A new competitor for readers’ dollars – used books

I found a recent article in the New York Times intensely interesting.  It was titled ‘A Penny for Your Books‘.  Here’s a brief excerpt.

Better-known titles with more robust print circulation quickly obey the seesaw of supply and demand; after time, their prices can sink even lower, because of the increased number of copies floating around. Take Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From the Goon Squad”: You can buy a new hardcover or paperback copy for $18.82 or $9.19, from Amazon itself, or download the Kindle version for $8.56. Or, as with hundreds of thousands of other books on Amazon, you can click through to the “used” section and buy the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction for a penny.

. . .

This is a game of pennies and lightning-quick readjustment. Buyers have no particular loyalty to any of these sellers; it’s all about what’s cheapest and what’s listed first. Each company, seeking an edge, builds and zealously guards its own software. Ward was the lead developer on Thriftbooks’ software before he became president. He has 12 developers, a full-time data scientist and two financial analysts on his staff. Discover Books’ software is known in-house as Trim2. “We have software that we’ve spent years and a lot of money on,” Hincy says, “tweaking to be as optimal as possible to give that book the best opportunity to be sold.”

. . .

Penny booksellers are exactly the sort of weedy company that springs up in the cracks of the waste that the Internet has laid to creative industries. They aren’t a cause; they’re a small, understandable result. Penny booksellers expose the deep downside to efficiency capitalism, which is that everything, even literal garbage and rare high art, is now as easy to find and roughly as personal as a spare iPhone charging cable.

There’s more at the link.  Highly recommended reading – albeit potentially disturbing for indie authors.

The question is, what will this growing onslaught of ‘penny books’ do to the e-book market?  I know many indie authors have been pushing up their prices in an attempt to make a better living.  E-books that used to go for $3.99 or $4.99 are now $6.99 or $7.99.  (I didn’t follow this path:  I decided that I wanted to broaden my reader base, so I’ve deliberately left my books priced at $3.99, with the first in a series cheaper than that.)

Now, with so many used books available for $3.99 on Amazon, will shoppers buy them rather than take a chance on an author who’s new to them, and who’s charging a little more money for his or her e-book?  I rather suspect they may.  I know that, in my own search for reference materials, I now mostly buy $3.99 used paper editions on Amazon, rather than pay two to three times that much for an e-book edition.  I can’t store them without overwhelming my limited shelf space, but then I seldom need to.  I can look up the information I want, scan some pages or an entire section if I need to, and then discard the book.  It’s cheap enough to pass on to Goodwill, or drop off at the local used book store, without a qualm.

How about you, fellow authors?  Do you see $3.99 used books as a competitor for your readers’ dollars?  If not, why not?


  1. Who suffers from penny ($4) used books is a good question. My sneaking suspicion is that the people with most to lose are the used bookstores. It’s kind of funny to consider how worried the big publishers were it would harm them, but that anticipated harm doesn’t seem to have materialized. I’m not so sure self-pub folks have so much to worry about either. Generally speaking, I suspect that most people who want used books are already looking for them. But we’ll see.

    1. Agreed. We had a fantastic used book store, the Highway Book Shop. The founder, Doctor Pollard was given the Order of Canada for his work on the book store, as well as his work as a publisher.

      It’s gone now. Which totally sucks, because the store had books I’d never seen anywhere else, and they shipped worldwide.

  2. The article sounds interesting, but the fifty shades of gray lady stuck to it is a bit much to scrape off (Weedy companies in the cracks of waste? Downside to efficiency capitalism? Really?). Yes, it’s competition but is it any more competition than what previously existed? Not just used book stores. Books were the main thing I used to buy at E-Bay, and I love to go to library sales and hit the discount bins looking for cheap reads. If there were used bookstores around, I’d be a frequent patron.

    What I think is overlooked is that these books are old buzz. Wouldn’t be surprised if many of the old popular books move more slowly now, simply because the buzz has died down. If you can win a fan, they are willing to buy your new stuff, if it’s not overpriced. The biggest squeeze may be on traditional press, which is overpriced and it makes more sense to wait and buy it used.

  3. Long-time lurker here. Those penny books on Amazon have been around for at least 10 years. I’ve bought quite a few of them, especially back in college and my ‘grad-student’s-wife-with-a-kid’ stage. They were mostly old favorites that either were completely out of print, or were otherwise far too expensive for my meager budget. I’m not sure why someone at the NYT suddenly thinks they’re a publishing industry game-changer.

  4. The target audience of the old books is not being well served at the moment.

    For four bucks you can get more adventure, more excitement– you can get unvarnished heroism, undiluted evil, unconsciousness romance written by people that have been exposed to history, science, and myth. Femme fatales. Rugged frontiers. An absence “strong female characters” that fail to ring true. And wow, in the world and situations presented, it’s almost as if not just heterosexuality is the norm, but life-long committed marriage as well.

    It is a refuge from all things SJW, and even better… if you put a negative review of one up on Amazon, the author’s not going to hammer it on his blog as an example of how the hate mongers of normalcy are in the way of his sweet plan to politicize pretty much everything. Why read people that when you could read guys that took it for granted that Western Civilization was a pretty good idea…?

    And instead of a never-ending series of doorstoppers, you can get a satisfying payoff in under two hundred words.

    There’s a reason why mediocre writers are denouncing the classics and pointing people away from old books right now. Their is a significant chunk of their readership that just flat out won’t come back if they were aware of how much awesome stuff really was done during the 20th century.

    So yes. Be afraid of old books. Be very afraid.

    1. I think a good thing to read if you’re interested in old books is C.S. Lewis’s commentary on them. He basically advocates that for each new book or each couple new books you read, you ought to read at least one old book. It’s important to look at the opinions and ideas of people in the past, because a lot them have died out. Sometimes, the best new idea you can find is an old one someone already fleshed out a long time ago.

      1. Oh yes, exactly! (I actually inadvertently paraphrased a section of that essay last week. I have a post queued up about that very thing…! Heh.)

  5. > competitor

    No, I don’t see a paper book as a competitor to an ebook. Not any more; they’re mostly different markets now.

    Over the last few months, several people here and at ATH have commented that they haven’t bought a paper book in a long time. They just click-and-download. They’re favoring instant gratification, lack of clutter, and “library in their hand” over paper, no matter how the paper is priced.

    I’ve gone mostly to ebooks for fiction now… but even if I wanted paper, I’d still have to buy it online since the last bookstore in my area closed years ago.

    I still pick up an occasional paper book at a flea market or dollar store, but they’re “car books”, that get left in the car for when I’m waiting around somewhere and didn’t bring my tablet with me. If they get wilted from humidity, faded by the sun, or lost, no worries.

    1. To be honest, I’m one of the folks who are slow to convert to ebook-reading. I’ll get ebook versions if I feel the price+shipping (especially for Amazon shipping to Australia-bloody ‘wrong side of the world,fucker!’ tax-) kicks the book up beyond what I feel is the worth.I rather miss the used book shops in the Philippines;used books here feel expensive. The used book carts at the local hospital are about the only place where I’ve had the “Yay I found treasure!” feeling I had back with used book shops, but they have limited selections and they go pretty fast (and I don’t go there as much as I used to, thank gods.)

      To my dismay, Book Depository’s prices for books are going up, but I’m guessing that it has to do with publisher prices going up as well+ exchange rate. As much as I’d love to buy the Emma Manga hardcovers (By Kaoru Mori) I’m not sure if I’d buy them for the 40-60 AUD price tags that I’m seeing there. Even local bookstores tend to have very regular prices for books, but they range in the minimum of 13AUD+ for a new book;though I can hope to snaffle some in sales when they go onto the bargain table. IF they go there. (I got a hardcover cookbook for 3 AUD recently.)

      1. And I think that is the part that this article seems to miss… that the price of the book itself is not necessarily the primary barrier that must be passed. Shipping, shelf space and a myriad of other concerns also factor in.

