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The Impact of Used Books

13 Jul 2004 by Matthew Linderman

Is becoming the Napster of the book business? (NY Times)

“Used books are to consumer books as Napster was to the music industry,” [a publishing consultant] said. “The question becomes, ‘How does the book industry address its used-book problem?’ There aren’t any easy answers, especially as no one is breaking any laws here.”

24 comments so far (Post a Comment)

13 Jul 2004 | Michael Spina said...

I don't think there's an easy answer, and lowering prices is the only thing that could work. Used books are nothing but convenient for customers, and only pose a problem to the publishing industry. And with no moral issues, what possible motivation exists for a customer to do anything else?

13 Jul 2004 | waylman said...

First of all, music files are an intangable series of 1s & 0s, books are paper and ink. When you want to get rid of a music file you delete it into non-existance. When you want to get rid of a book, you sell it, give it away or throw it away. But the book still exists. (Sure, you could burn it, but come on)

On top of that, the origanal Napster was distributing unauthorized copies, not authorized origanals (the CDs themselves). Now, if the used books sold on Amazon were unauthorized photocopies, I could see the problem.

No one seems to be complaining about people reselling used CDs, so what is the big deal? Last time I checked, any industry that makes real, tangable products faces this very same situation. Customers who no longer need a product will resell it at a lower price. Sure, over time it will wear out and possably reach the end of its usefullness, but untill then, its all part of doing bussiness.

To expect anything else would only contribute to the already overloaded garbage problems of today's society.

13 Jul 2004 | Mike said...

The "used book" idea is especially close to my life as a college student -- I truly don't know many people who would choose to buy a brand new college text book if they could get a used one for 60% less (unless you're like me and love having a shiny, new "Usability Engineering Lifecycle" by Mayhew behemoth sitting on your desk).

There aren’t any easy answers, especially as no one is breaking any laws here.

Gee, I dunno. Seems like anything with a copyright symbol slapped on it nowadays is fair game for an intellectual property lawsuit. What's next? Books that will only open if you spill some blood on the pages to verify that you're the original owner? Used books, ebooks, mix CDs... anything that's not full price might get you jacked by the FBI.

13 Jul 2004 | Brad Hurley said...

Used books have always been available; what's different now is that Amazon makes them so readily available by listing them right there alongside the new ones.

I think there are three main reasons why people buy new books:

1. They want to read a book that's just been published, and therefore there aren't any used ones available;
2. There's a common perception that, if you want a particular recent title, you'll have to hunt around to find it used, whereas you can just pick a new one off the shelf at any bookstore or order it online.
3. Some people perceive used books as second-class items; they buy new books on principle. These are probably the same kind of people who refuse to eat leftovers.

Amazon makes it almost as easy to buy a used book as a new one. But the key word is "almost." When I looked into getting a used book from Amazon last year, I saw that I'd have to go to a different site or an individual and order directly from them, rather than going through Amazon. That opens up a can of worms: can I trust this seller? Do I have to set up yet another account and password with yet another e-tailer? Those can be significant deterrents. In fact I've never ordered a used book from Amazon for precisely those reasons.

13 Jul 2004 | me said...

You eat leftovers?

13 Jul 2004 | MadMan said...

Jason, Jason, look! has been redesigned. And it's gone straight to hell.

I demand that you post about this immediately. :)

13 Jul 2004 | Paul Randall said...

Most of our used book sales through Amazon are out-of-print items anyway, so the publishing industry can't cry about losing sales on items they no longer offer. Some mechanism for inventorying and marketing stock that is now black-lined and dumped after a time might be something for them to think about. That's what used booksellers do. If they want to join the game, well come on. They may want to consider publishing a little less unreadable pulp dreck as well.

What's being suggested in this article is some kind of impropriety in the act of selling something you possess. Damn Communists. Bah!

13 Jul 2004 | Chris S said...

Selling a used book is no different than selling a used CD.

Or a car. Or a house.

13 Jul 2004 | Arne Gleason said...

This is one of those ideas that would have seemed preposterous 10 years ago, but is now reported as reasonable.

Me, ten years ago: “You say I’m not allowed to sell stuff I bought? Never going to happen --you’re describing corporate run totalitarian state.”

Me, today: “You say I’m not allowed to sell stuff I bought? I guess that follows.”

Me, 10 years from now: “You say I’m not allowed to own anything, just to rent the privilege of experiencing it by the second? Please may I? Thank you, Thank you!”

14 Jul 2004 | Jonny Roader said...

There will always be a market for new books, including new editions of already published titles. Let the big publishing houses stick to that, while second-hand booksellers enjoy a revitalised market with much, much lower overheads.

One sector takes a hit, another sector gets a boost.

14 Jul 2004 | Darrel said...

And with no moral issues LEGAL issues. You could certainly spin this into a moral issue just like the RIAA has done, though.

The solution, of course, on paper, at least, is to do like the RIAA/software industry. Scrap the paper books, deliver everything online, and then add on oppresive EULs so that you can then legally sue everyone. You can then also print blank pages and incorrect grammar and force people to sign up for the 'annual book maintenance' plan to ensure they get all of the bug fix updates.


The reality is that sales of used products is totally against the consumerism model of sell, sell, sell, sell, buy, buy, buy, buy (or, SSSSBBBB as I like to call it)... I suppose the book industry could just start producing really crappy books that degrade over a few months. Sort of like the product model Wal-Mart uses. Buy it cheap, have it break in 6 months. Buy it again.

Ultimately, industries like the RIAA, and later to follow, the book industry, are uneeded except for being niche players. Just like the travel industry to a giant hit, the internet and electronic media simply turn some giant middle-man business models into dinosaurs.

