Used Books — The Hot New Thing

Publisher’s Weekly reports that used books are rapidly becoming one of the biggest growth areas in the bookselling business.

In findings that will surprise few in publishing, the Book Industry Study
Group report on used books found a rapidly growing segment that is likely to
continue to be one of the biggest growth areas in the industry. The size of the
used book market for non-education books– trade and professional titles–was
$589 million in 2004, while sales of used textbooks added another $1.6 billion,
putting the total used book market at $2.2 billion last year, a 11.1% increase
over 2003. Total unit sales were 111.2 million last year, with trade and
professional unit sales hitting 72.6 million, while education unit sales were
38.6 million.

Growth in the last few years has been fueled by online retailers. BISG estimated
that sales of used books through online retailers rose 33% in 2004, to $609
million, while sales through bookstores rose 4.6%, to $1.57 billion. In the
trade/professional segment, online used book sales were $429 million last year,
while sales through bookstores were $115 million. Sales through other outlets,
such as yard sales, were $45 million.

Wait a minute… sales of used books at garage sales are netting $45 million? I think I’m going into the used book business. There’s also some scary news in the report for authors:

Used books are now considered mainstream and the industry is approaching a point
where consumers may choose to delay their purchases of a new book for a few
weeks–until a used copy becomes available.

26 thoughts on “Used Books — The Hot New Thing”

  1. Couldn’t it also be the case that the ease with which used books could be found and bought online is driving sales higher?
    Case in point: there’s a small bookseller at a farmer’s market in Dover, Del. I was looking for books by Clay Shaw Gardner (fantasy writer). She favors the “stack ’em all and let the customers sort them out” model to the extreme, with piles of books on the floor and stacked in corners like they had been washed there by Katrina.
    I gave up after 20 minutes. But if I wanted to, I could go to Abebooks and be assured of finding his collected works, and without the hassle of what some would see as a marvelous “bookstore experience.”

  2. What percentage of a used book on sale at does the author get? Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the answer: zero? If that’s the case, as I believe it is, perhaps it would make an excellent class action suit.

  3. How could it be a lawsuit? Reselling used books is perfectly legal, and Amazon doesn’t even pocket the money (I think they get a percentage from the seller). I can see how authors (and publishers) might not be thrilled with the system, but even in America ‘because I want to’ still isn’t a valid excuse for a lawsuit.

  4. Paol – there is something in US law called the first sale doctrine. Once you buy something you can do whatever you want with it, including reselling it. This is why the software industry has always been very careful to “license” their products, not “sell” them. (And only the very business-friendly courts of the past two decades have allowed them to get away with it.)
    The argument against the used book market falls apart in the same manner the “libraries steal sales from me” one does. Surveys have shown that the people who SELL used books are power buyers and the most frequently stated reason why they are selling is that they need to make room on their bookcases for more books. The people who use libraries are also the people who buy books.
    I spend a fair amount of time in used bookstores, and I can tell you that anyone waiting for a recent bestseller to show up had better have an in with the bookseller.
    PS Has anyone else noticed that on those decorating/organizing shows the first thing they do is make people get rid of their books? Hmph!

  5. What percentage of a used book on sale at does the author get? Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the answer: zero? If that’s the case, as I believe it is, perhaps it would make an excellent class action suit.
    Correct me if I am wrong, but there have been attempts to set up royalty payments for professional used book sales. They have failed, which I think is a good thing. A used book is private property, the author has already received a royalty for the sale (if the book was purchased, sometimes used books are promotional copies – I know, I have bought and sold them). The owner of the book can do with it what he or she pleases, because it is his or her private property. The decision to either sell it or use the pages for cat box liner is the decision of the book owner. However, the contents of the book CANNOT be photocopied and sold. Then the book owner would be profiting off of the intellectual property, which is something the owner of the book does not own. They own the paper, ink and cover and can sell that if they so choose, either individually (garage sale, through Amazon, ebay etc.) or to a commercial dealer (used bookstore).

  6. Authors get nothing from the sale of used books. (And, really, why should they?)
    How is what Amazon is doing an actionable offense? That’s a real head-scratcher.
    Back to the original article…
    “[The] industry is approaching a point where consumers may choose to delay their purchases of a new book for a few weeks–until a used copy becomes available.”
    That strategy only works to the extent that someone buys a new copy and is then willing to sell it right away. But someone is still buying the book new.
    Ultimately, I think that the purchase of used books is good for writers and good for the industry. At least people are buying books and, presumably, reading them. The problem with publishing is not that people are buying books used; it’s that people aren’t buying books at all. Anything that reverses that trend and gets consumers thinking about buying books is a good thing.
    Maybe they’ll buy some used, but they’ll also buy some new. That helps expand the market and benefits everyone.

