This weekend is the Fall used book sale at my local library here in scenic Chestertown, Maryland. They have these sales twice a year, Spring and Fall. They set up a large room with hardcovers and trade paperback books piled high on a series of tables, lined up on shelves surrounding the room with more piled three rows deep underneath the tables. The hallway outside the room has another set of tables packed two layers deep with mass market paperbacks, and also has the piles of books underneath each. It takes a couple of hours to properly browse the available material. And you can’t beat the prices!
Some writers and publishers have a love/hate relationship with used books (mostly hate). I’m not one of them. It’s love all the way. If not for the availability of used books, I wouldn’t have read half of what I have in my life and the number of different authors I’ve become fans of would be demonstrably smaller. Some may not like it but when you consider none of those books are there for sale without someone having bought it full price first (or discounted as the publisher wants), all I can say is get over it! You want to know where discoverability happens? It’s right here in this room full of books so cheap as to nearly be free. It’s also why discoverability with digital is more problematic and why free is uncomfortably (for them) popular among readers; no used market to speak of.
I spent my hour this morning browsing and finally headed out with a bag of nine books that, in total, set me back roughly three times the price of the cup of coffee I bought at Royal Farms on my way home. The notion that cheap nigh-on free books is some new development from the Internet is absurd. This kind of sale has been going on for longer than all of us have been alive. It just wasn’t trackable in the ways digital is. And it’s always been a beneficial component of the industry, not a detriment. “Cheap books are good for business” is not an idea Jeff Bezos invented, despite what some would have you believe.
There are a few things I took away from this morning’s jaunt, more than just the new bag full of books I needed like a hole in the head. With a little mortar, I’m pretty sure I could build a summer home out of my to-be-read pile alone.
1. Traditional publishing produces a lot of crap
You hear this a lot about indies but, man, glancing through stacks of the stuff that’s been “properly vetted” by the great tastemakers only makes me snort louder every time I hear someone say how indispensable they are to quality literature. I don’t have any particular moral judgment on this, just try not to be the pot telling the kettle it’s too black, please.
2. Lit Fic doesn’t have much of a secondary life past first sale
I’ve been going to this sale for four years now and one of the interesting things I’ve noticed is that you see the same types of books over and over again, year after year. Something with a windswept field and a sunset on the cover, inevitably with the phrase “From the NY Times Best-selling Author” scrawled across the top, titled “Yesterday’s Tomorrows” or some such inexplicable thing. The cover blurb sounds like a story my uncle would try to tell about his troubled life, after Thanksgiving dinner and one too many shots of Southern Comfort, before I get so bored I have to fake an excuse to leave the room. These books never move. They were there four years ago and I don’t doubt they’ll still be there four years from now. Even for a buck, they can’t get them to walk out the door.
3. Nobody keeps the books from the long-time mega-bestsellers
The place is filthy with them! Nearly every table is overflowing with Pattersons and Turows and Kings and Crichtons and Clancys. And not just one of each, dozens of copies of the same books, mostly all pricey hardcovers. It makes me wonder if those books were actually bought by the readers who donated them or were given as gifts. The churn rate on high dollar hardcovers evident there just seems out of place. Who drops $25 on a book then dumps it on the library? These authors may be selling large numbers of these books but nobody’s keeping them. They’re disposal entertainment. And a damned expensive version of it at that. Again, even at $2 per hardcover, these books never move.
4. Newer, short series bestsellers are an exception
There was a half a dozen copies of the 50 Shades trilogy books combined there. There was one copy of the first Hunger Games book and that’s it. There were four copies of the Twilight series books in total. There were a grand total of zero copies of any of the Harry Potter books. No George R.R. Martin, either. People are keeping those books in ways they aren’t with either literary or mass market best sellers. I’m not sure what that means, but if I had to guess, it may speak to the completionist mentality of many readers relating to a concise several-book series that doesn’t stretch on forever into 16 or 17 volumes.
5. Romance is another exception
Nora Roberts was another mega seller whose books overran the place. The difference, though, is that they move. Nobody’s buying the Pattersons but most of Roberts’ books will be gone by Sunday. I’ve watched it happen in the past where an entire table of Roberts and Danielle Steele books that are there on the opening day are picked down to bare bones by closing. The Turows and his ilk, though, end up clustered all together, with the previously mentioned best selling lit-fic, as nearly everything else around them is picked clean. Romance seems to have the same level of churn going on but they also seem to have a vibrant life after the first sale that the mega-sellers don’t.
