ATFMB – Used Books

On August 25, 2011, in ATFMB, by Patrick Hester

I’ve been trying to come up with a format / column for me to contribute to Functional Nerds for quite some time, but nothing ever seems to feel right to me. Then I realized that I’ve already created it.

So welcome to All Things From My Brain.

Used books.

Going to the library always bugged the shit out of me. Here was a building full of books and someone had gone through and put stickers on them – stickers! – with numbers and letters on them. They’d ruined the spines. Worse, they glued a pocket to the inside cover, defacing the poor, defenseless book even more. Sometimes, they stamped things inside the cover, sometimes they stamped them on cards that fit inside the pocket. They also stamped ‘Property of…’ here and there inside the book.

To a collector of things, this is hell.

I remember the teachers trying to explain the library concept to me. There were all these books, see, and I could borrow them, read them, but then I had to bring the book back. But I loved books. I wanted all the books to be mine. I was all for searching through the books, and for taking them home – it was the ‘bring them back’ thing that just bugged the shit out of me.

I didn’t want to bring them back, I wanted to put them on my shelf, point them out to people. “See that there, yeah, I read that. Thick, right? Didn’t stop me – read the whole thing.” (Give me a break, people – I was a kid and a dork, it happens.)

Later, I learned that you could, in fact, purchase books. Unfortunately, you needed money for this and parents were the gatekeepers of the money and notoriously unwilling to part with their hard-earned gains unless some sort of exchange program was in effect (completed chores = money). Life for any kid is like growing up in Soviet Russia, I tell you what. No bread for you!

Eventually, I worked out a deal and was able to secure books for my own private library. In the beginning, this was accomplished through the little Scholastic fliers we would get. The teacher would pass them around, each one a little catalog of books and magazines that we could order – all we had to do was fill out the form and mail it in! As a side note, checking all of the books on the form does not endear you to parental units.

As I grew up, I discovered bookstores and wasn’t too proud to beg my mom to please, please, please buy this book for me. When I got a job, guess what I did with my money? If you said ‘pizza and bowling or shooting pool or playing video games with my friends’ you are correct. But I -also- bought books. And comic books. And cards. Loads and loads of cards (DAMN YOU WIZARDS OF THE COAST AND YOUR DAMNED MAGIC THE GATHERING OF WHICH I WAS ADDICTED! DAMMIT!).

It wasn’t until I moved to Tennessee that I came across a new concept (to me) – the used book store. They had huge used bookstores. Full of books. Used books. Cheap used books. Pennies on the dollar used books.

Here is where the frugal penny-pincher and the collector of all things clash.

I hated the used bookstore. For the first time in my life, I had a glimpse into how other people treated their books, and it wasn’t nice. The paperback was particularly brutalized. Covers frayed, ripped, bent and torn. Pages dog-eared (I may faint just thinking about it), ripped, torn, WRITTEN UPON, HIGHLIGHTED?!?!?!?! Oh god, I may puke.

As stunned as I was by all of this, I had to admit – the mega-used-bookstore was packed with people. Heck, if a paperback brand new cost you $5 or $6 bucks, and this place was selling it to you for $2 – well, you do the math. I did. Also decided to get over myself and try to buy some of these used books. Much to my surprise, I didn’t need any sort of professional therapy to make it happen. It was a ‘rip the band-aid off’ kinda thing. Just jump in and see what happens.

This one place in Chattanooga, I want to say, was like a warehouse. They had rows and rows, all taller than me, and each row had cubbies – boxes instead of shelves (I’m not explaining this right). Where shelves would be, they had built boxes on top of each other, stacked higher than I was tall (so at least seven foot). There were little step-stair things in the aisles and each box contained used books (the openings faced you – does that make sense?)

Here’s a photo of what I mean:

Anyway, I would seek out science fiction and fantasy, then dig through the boxes for books I was interested in. If I found something interesting, I tried to see if they had multiple copies – if they did, I bought the one in the best possible condition.