  6. For some I think it will be, especially for readers who like authors that have an enormous backlist (Danielle Steel comes to mind) that is not available otherwise, and who are just starting to plow through that list. Why pay $$ for the latest when you have 50 that you can get for .0$? I do see used bookstores suffering. Indie writers? Probably not as much. I tend to price low, but I also tend to write short (70K-90K words).

  7. I like how they focus on the cost of the book – one penny – and not the cost of shpping, which is typically $3.99. THat’s not a one cent book, it’s a four dollar book, and the only advantage to buying them online is that I can quickly find what I’m looking for and have it delivered, rather than rummage thru shelves (or boxes) at the local used book or thrift store, where I would pay the same or less.

    I go the used book route for stuff that is out of print and hard to find, or for books I have to read but know I won’t enjoy (the stuff I have to read for work, as an example). I’m not paying $14.99 for a new or electronic copy of a book about teamwork when I can buy it real sheap from some thrift shop in Topeka. Anything else is an ebook, although I am starting to somehow collect dead tree versions of my favorite Baen and Mad Genius authors.

  8. Having never had a large reading budget outside of technical career tombs, I’ve always went to the library and the used bookstores before perusing the new book markets. Unless it is a rare must read, I’m not ordering physical books online, there’s no usable storage space left at the house. (A few disposable books at a garage sale or library sale is different. Read and recycle.)

    And I’m fond of ebooks for that primary reason, they take very little space on the various devices and are available immediately, anywhere. But my budget for them is limited too.

    As for new books that cost more than $5.00…. Why waste money? I read fiction for recreation. Not only are the “new books” competing for dollars with several other recreation activities and pastimes, they compete for time. I have cheap quality games in the queue that offer much more than a few hours of entertainment. The spouse has an enormous movie library, that I’ve barely scratched the surface of. I have 200 channels of poop on cable. I have the internet. A huge public library in walking distance. Two huge insanely awesome technical libraries online. A first class shooting range within walking distance. (15 dollars is a box of decent 9mm.) A large lake and wildlife preserve nearby. And a world class technical hobby that lets me talk to the world on equipment I build myself.

    So if I’m going to read your SF or F book, it’s going to have to be cheap, available, (ebook please!) and really, really entertaining. And hopefully the library doesn’t have it! And I’m not spending any money to Tor, GRRM, “Mr Assterix” or any of their ilk. Life’s too short to support SJWs and pedophiles. And no gray goop like “Ancillary Justice”. (I swear I wrote better crud in high school English for Bs.)

  9. I sold used books on Amazon from ’06-’12 (to fund my book-buying addiction) and the penny sellers aren’t anything new. Not sure how they make any money that way, but oh well. So, you pay a penny and then $3.99 shipping, and you get what you get – both in the quality of the book and how it is shipped to you. Or you pay $7.99 for a new paperback and order enough for free shipping, and you get a brand new book in a timely fashion that no one else has left smudges on or dogeared the pages of or kept in their basement for so long it smells funky.

    OR you order up an ebook – pay about the same as a penny book after shipping, receive it the same day you ordered, don’t have to worry about damage during shipping or odor or space issues. :shrug:

    So, no, I’m not worried about penny used books effecting ebook sales. I think ebook sales have weathered this just fine so far and will continue to do so.

  10. Speaking as one who has haunted usedbook stores all over the American prairie-west for almost 50 years now:

    If usedbook stores are suffering, it’s because they too have raised prices beyond demand.

    Used books used to go for a dime or a quarter. Prices gradually crept up to half of cover price, and stayed there for many years. But the price of new paperbacks was stable in the range of $2 to $4, so the price of used books was also stable. One or two bucks apiece stayed firmly within no-brainer-buy territory.

