Used vs. New Books

September 12, 2013 used books 16

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. 

16 Responses to “Used vs. New Books”

  1. Rita_h

    I can see both sides of this. I realize authors need the income that new hardcover sales would afford them. Perhaps the article needed to address that issue more clearly.

    On the one hand, prices are getting ridiculous, especially in children’s books. One of my jobs after I left the schools was being the manager of the children’s book section for a national book chain. I would ooh and aww over new titles being put on the shelves, but seriously! Unless you are giving a hardcover for a gift to a child, the price would deter many parents.

    The news article definitely needed to probe more deeply into the life of the typical author, not the James Pattersons and Danielle Steels who crank out so many books a year. It could talk about just how long it takes to write a book, edit it, publish etc.

    I wonder though if perhaps the big publishing companies are at fault here for taking too much of a profit out of the final sale of a new book. And though you quoted a correct price for a standard sized paperback, the trade paperbacks are about $13. and more and more books are being sold in that form.
    Thanks for your input on this important discussion. By the way, if your daughter is intent on being an author for her living and gets ready to publish, spotlight her book here. I, for one, will buy it no matter the topic to support a young person who needs a break 🙂

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      Rita, I agree that both adult and children’s hardcover prices are too high for the average consumer. And yes, trade paperbacks are becoming more and more common, and they are indeed priced higher than mass market – and higher than some of us are comfortable paying for a paperback. I was simply trying to give the outside edges of the new book market, and pointing out that even the low end is pretty darn high!

      I hope I didn’t give the wrong impression of the HuffPo piece, though — it’s not a news article, more like one of those lists you might find on Buzzfeed. But I felt they were missing the other half of the picture, and it wasn’t right to discourage people from buying any new books at all!

      I’m not how much profit a publishing company makes on the average new hardcover. It’s hard to determine, especially since they have to offset any profit against the losses they sustain on a title that doesn’t do well, leaving them with lots of remaindered books (books that the bookstores ordered, but return to the publisher unsold.)

      One thing I didn’t address is self-publishing. Some authors do pretty well by self-publishing their books as ebooks, cutting out the publisher and earning much higher royalties on each book sold. It has its drawbacks as well as its benefits, both for the author and for readers. But it’s a publishing model we’re seeing more and more frequently, and I think we’ll see a lot more of it in the next few years.

      Thank you very much for your support for my daughter and other young authors! Yes, when and if she does publish a book, I certainly plan to spotlight it proudly! (And probably plan a blog tour for her, too!)

  2. Greg

    I agree, it’s important to support authors and you can’t do that by not buying their books new! I love used bookstores and often find old gems in them, but if a new book is coming out that I want I buy it new.

    I just like having new books in good shape, so part of it is personal preference I guess, but I also want to support the author… and yes new books are expensive, I have to spread my purchases out. 🙂

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      That’s more or less what I do. The books I *know* I will love and want to keep (which are always by authors I already know and love) I buy new, and in hardcover if I can. (Or I ask for them for Christmas/birthday gifts, which comes to much the same thing since a family member is buying it.) That tends to spread the purchases out. Books I’m not sure I will like, or know I’ll only want to read once, I either borrow from the library (if available) or buy used. If I add a new-to-me author to my must-own list, I buy their backlist titles wherever I can both find them and afford them, which is usually a mix of used and new.

  3. Melissa

    Personally I would encourage getting books from the library over buying new. Reason being is the cost. I buy new books a few times a year as I can’t afford to do otherwise. The other reason I don’t buy new is because books I bought new are just sitting on my shelf untouched. I think book bloggers and book podcasters are undermining the fact that most readers can’t afford to buy most of the books that they read. As much as I would love to support authors, if they want to write, they should do it as a second job, not as their primary job. Great if they can do that, but honestly there isn’t that much money in publishing and honestly publishers need to reduce their prices, if they want to survive.

