from a distance.

  37. Jill Myles
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 20:21:02

    As an author (well, in 2010 anyway), I do understand the nagging worry of sales slipping away. But I am a reader first and foremost, and I’ve always loved and patronized libraries and used book stores, and would weep copious tears if they went away.

    I can’t afford to try out a lot of authors with big backlists, so I go to the used bookstore for the initial ‘taste’ and then buy up whatever I can find at B&N. If it’s a brand new release? I get it at the big store on release day, or the grocery store. But I also read 150 books a year, and 150 x 7.99 = Husband Heart Attack. So I buy used or get from the library when I can, and also buy new as much as I can.

    I don’t think there’s one right answer. :)

  38. Robin
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 20:26:14

    What about those of us who are actually purchasing new ebooks of books we also purchased new in print? There are so many untapped markets, IMO.

    Why not offer readers discounted ebooks of print tomes they purchase new? Why not offer bulk ebook deals like Harlequin? Why not bundle books together — a veteran author plus a newbie that would likely have the same audience appeal — at a slightly discounted price? I’m like the world’s most untrained marketer and even I recognize that there are multiple markets just waiting to be discovered, created, and exploited.

  39. GrowlyCub
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 20:37:18

    Why not offer readers discounted ebooks of print tomes they purchase new? Why not offer bulk ebook deals like Harlequin? Why not bundle books together

    Because it’s much easier to say it’s the customers’ fault that the publishing industry is not flourishing. That way the publishers get to wring their hands, pretend there’s nothing they can do and get some of their authors to come to reader forums to tell us it’s our fault…

  40. kirsten saell
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 21:06:08

    Because it's much easier to say it's the customers' fault that the publishing industry is not flourishing. That way the publishers get to wring their hands, pretend there's nothing they can do and get some of their authors to come to reader forums to tell us it's our fault…

    Because it’s easier to whine about how the rest of the world should change than to change yourself…

  41. Ann Bruce
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 23:21:40

    @Kalen Hughes: No comment from me because it’s past my bedtime. Just wanted to ask Kalen and others who comment to refrain from mentioning places-where-pirated-books-can-be-downloaded. It only gives them unneeded publicity.

  42. Jeanelle
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 23:32:00

    There is another reason for the problem of the book publishers and writers. We are not rearing a nation of readers. I grew up, reading under the covers with a flashlight, when my mom told me it was bedtime. I read while washing dishes, and read in the bathtub. And I’ve never stopped reading. Until paperbacks and UBS, it was the library for me, because I’ve never been able to afford 365+ books a years.

    There were no video games, no cable TV with hundreds of stations, or all of the Disney vidoes and DVDs. We had to buy our music on (gulp) records. Years before 8 tracks and cassettes. Computers, cell phones, and mp3 players couldn’t have been imagined. My children now are too busy to read and my grandchildren are too entertained by easily obtained movies and TV and video games. It’s rare to find a child who sits still to be read to. If they aren’t being couch potatoes, they are being chauffeured to organized sports and lessons.

    And most of them are all missing out on life’s greatest pleasure….reading a good book.

  43. Ann Somerville
    Dec 29, 2008 @ 23:49:04

    @Jeanelle:

    We are not rearing a nation of readers.

    And yet kids still read. Look at the little treasures avidly following the discussions here on the Twilight books, passionate enough to tell us to ‘rot in hell’ for even floating a discussion about whether younger teens and children should not be allowed to read them. Look at fanfiction.net and the book fiction section. J K Rowling didn’t make her millions solely off infantilised adults revisiting their youth, and neither did the Golden Compass chap.

    Kids read, they write, and they imagine. It may be in different forms than on paper and from dead tree books, but they assuredly do pursue literacy. UBS play a part in that, and because of that and because during a recession, they will keep the habit of readership alive, any authors attacking UBS are a few apples short of a picnic.

  44. Ann Somerville’s Journal » Blog Archive » Cry me a goddamn river
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 00:22:49

    […] who does the great and mighty book publishing industry blame for the hard times? Used book stores. And some authors think that the best way to fix the situation is to change the fundamental right of […]

  45. Keishon
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 09:32:10

    I’m not even going to entertain the idea of used bookstores going away because it won’t happen. The industry is too important. I was told that there was one very popular author, from way back, who had a huge problem with ubs and was very vocal about it. The ubs owner(s) refused to stock her books and guess what? Her career went down the effing toilet. So yeah, complain and see where it gets you in the long run. Readers have very long memories and I am one who speaks with my pocketbook.

  46. Jules Jones
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 10:14:05

    I’m having another bout of thinking that the best piece of advice I ever got from more experienced authors was “first put your reader hat on”.

    I bought a lot of books from my local UBS when I was a teenager, not just because I couldn’t afford to buy many new books, but because it was the only place to find many titles. (The joy of living in a small rural town a long way from anywhere.) I bought a lot of used books when I was living ten minutes walk from a superb UBS in Silicon Valley, because it was a cheap and easy way to get copies of books long since out of print. And copies of books I already had, but had left in storage in the UK when I thought we were only going to be in the US for a couple of years. And second copies of books that I already owned, but wanted to take with me on the plane and be able to abandon them if luggage became an issue. And books by authors new to me that I wanted to try, but not enough to pay full price for.

    I couldn’t possibly afford to buy all the books I read new, but there are books I’ve bought new because I tried out the author’s work in a second-hand copy. So as an author, I think I’m better off in the long run if some of my print books end up in the UBS, where they might snare a fresh pair of eyes. A dead tree book can only be read so many times before it falls apart, after all, so there’s a limit to how many times someone else makes a small profit on My Book without me getting a cut, and a random walk from one UBS to the next means that My Book might end up in front of a reader who would otherwise never have seen my name.

  47. dotty
    Dec 31, 2008 @ 04:39:51

    I have no idea about the figures but Audible looks like it’s done well from audiobooks. The ipods mentioned by another poster are also responsible for introducing audiobooks into the marketplace via iTunes.
    While returning to commuting by train recently after many years, hardly a morning newspaper was to be seen as was the case ‘in the old days”. Just about everyone, of all ages was plugged into a ipod or similar. Some were also reading the latest hit paperback and many reading library books.
    Because I am a fan of audiobooks, I like to think that 10% of those plugged in were listening to a book.
    It’s interesting to me whenever discussions about book sales eg. new, used ebooks etc. audiobooks tend not to be mentioned, and yet it must be a growth market as more and more books are being recorded. I’m guessing if the sales were not there, then they would not be produced.
    Authors should be cheering loudly about the growth in technology, after all their is no used book sales on ebooks and audiobooks, although I can now get them from my library via digital download.
    I have not bought a tree book, new or used for 2 or 3 years, except for my beloved science books, but trust me Authors are still getting royalties from me, just via a different route.

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