Now, let’s discuss price. I walked out of there with six mass market paperbacks, one trade paperback, one hardcover and one paperback that was a half-inch taller than a regular paperback. I added up the cover prices of all nine books. It was $94. I paid $5.25. That’s roughly a 95% discount. Not bad. The question, though, is would I have bought any of these books at full price? The list price on all the paperbacks was $7.99. The weird taller paperback was $9.99. The hardcover was $24.95. The only one that seemed reasonably priced to me was the trade paperback of Robert Anton Wilson’s Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy containing all three books. It was just $10.95.
The answer is that, no, I likely wouldn’t have paid those prices except for that one book. The hardcover of Joe Hill short stories looks cool and I’m excited to read it. I wouldn’t pay $25 for it. I don’t like Dean Koontz to speak of but I’ve always been morbidly curious about his Frankenstein series. There’s zero chance I’d pay the $24 list price for the three volumes but for 75 cents? Hell, I’m in on that. The Matheson and Straub books I may have gone up a few dollars on cover price and bought nicer trade editions but I wouldn’t have dropped $8 a pop on these versions, either. Ender’s Game was a lark that I couldn’t pass up for a quarter. I just saw the movie and, while it was no great shakes, it did make me curious about the book.
Which brings me to the last book I picked up this morning. Yes, I bought a Doug Preston book. I’ve never read anything he’s written (outside of his Authors United blustering. I really hope his fiction stylings are way better than that), so I’m curious. The description sounded interesting, so I thought, “What the hell? I’ll give it a go.” There was another one of his books there that sounded interesting, too. But it was a hardcover and hardcovers were $2 and I just didn’t want to pay that. (I can hear the screams of “entitled” now.) The reality is that I have no idea if I’m going to like his work. For a quarter, it’s a no-risk proposition. For $2, it’s a slightly less than no-risk. But $2 bought me that aforementioned cup of coffee. And, yes, I’m saying that fleeting cup of coffee was more important to me this morning than trying one of his books. That’s life. Get used to it.
If I read that book and enjoy it, the dynamic changes. I don’t question dropping the $2. Hell, I might even buy one (or more) new, depending on how much I like this one. But none of that happens if I don’t have access to this book for a negligible sum. At the last book sale in the Spring, I loaded up, getting about 25 books of all different stripes. Since then, there have been six new book purchases by me as a direct result of those buys. That’s six sales that would not have existed otherwise. Preston’s odds of getting me to buy one of his books new is virtually non-existant without the super-cheap used variety available to experiment and check out the lay of the land, as it were. His odds of me turning into a fan may be slim in any case, but they’re non-existant if my only choices are list price or small discount.
Even if his ebook version was $5.99, I’m not buying that. I wouldn’t pay $2 for one of his hardcovers. If the book I bought today was priced at $6, it would still be on the table where I found it. If those are my only options (or my cheapest options) he has precisely zero chance of turning me into a full paying customer. Here’s my concern with ebooks: no used versions at miniscule prices means it’s either the library or some random chance someone gives me one. Publishers have gouged libraries with exorbitant ebook prices and overly restrictive licenses. That option isn’t as viable as print either. You want discovery for ebooks to be better? Stop handicapping it. Libraries, used books for slightly above free and sharing between readers is where most discovery happens. You may think it’s bookstores but odds are most shoppers are “discovering” something there they already knew about. Discovery in that sense is more surprised to discover something you actually want is there in stock.
You can’t have things both ways. You don’t get the benefit of people putting in the legwork to discover your work and expect them to pay you for that discovery. Like most worthwhile pursuits, the back end is where the money is. I get this one for a quarter today, he may well get 5 or 6 sales over the next few years at store prices. Get rid of this one, and he gets nothing.
Cheap bordering on free books that have no direct revenue link to publishers or writers are an essential component to discovery. If we just keep progressing with ebooks as we have (and they continue to replace mmpb’s) with no used versions, limited library checkouts and prices higher or comparable to a mmpb, that discovery problem is only going to get worse. And it’s going to start to carry over into print, too, from fewer used paperbacks available like what I bought today. Subscription services can possibly mitigate some of that, but only if the catalogs are basically unlimited and the service itself isn’t too expensive or restrictive. But then, we might also be running a real risk of replacing sales with subscriptions rather than supplementing and supporting them as used books and library borrows do now. If we keep pretending books have some innate value while ignoring how, where and why the people buying them were first turned onto your work, and where they developed their notion of its value, trouble will continue to ensue.
Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron