Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Why Are Book Publishers So Afraid of Used Books?

Did you know that 49% of people who purchased a book online in the last year bought a used book? Alibris commissioned a study back in November, and that’s what their study found. This according to a story in Publisher’s Weekly run in April titled “For Better or Worse, Used Book Sales Grow.”

That number amazes me. Used book stores are never busy, certainly never as busy as the new book stores I visit. The used book sections of new book stores are never as busy as the new book sections, either.

However, it does explain why a local independent bookstore (Schuler Books) has recently decided to add a used book section at two of its brick and mortar locations. They only involve a couple of bookshelves, not a whole section of each store, but still they are devoting space and resources to them. And Barnes and Noble has a good-sized used book section in one of our local stores.

So what’s the story on used books? It makes good sense. The stories won’t have changed just because someone bought and read the book already. The words haven’t gotten old and fallen off the page. And by buying a “pre-owned” book, you’re saving the slaying of a tree to print a new one, plus some space at the local landfill where it would have lain dormant as it slowly decayed. And handling someone’s used book isn’t like wearing someone’s used underwear or smearing on someone’s used deodorant or biting someone’s used dentures. No, most people care well for their books and pass them along lovingly in good condition like a favorite suit or a beloved car. Better, in fact. Many read the book only once and then it sits unscathed on the shelf looking for a new companion. My experience with used books is that unless it’s from the public library, where it passes through many careless hands, a used book is usually in prime condition and as worthy for purchase as a new book.

That may explain why online retailers do a better business in used books than bricks and mortar stores.,, and, for instance. Roughly 25% to 30% of their sales are used books. Part of that may be that you don’t initially realize you’re buying a used book when you order it. Part of it may be that you want an out-of-print book and the only way to get it is to buy it used. And part of it may be that with everything discounted, saving because it’s used isn’t as apparent as it might otherwise be.

Perhaps that’s why book publishers are so afraid of used-book sales: Why pay full price for new when half price for used will do?

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