Last week, the Huffington Post published an online article on “13 Reasons You Should Always Buy Used Books.” I’ve been thinking about that article a lot over the past week. On the one hand, I love used bookstores and library sales, and a substantial percentage of my own collection were bought used. On the other hand, encouraging people to always buy used books is a slap in the face to authors, who depend on new-book sales for their livelihood.
The HuffPo piece did make one good point: Used books are more affordable. With new hardcovers coming out at between $25 and $35 (on average) and mass market paperbacks commanding a hefty $8 or $9, hardly any of us can afford to buy all the new books we want. I would venture that the high price of hardcovers is a factor in the growth of ebooks; even under the agency model, ebook prices were usually lower than the hardcover list price.
Children’s books, particularly picture books, are also very expensive these days. How many young working-class families can afford $17.99 for a single new picture book, when they can pick up 10 at a yard sale for $5 or $10?
But the rest of the HuffPo piece’s arguments are much less persuasive. And the article completely ignores the best reason to buy new books: If good authors don’t get paid, they may not keep writing. The absolute best way to encourage the writing and publishing of good books is to pay the authors and publishers of those books.*
There’s a myth that writers write because they have to. To some extent, it’s true. I certainly see that drive in my own daughter, and I’ve read or heard plenty of other authors talk about it. But most of them would love to write full-time, rather than write in whatever snatches of time aren’t taken up by work and family and laundry and cooking. That means they need to make a decent living from their writing, and that means they need to sell books. Lots of books. And that means you and I need to buy books — new books — if we want our favorite writers to keep writing, and good new writers to enter and stay in the field.
An author earns money two ways: through an advance (if traditionally published), and through royalties. The advance is exactly that: a sum of money paid to to the author against future royalties. Royalties (for anyone unfamiliar with the term) refers to the percentage of the book’s price that goes to the author for each new book sold. Once a book has sold enough copies that the author’s royalties have paid back their advance, any subsequent royalties are paid to the author. In other words, if the book doesn’t sell pretty well, the author never gets more than the advance. And only really big-name authors win the really big advances. A first-time author will probably get between $1000 and $10,000 in advance, rarely more. You can see that if an author is going to make a living at writing, they need to write lots of books, and those books need to sell really well. And they need to sell new, because used books don’t earn royalties.
Besides, an author has put a lot of time, energy, and heart into a book. Don’t they deserve to have that effort rewarded?
So the next time you’re deciding whether to buy a book new or used or borrow it from the library, factor in how much you like that author’s work, and how much it’s worth to you to keep them writing. I’m not saying buy all your books new; heaven knows I can’t afford to, and I don’t expect you to either.** Libraries and used bookstores are wonderful resources, and there’s no reason to stop frequenting them. Just don’t do it to the exclusion of buying new books, unless your financial situation really can’t manage a single new purchase. Remember that authors need our financial support to do what we want them to do: write wonderful books. Support them as much and as often as you can.
* I don’t want to get into a discussion of traditional vs. self-publishing in this post. I’ve written about it often enough in the past. So let’s just focus on traditional publishing for now.
**These days, what I do is buy new books by the authors I really want to support — in paperback or ebook if I can’t afford the hardcover. (I also only buy new books if I’m pretty sure I’ll be keeping them on my shelves for years. Like money, shelf space is a finite resource in our house!) The rest of my reading I get from the library or buy used, or download from NetGalley if I’m lucky enough to be approved for a review copy. Sometimes, I read an ARC or a library book and decide it’s so good, I have to buy it so I can keep and re-read it.