  7. Scratch away, David. It was just a question. I find the whole thing fascinating, and somewhat counterintuitive given the degree to which most authors struggle to make a living.

  8. I’m one of those complete jerks who buy most of their books used. I do most of my buying at the Library Book Sale held twice a year in a semi-remote warehouse at the far other end of the city. 125,000 books at the last one, most for a dollar or less. I bought a bunch of hardbacks last weekend. Now I have to find space for them in my apartment.
    I usually pick books because I have heard of the author, especially if I’ve “met” them online. You guys with published books sign your full name, don’t you?
    It’s a great way for me to give authors a trial run. The really wonderful books put a writer on a “buy more from this dude” list.

  9. While I certainly understand the gripe, in order for books to become used, they have to be bought in the first place. That’s not exactly a bad thing.
    People have been buying used books for decades. How much has it really changed? The used bookstores are on the Internet now?

  10. I’m a complete jerk too, so I’m not going to throw stones. But… the big difference now is that the average customer has access to cheap, cheap, cheap overstock and remander copies. At least five bucks cheaper, often ten, and in new condition. Plus, none of those annoying marks you used to see on those types of books.
    So if you love to read, there are a lot of bargains out there. But let’s be frank, those bargains come at the cost of the working author.

  11. I understand that sales of used book have flourished for decades. But how is it fair that there are 25+ used books available on in the FIRST WEEK of a hard cover book release? A brand new book? Are you kidding me? That is pathetic. If you don’t think that hurts the author’s sales, you’re dreaming.

  12. Dear Paol:
    Thosed used copies that show up seemingly instantly are probably review copies being sold by book reviewers.
    “If you don’t think that hurts the author’s sales, you’re dreaming.”
    Read the NY Times article linked in one of the earlier comments.
    Also, think about it. I like to browse book listings on Amazon so I also look at the window where the used copies are listed. Most books listed, unless they are tremendously successfull, don’t have used copies in even the three digit range. If an author’s book is going to be sunk because a hundred used copies are for sale, then he’s sunk already.

  13. Yeah, I read that. I still think it hurts fiction. Amazon’s priority is consumer confidence. They don’t care about the novelist. When I consider the source, I’m more inclined to agree with the Authors Guild’s position. The writer of the article was a professor of business & economics.

  14. I’m one of those people who buys used books? I would much rather buy new ones, I just can’t afford it.
    I am an obsessive reader. Most fiction books only last 2-3 days with me, and I’m always reading 3 or 4 books at a time. It takes me a little longer with non-fiction, because I’m also an obsessive note taker.
    I just checked at and I have over 140 books on my wish list. Many are available, but I don’t always have the cash.
    I’d rather go an buy a book as soon as I read or hear about it, but I live on a budget.
    And yes, I resell my used books. If I didn’t, there wouldn’t be any room in my house!

  15. Exactly. He doesn’t know much about how artistic process and marketplace dynamics intersect. He’s an expert on business, not on artists and business. I’d trust an entertainment lawyer’s advice before this guy’s.

  16. Interestingly, I looked up ‘The Man with the Iron-on Badge’ on and even before the publication date, they have this on the MWTIOB page:
    ‘Availability: This item is not in stock. If you would like to purchase this title, we recommend that you request it used. ‘ Obviously they won’t let me pre-order it new!
    I’m one of these geeky people who prefer my books in mint, never been thumbed condition… So I’ll trot off to the local one man band bookshop down in the local town to order it new.

  17. Everything. Perhaps if you were artists you’d understand. But it’s nice to see both sides of the brain represented in this argument.

  18. Used book sales have zero impact of my creative process.
    I write both fiction and non-fiction and have zero problem with used books. I buy and sell them all the time at used books stores, garage sales, flea markets, ebay and amazon. I have no problem with it, how else well I get books that I either cannot afford or are out of print? You might as well have a problem with libraries that lend books for free (they buy a copy, but that copy is recycled through countless readers that you won’t make a dime off of), or books stores that now allow customers to come in and just sit and read the books and then put them back on the shelf.
    I create stories because I love doing so, and I want people to read them, not because I want to make gobs of money. If I wanted that I would have studied to be a doctor or lawyer, or a politican.


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