Monday, December 29, 2008

Buying used books online? Guilty as charged. But should I feel guilty?

The following post is a detour from the usual posts on fantasy, but it concerns books and publishing, another love of mine.

The New York Times on Dec. 27 published this thought-provoking piece by David Streitfeld about buying used books online. Streitfeld asserts that purchasing used books from ebay or from used online book dealers in lieu of buying new books is severely hurting brick-and-mortar book stores and the publishing industry as a whole.

To be honest, I'm feeling a little stung after reading the article since I'm very much guilty of this practice. For example, I got a $40 Barnes and Noble gift card for Christmas, and instead of using it to buy one or two new books at a B&N outlet, I chose to pop online and purchase five used volumes from a handful of authorized B&N booksellers (the titles, if you're interested, include four books on or about J.R.R. Tolkien, and The Life of Sir Aglovale De Galis. I can't wait to get started!)

Now, I don't buy all my books used. I will buy new books for currently publishing authors that I particularly enjoy (Bernard Cornwell and George R.R. Martin spring immediately to mind). Also, if I love a book so much that I plan to read it again and again, or if I'd like to have said book in a handsome hardback volume--The Lord of the Rings comes to mind, for instance--I'll buy it new.

But I do purchase far more used books than new. Basically it boils down to the fact that I'm a fairly heavy reader and I purchase a lot of titles. New books can get expensive. Why should I feel obligated to buy a new copy of The Worm Ouroboros, or an H.P. Lovecraft short story collection, when there are plenty of used copies floating around online for a buck?

It also seems wasteful to stop purchasing perfectly fine, lightly used books. If someone wants to sell a book, why should I, or someone else who wants to buy and read it, feel guilty about buying it cheaply? What's the alternative for such books--a recycling bin or a landfill?

On the other hand, I also bemoan the loss of brick-and-mortar book stores and hobby shops, and for every book I buy over the internet, I know that it's one less sale at my local Borders. I don't want to see real bookstores go away, to be replaced by online sellers. There's something to be said for holding an actual book in your hand and browsing through real shelves. It's a rich, tactile experience that you will never get from plugging in keywords in an internet browser bar or viewing a JPG of a dust-jacket cover.

So what's the answer? I'm not sure myself, but Streitfeld's story is certainly food for thought.


Mr Baron said...


I think we are in agreement that we do not want the traditional brick and mortar stores going away. I enjoy spending time in B&N's & Borders flipping through the books on the shelf. However, they do have to figure away to compete with Amazon (and similar online sellers) on selling new and used books. I think the example of the music industry is a good one to look at. The music industry had to answer the question of why buy a full CD, when all I want is the couple of songs that my buddy has? That is a hard question to answer, but the music industry needed to re-invent itself and answer the question (and I think they are still struggling with this). Likewise, the book industry has to answer a similar question. As the users of the internet get more sophisticated, the traditional stores need to answer harder questions. Those that do not look ahead, will not survive. One can look at the mess the car makers are in and realize that you need to look ahead to survive. The internet is a disruptive force, and those that can harness this tool will do well for themselves. The landscape has changed. While I do not have direct answers, I am have to respect the evolution of retail shopping, which could be radically different in 2010, than it was in 1990. It is quite possible that the internet bubble craze of 2000 was just 10 years early, and that really was the future of things.

Anonymous said...

Thanks be to God for internet shopping. I can buy things in minutes that, in years past, I couldn't have put my hands on to save my life. It's a vital resource for me to put together our home school curricula, as well as to feed our family's voracious readers. Our local library is only adequate, sadly, though it is always our first stop.

In speaking of saving brick-and-mortar stores, you mentioned Borders. Ironic that you think of that corporate behemoth the way I used to think of the corner used bookshop, dusty and musty as it was. Today we have corporate giants -- Borders and B&N for new books, Half Price for used books. Internet for all of it. The world has changed, as the previous poster notes. The internet has changed the world. As the wise man said "the only constant is change." Those dusty musty hole-in-the-wall shops are gone. And I am ever so glad to be able to shop from the comfort of my own chair, teacup at my fingertips, with all the world's books laid before me as a conquered realm. Ye Olde Corner Bookshoppe was never able to provide that kind of scope. It would be a step back for my family if we were to return to strictly brick-and-mortar stores.

For a hit of tactile browsing sensations, I recommend your public library.

Jason Fisher said...

My word, this piece from the New York Times has certainly picked up a lot of steam in a short time. I’ve seen it on three different blogs in just the past couple of days! I’m sure Malcolm Gladwell would have something to say about that! :)

Ultimately, I don’t buy the guy’s argument, and I resent the implication that I ought to feel guilty about buying used books. The used book trade is as old as the book trade. True, the Internet makes is possible for buyers and sellers to find each other more often and more quickly than ever before, but the simple fact is: people have always bought used books, and they always will.

If sellers (and publishers) of new books want to take a bite out of the secondary market, they’ll have to find a way to lower the cost of new books. A new hardcover, priced at $25, simply cannot compete with a slightly used copy at $10, or less. I know, some will say that the publishing industry is already operating on razor-thin margins, but if that’s really true, then there’s something wrong with the business model.

In speaking of saving brick-and-mortar stores, you mentioned Borders. Ironic that you think of that corporate behemoth the way I used to think of the corner used bookshop, dusty and musty as it was.

That is such an excellent point! Also, thank you for mentioning the public library in your comments, so I didn’t have to. It bothered me that the NYT piece didn’t, and too few reactions to that piece have mentioned it. This is where I read most of my books. After reading a book from the library, if I really love it, then I’ll buy a copy. Often, but not always, new.

Sonny said...

Don't feel guilty for a choice you have made. How else can you get out of print books that no publisher or book company will print or sell? I maybe wrong in this but I think there will always be a place for book stores. Just like what one person commented before me, they just need to learn to adapt. There are certain people who will make you feel guilty no matter what you do, don't listen to them. Your a customer who decided to put his dollars where he most wanted them. Nothing wrong with that.

David said...

The answer is in technology that has yet to be developed. Imagine a bookstore with no stock that is able to sell you any title you want for a modest fee and fifteen minutes of your time. You walk to the location, ask the teller for the title, and he enters it into the computer. Almost instantly, the text and cover into the stores computer system. In the back, a high speed printer revs up to print the text, while other, specialized machines go to work on the cover. The two portions are brought together and another machine binds them. The book is then brought to the customer, who is drinking his Starbucks in the waiting lounge, catching up on his newspaper or magazine reading.

Of course, it would take some time to get the mechanics worked out, and the supply/demand evened out to be low enough to be feasible, but I could see it happening in the next ten years (hell, in the last ten years we went from the Napster scandal to iTunes, the next ten years can be just as revolutionary).

Brian Murphy said...

Hi everyone, thanks for the great comments.

To anonymous: Yes, my comment about Borders is as a "local" bookstore is ironic and it felt strange when I wrote it. And yet it's one of the few bookstores of any sort left in my immediate vicinity. I grew up with a great little used bookstore in my hometown that I could walk to. In fact, if you're so inclined, I wrote about it a while back, here: Turning Back the Pages: Remembering a great old bookstore.

But sadly, the days of the dusty corner book store are passing into memory.

Buy books online said...

Wow…. Wow.. Thank You!!!!

Red Cardinal said...

All I'll say is, thank God for being able to buy books online. Here in the UK, publishers and retailers charge outrageous prices for books. This frequently occurs even where the book was originally published years ago. £7.99 appears to be the standard price for a paperback!

If they tried charging a more reasonable price then perhaps they'd sell more books in bookstores...