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      Of course anyone who can’t afford to buy new books, or many new books, should get books from the library! Or find a used, if the library doesn’t have the book you want. As I said in one of my footnotes, that’s what I usually do; I generally only buy new books if I know for certain that I’ll want to own it and keep it. Since those tend to be by my favorite authors, that means I am, in fact, supporting those authors.

      But I respectfully disagree with your second point. Most authors already write as a second job; they either have a day job or a full-time parenting job. Many of those who work outside the home dream of being able to write full-time — and if they could afford to, they would. They would also, not incidentally, be able to write more books.

      The author’s royalty is only a fraction of the total price of the book. Compared to the time and effort they put into a book, the average (not best-selling) author doesn’t make a great salary. I agree that books are priced too high, but I don’t think that authors’ income is the factor driving up costs.

  4. kimbacaffeinate

    I think those who can do, and those who can’t don’t. Peeps have always bought used books and this will never change. I do both, but most of the time if it is author I love I am too impatient to wait around for a used I like my books free from dog-ears and Cheetos prints! LOL

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      “Those who can do, and those who can’t don’t.” Absolutely true. And a lot of us fall in the middle, and do both, like you and me. Those favorite, autobuy authors are exactly the ones you can’t wait around for!

  5. Kimberly @ Turning the Pages

    I rarely buy new books, mostly because the Mr and I are on such a tight budget it doesn’t make economic sense for me to purchase one new book for the price of 2 or 5 from a used bookstore. I mean I do buy new books but so rarely it doesn’t really apply. I am a huge supporter of the library here though and I borrow so many books from them (and pay the hefty fines for my overdue items) that help keep the library getting new books. I grew up on a limited income so my folks always taught us to buy used if we could. For certain authors though I will buy new (E.G. Diana Gabaldon, J.K. Rowling etc).

    Great post!
    Kimberly @ Turning the Pages

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      With a child in college, our budget just got significantly tighter (totally worth it, though!) so I understand where you’re coming from. My new-book budget is a lot lower now, and it was never all that big. But see, even on a really tight budget you have a few authors you’ll buy new! 🙂

      Thank you for your thoughts, and for stopping by!

  6. cleopatralovesbooks

    What an interesting post and it has clearly sparked differing opinions. If it is a non-fiction book I always would prefer a new copy as I know these will stay on my shelf. If it is a paperback three for two deal etc. I buy new but otherwise I support our local charity by going to their book sale and give a book a new home. I also lend and borrow books from friends as it is great to talk about a loved book and make a recommendation.

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      It certainly has, hasn’t it?! I would love to borrow and lend books with friends, but many of them don’t read the same books I do, or are too far away to make it feasible. I’m glad you stopped by and weighed in — it’s been great to hear (see?) all the different opinions.

  7. Cheryl @ Tales of the Marvelous

    Interesting discussion! I buy most of my books used, for the price factor…but I do worry sometimes about the authors I’m not supporting! On the other hand, I do talk ALL the time about my favorite authors…

  8. Bea

    I always feel a tad guilty when I buy a used book because I know the author isn’t getting a royalty off it but it’s a practical matter. I can’t afford to buy many books at full-price and I have discovered many authors by buying a used book of theirs. Books I read are a mix of used, library, new, kindle freebies, and received for review. I do support authors when I can by purchasing new because I want them to be able to keep writing.

    There’s one author who always sends me a review copy of her newest book; I have purchased very few of her books. Last night she mentioned there was an Amazon sale on some of her books so I went and picked up some titles of hers that I was missing. I enjoy her books and figured the least I could do was actually buy some for a change. 🙂

    Good post!

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      Thank you, Bea, and I’m glad you weighed in! I think all of us — at least those of us who are prolific readers, which certainly includes most bloggers — have a similar problem: our finances can’t keep up with our habit unless we buy used books and/or make frequent use of the library. Good for you for supporting the author who often sends you review copies — it’s a nice way to say thank you, though of course your reviews are the main thanks!