Truth be told, I only did this a handful of times. I just did not care for used books. The collector is strong with this one… I want to keep my books in the best condition, display them for all to see like little trophies on my shelves. Having a slew of mutilated books with creased spines and torn pages does not work for me. Where it came in handy was with older, out of print stuff I just couldn’t get anywhere else. There was a place in Knoxville, not too far off the beaten pass from the university, that was an honest-to-goodness old book store. Of course these books were used, but their previous owners had taken meticulous care of them. Many were purchased at estate auctions. These books smelled like books, they had worn covers, not abused covers. That place was an entirely different experience altogether, and the books were not cheap.

At the warehouse place, I kept thinking – wow, there are a lot of people here buying used books.


Well, the answer really isn’t any different than why people buy used video games – price. If you can buy a paperback for $8 (which I think is the retail price these days) or you can buy that same paperback for say $4 used and slightly worn – which would you do? Be honest. It’s the same book, same story, same characters, only $4 cheaper.

I know, I know – you’re torn. I can’t do it, but you’re thinking to yourself – I could buy two books for the price of one brand new one. Depending on the condition, the price might be even less and you could get three books for around $10. Starting to see the appeal, right? More books for the same money = better.

Besides, you’re not hurting anyone, right?

Huh.  Let’s think about that for a second.

With books, everything starts with the writer. The writer builds the world, puts the words on the page, toils to create an engaging story with relatable characters. Let’s say they go the NY, traditional pub route – this means they have to enlist the services of an agent who then sells the book for a cut of what the author makes. At the publisher you have an editor, a publisher, an art person, a typesetter, a marketing department, maybe a publicist – all of these people get paid from the profits of the company. I’m probably forgetting a bunch of people including the person driving the forklift in the warehouse, but you get the idea.

For the sake of doing an easy example, I am going to pull some numbers out of my butt.  These numbers in no way reflect what an author might actually make and are, in fact, based on the retail price of a paperback, which is not cost, nor is it profit.  Just wanted to put that out there before people start telling me how wrong I am.

So.  In the case of our example book, let’s say the author gets a paperback print run of 100,000 copies. I’ve no idea if that’s high or low, but we’ll run with it. At $8 a pop, and if every copy sells, that’s $800,000. Government takes their cut (taxes), retailer takes their cut, publisher, agent, so on and etc. Eventually, some money trickles down to the writer. I’ve no idea how much – it depends on the author and the deal their agent negotiates with the publisher. Again, for the sake of making things easy, let’s say our author gets 15% (of retail?! No way Jose, but it’s easier to figure out). That’s $120,000.

$120k isn’t anything to sneeze at, but factor in the idea that people start selling the book used for $5 a pop. If they sell 10,000 copies, that’s $50k. 20,000 copies = $100k, 30,000 = $150k, and so on, and so on. At 50,000 copies, that’s $250,000. Now, how much of that goes to the author? Zero.

Worse, the used books are all from that original 100,000 print run. Had there been an additional 50,000 books ordered by retailers, the author could potentially make an additional $60k AND be better positioned for their next book because one of the factors they look at is how many books you sold, how many went unsold, etc. So if you sold all 100k and had to order a second printing of 50k due to high demand, well, you’d be sitting pretty. If you sold only 50k, but also sold another 50k used – those used books don’t count in the eyes of the publishing world which has just reduced the price on the unsold copies by 50% and won’t be looking to order as many of your second book due to poor sales of the first.

Just like with used video games, the flipside of all of this is that any retailer stuck with inventory of a book that isn’t moving/selling, is unlikely to order as many from you the next time you put out a book. Also, authors receive an advance as part of their contract. If your sales are below expectations, your next advance could be much less, or they could choose not to buy your next book at all. I am not saying that used book sales can be directly tied to this, but nor can we ignore them either.  Kinda like DVR numbers.  But that’s a different post (makes a note).

From this, we can assume that the secondary market for used books, just as with used video games, A) does benefit the person like you or I who is just looking for a short-term saving, B) doesn’t help drive future sales for the author because the sales of used books aren’t counted, and C) doesn’t see the author who wrote the book compensated for the additional sales of the used copy, nor does it see the artists, editor, or anyone else involved with the book compensated for their efforts and hard work.

