Suspend Your Disbelief

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the used book wars

Oxfam Books_07An agent once told me that if I wanted to support my fellow writers, I should never buy used books, because the author gets no royalties on re-sold copies. And while that is certainly true, this editorial in the Guardian makes an eloquent argument for why secondhand bookshops are important:

[T]he best have stock that is old – an out-of-print Penguin on Imagist poets, or a Fontana reader bringing news (at least it would have been in 1981) from the sociological front – and temptingly affordable. They contain treasure, however dusty.

Several commenters point out that this editorial makes no mention of the huge impact that a large rise in online second-hand bookselling (often via a larger site like Amazon) has had on the industry. LSEScientist notes:

To write about second hand bookshops without any apparent awareness that publishers cannot sell as many new copies as they once did since people buy them internet second hand–and much cheaper–suggests the writer is writing in 2006 or 2007. In 2009 the story is that the second hand book selling internet has trashed the old rules and like newspapers does not have a new business plan.

Meanwhile, big-box and online retailers aren’t the only ones driving independent and used bookstores out of business. The charity Oxfam’s bookstore chain is getting blamed as well:

Harrison said that when Oxfam opened 18 months ago his income halved overnight. Two other shops moved out or closed. “I held on until now but just couldn’t keep going. Oxfam is the Tesco of the secondhand book world. It is destroying the industry. Half our business is rare old editions but in a recession people aren’t buying so many. So we pay our bills from the sale of £2 paperbacks or hardbacks for under £5, and Oxfam has destroyed that.”

But Oxfam fervently denies claims that it poses a threat to other second-hand booksellers.

Do you buy used books? Only in bookshops? Only online? Never? Why or why not? If the answer is yes, do you — especially if you’re an author or publishing professional — feel guilty doing so?

Literary Partners