The Used Book Controversy

Some of you may be sitting there wondering how used books are controversial. Books are books are books, right? And sure, some of them have contents that might raise some hackles, but how are used books more controversial than new books?

Well, it comes down to royalties. You see, most authors get paid thusly: they receive some sort of advance when a publisher buys their book. Then, once they have earned through their advance, they begin to earn royalties, which are honestly usually pretty crap. You’re looking somewhere between 8-15% of what the reader pays for the book. So, if you pay $7.99 for a mass market paperback, the author sees somewhere between 64 cents and $1.20. Or less, if the publisher takes out some percentage to cover costs first.

If you sell 100,000 copies, great! But most books don’t.

So the controversy comes in when you buy a used book, because the author gets nothing on the second sale. (And, admittedly, used book stores don’t usually get much either.) And since so few authors can make a livable wage off of writing to begin with, there is occasionally an outcry that used book sales hurt the author, because it prevents potential readers from giving their money directly to the author (and publisher) to support them, instead of some random third party.

You hear this argument in video games and movies as well.

On the other hand, people who purchase used books may pick up authors that they wouldn’t otherwise, gaining authors new fans that may pay money when the next book comes out. Many people are more willing to take a risk on a book they pay a buck or two for than one they have to pay $10 for (which, coincidentally, is why ebooks sell so well). So the other side argues that used books allow the author more exposure than they would have gotten otherwise, resulting in a larger fan base.

What do you think, Squiders? Used books – evil tool that robs poor, starving authors of their rightful due, or convenient tool for readers to find new favorite authors?

(As a random statistic – 80% of my favorite authors, the ones I pick up new books immediately for when they come out, I first found through either a used book or a library copy.)

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by E. A. Hughes on 2012/05/16 at 1:55 PM

    Amen to your last comment. I read my first Stephen King as a used book, my first John Grisham, my first Thomas Harris … We have come a long way from the birth of the printing press, when books were luxury items. But even though we have had a proliferation of books, they are still seen as a ‘luxury’ purchase by some. As a writer I am torn between the prospect of new readers and the threat of ever-reducing royalties, but at a pinch I guess I would choose the former over the latter.


  2. I mostly buy used books because it’s cost effective. I read at least two or three books a week, and I’m a broke grad student who doesn’t have much cash to spare. I can buy three or four used books for the price of one new book. I also prefer buying used books because bookstores don’t tend to have a very good selection of old fantasy/sci-fi titles. 😀


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