Here’s the rub, though – in the case of the used book, it’s entirely possible that the author will gain readership from the used book sales. People who may not have otherwise purchased the book, might pick it up at the reduced price and become a fan who might look for more from that author in the future. This is similar to lending a book out to someone who then turns around and purchases that book, and others, from the author.

Also – who hasn’t looked at the stacks of books at Costco or Sam’s Club and thought that $15 for a book retailing for $30 wasn’t a good deal (that also gives you a little clue into the difference between retail cost, wholesale cost and profit, but I digress)? Who hasn’t looked through the bargain shelves at the bookstore and picked up something on a massive markdown?

The only difference between that sale and the sale of the used book, is that it’s counted, and the author and people involved are compensated one way or another.


Next time on ATFMB – Text Messaging.

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9 Responses to ATFMB – Used Books

  1. Boy do I have a lot to say about this! 🙂

    But for now, I will make one point: some of those marked-down books you see are remainders from the publisher that were returned and re-distributed, and I believe that the author also does not get payment or tally for them. A lot of folks base their purchasing strategies on those sales. This, and the popularity of used books, is a problem of the publishing system and cultural notions of the bargain more than it is a problem of the used book store.

  2. Who hasn’t looked through the bargain shelves at the bookstore and picked up something on a massive markdown?

    Guilty. Half Price Books is an addictive place to shop.

  3. Amber says:

    Interesting commentary. And I, too, am one who peruses for marked down and used books. With 4 voracious readers in my house, I couldn’t afford to keep us all in new books!

    • Price is interesting. Usually prices are market variable and will level out at what the market can bear. If sales continue to drop, we might see a drop in prices (but I doubt it).


  4. John Fiala says:

    Well, you know – that note about used books and the money going back to the author is true for _any_ used physical merchandise. If I sell (or give) and old laptop to a friend, HP/whoever gets none of that secondary money. If I sell my car off, Toyota doesn’t get another red cent. It’s just the nature of used anything. But, if I sell someone my copy of “The Complete Book of Amber”, I no longer have that copy, and the money I sank into the book (both to buy it and store it) is not going to be matched by what I sell it off for anyway. So, I think the author is pretty well handled there.

    And libraries are fantastic places, which no longer put little pockets in the books or stamp them (as much), thanks to computers. (Heck, most libraries you can check out the books yourself – just run the books through the scanner.) For one, there’s far more books out there that I’d like to read which I can’t possibly store – as it is, I’m looking at going into a contraction phase, where I”m going to sell off a lot of books I’m not touching to gain some sane space in the house now that the baby’s here. Being able to borrow a book of ideas is great, and if the ideas are good enough, I can pick up a copy later. (And, going back to the money to the author thing, did you know that in England libraries pay money into a fund which goes back to the authors to compensate them further for the books being shared so much?)

    • I don’t disagree with you about libraries – for other people. For a lot of people, the library is their only opportunity to be exposed to lots and lots of books – which is awesome.

      For -me-, I am a collector. I like to own the book. As a kid, I just wanted to own the books.

      I did not know about English libraries – that’s actually very cool.


  5. Clifton Hill says:

    Used book stores and libraries, yep, definitely a clash of ideals: I want to support the author, but I have no money. Perhaps the e-book phenomenon will balance that out some more.

    Regarding your collector notes, I agree, I mostly have paperbacks (easier to hold/tote), and are very careful with them. It is the rare book of mine that has any creases on the spine, and any that do are the very oldest books I have and have gone through many readings. I rarely lend out my books, and for good reason. Of the two times I can recall: one was never returned and the other came back with parts of the spine picked off. WTF! No books for you!

  6. […] POV.Adam Roberts on Science Fiction Picture Books: or, SF for the very young. Patrick Hester on Used Books. Mark Charan Newton on The Cult Of SF. LondonCalling on Out of this World: Science Fiction and a […]

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