14 Jul 2004 | Don Schenck said...

Darrel, you are so cynical!

I love it! :-)

14 Jul 2004 | Silus Grok said...

I think that I've bought maybe five used books in my entire life (not counting college textbooks). I've just never been able to bring myself to enlarging my personal library with refuse.

Now if only there were more people like me.

A partial solution to the "problem" of used books is to trim excess production as much as possibe. Perhaps the ideal way to do this is to print-on-demand so as to not flood the market with remainders — a very large source for second-market books.

14 Jul 2004 | Silus Grok said...

Brad Hurley: I love left-overs... but I don't see the connection: food is temporary by nature, and left-overs are generally left-over from something I knew I liked to begin with. Books, and the libraries they build, are meant to be enduring... and without actually hefting it myself, how on earth am I to know what condition the book will be in?

14 Jul 2004 | Benjy said...

The fundamental difference between selling used books and online music download sites like Napster is that music is easily duplicable, so I can pass it on to you without losing my copy. It's of little consequence to pass it on to many people. You have it but I still have it, too.

In terms of used books, if I give or sell a book to you then I no longer have a copy anymore. Therefore, if I really liked the book I'm either not going to get rid of it or I'm going to demand more compensation in return for the book.

14 Jul 2004 | Brad Hurley said...

It's funny, the older I get, the fewer books I own. I used to save all the books I bought, figuring I would read them again at some point. But as the years went by, I realized that I was so busy reading new books that I would probably never have time to go back and re-read much of what was in my collection. So I started selling them or giving them away to friends. I cut my collection in half a few years ago, and I'm ready to cut it in half again. Mostly what I'm keeping are field guides, dictionaries, and other nonfiction reference stuff, along with poetry and a few of my favorite novels and essay collections that I do re-read periodically. But just about everything else goes out the door when I'm done with it.

14 Jul 2004 | waynep said...

I'm currently reading a book borrowed from a friend. We're not sure which of us is the one in the most trouble.

14 Jul 2004 | Mike Harper said...

Online copies of books are to consumer books as Napster was to the music industry. Not used books. Online music trading results in a near-instant transfer of a copy. Used book sales result in a delayed shipment of a used good, after which the original owner no longer possesses anything. Services like Amazon's used book listings may help distributed copies that are already out there, but it's nowhere near comparable.

Plaintext and HTML copies of books, on the other hand, really are similar to mp3 trading. The book industry has barely ventured into online sales, however, and they're lucky that printing out a book is pricy and many people still prefer reading off paper. I've seen (and sometimes downloaded) copies of many commercial books that have either been ripped from a digital version, or meticulously scanned.

As soon as there's a screen that a suitable population deems acceptable for reading books, the publishing industry might face the same issues that have plagued the music and movie industries. Until then, they're crying wolf.

14 Jul 2004 | Don Schenck said...

The fact that we are even HAVING this conversation is ridiculous. Not us, mind you, but the whole idea of used books somehow being ... illegal?

14 Jul 2004 | One of several Steves said...

Several comments to several posts:

As many pointed out, the used books/Napster comparison is specious. It has always been legal to sell or lend items you own and purchased. If it weren't every library in the country needs to be shut down. Napster did not include the sale of legally purchased items. Just as it's always been illegal for me to make copies of recorded music and distribute it to others, whether for profit or not, it's illegal to do that online. It's not illegal to cell the CD I bought.

Brad, I'll buy your used books/leftovers comparsion only if you include leftovers that have already been eaten and given back, or had bites taken out of them. Used books can and do smell (like if read by a smoker), have finger smudges all over the cover, potentially have crumbs of food inside, etc. It's not as if there's no trace of the previous owner. And those traces can be borderline disgusting.

It's why I will never, ever buy a used book online. I can't inspect it, like I can in a used bookstore.

And I think used book sales will never represent a serious threat. The very same "need" to read a physical book is part of what drives a desire to have a new book. Reading a book is a physical, tangible experience that involves more than just the words on the page. And, at least for me, I get more of that experience from a new book.

14 Jul 2004 | Arne Gleason said...

-In a corner office at Stoic publishing-

Man sitting at desk:
What other revenue opportunities are we missing?

Woman pacing:
What if we could get them to sign non-disclosures at the time of rental? Then we could litigate if they were to share a plot point with a friend…and offer extended anti-litigation warranties at point-of-purchase!

Another man:
If only there was a way to make them forget what they read so that we could get higher repeats on the same property…something in the ink maybe…

15 Jul 2004 | Frederick said...

Hmmmm. Used books + urban and rural libraries and schools that need books - money for (previous libraries and school) books + and 's surplus of used books + tax breaks for said companies if they donated them - charitable cause and need for mentioned institutions = in therory, the begining of a possible solution.

If you are done with a book and don't want it in your library or stack of published media, send it back and use it to get a new book or better someone else's life- donate it.

16 Jul 2004 | Hugh said...

[From way back in the second comment:] No one seems to be complaining about people reselling used CDs, so what is the big deal? Last time I checked, any industry that makes real, tangable products faces this very same situation. Customers who no longer need a product will resell it at a lower price. Sure, over time it will wear out and possably reach the end of its usefullness, but untill then, its all part of doing bussiness.

Didn't the RIAA try to go after used CD stores recently, say maybe a year or so ago?

Of course, we all know that they are anything but rational anyway...

20 Jul 2004 | Gokhan said...

libraries are illegal because books there are read by more than 1 person?
Another view would be that less paper used( so recycled ) if we buy used books so fewer trees are cut.

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