    Then the price of new paperbacks began creeping up, to eventually double or triple. Which, since the price of used paperbacks was tied to the price of new books, also doubled or tripled prices for used books. Demand predictably fell apace. Where I used to exit the store with a full bag of used books, now I leave with only one or two… as with overpriced ebooks, only the sure things make it into my cart. Even with used books, I don’t take flyers on unknown authors anymore; the potential disappointment is not worth the cost, especially when there are too many cheaper or even free alternatives.

    Meanwhile, the library booksale (10 cent paperbacks, buck for a hardback) sells books by the bale.

    1. Don’t forget trade credit. Women would go to used book stores with last month’s purchases, trade ’em in for a basket full of romance novels that they’d get for about a quarter off the cover price.

      1. Trade credit kept my fiction reading going during high school and university. And the few of us book readers helped the bottom line of the local comic book/book/game shop.

      2. Trade credit turned out to be the only way to sell those romance novels, which otherwise flood the store. (Had a discussion about this problem with more than one usedbook store owner.) Originally trade credit had no cash involved and was a straight 2 for 1 swap, but that soon went away as there was too much attrition and not enough cashflow.

    2. One of the problems that used bookstores have is overhead. They’re torn between keeping prices competitive with online retailers while making enough money off sales to keep the lights on.

      1. Yep, and overhead keeps going up. I know a number of usedbook sellers who gave up the storefront and went entirely to internet sales, because there simply wasn’t enough money in used books, even at premium prices, to make it with today’s urban retail costs. And most of the remaining storefronts now do much of their business online. Trawl through bookfinder4u.com (better search engine than abebooks.com) and you’ll see hundreds of such usedbook sellers.

  11. I can buy used books at the library for $.25. Or at St. Vincent de Paul. Or at the other library for free.

    That’s take what you can get, but if something catches my fancy, that’s where I’ll buy.

    I can get the library to buy (yes, buy, apparently it’s cheaper than ILL now!) any print book I want new for the price of filling out the request card. Five minutes of time, call it, and a wait that’s the same as shipping anyway.

    That’s the other competition for ebooks. I am one of the approximately ten readers left who favor print books, and I don’t buy used books off the internet. I want to see it, make sure it’ll hold up when it’s read. I buy new books, and most of them are gifts.

  12. My problem with books used to be a finite monetary budget. I would scour the used bookstores, library sales, anywhere I might find a decent book to read. And you find some treasures that way, books that are out of print and no longer on anyone’s list.

    Now, my budgetary limitations are time. I resent wasting any time on a book that is not going to make me happy. So even though I can afford to buy books even at the inflated prices, I refuse to pay those prices for something that turns out to be meh. I also don’t want to spend hours and hours searching for something I can finish reading in the same amount of time. (Ah, the curse of being a natural speed reader!)

    I prefer ebooks because I can load them on my phone and never, ever experience the horror of Having Nothing To Read. On very rare occasions I will buy a used paper book instead, just to have the story handy — In The Courts of the Crimson Kings was insanely expensive as an ebook, so I found a cheap paper version, used. But I wanted the *story* more than I cared about the format.

    I don’t see used books as competition. As a pusher, I want my customers to keep a lively addiction going, and I can’t write fast enough to keep them all to myself. More readers is better, and don’t want any of them “cured.”

  13. I don’t see used books as a competitor simply because of what’s right in the title: used.

    It’s not new. Sure, if someone came along and started going the uber-aggressive Gamestop route with book sales I’d probably change my tune, but at the moment, if you decide to buy a used book, you’re going to get a used book. If you’re comfortable waiting for a period of time for said book to become available and perhaps get that book in less-than-savory condition, then that’s cool. Or you’re buying when you have the money in your budget and you find the book at a price you’re willing to pay. Just yesterday I picked up a Tundra collection at a thrift store for $2 because that was a good deal. It’s also an older, battered book.

    Honestly, what the price of used books tells me is that perhaps I’ve missed out on a market. Maybe I should be following the path of game companies in selling their digital copies and lowering the price of my older books by about half after a few years in order to compete with used copies, or simply to make them more attractive to newcomers who haven’t read my work and aren’t convinced to spend $5.99 at launch.

    What it really comes down to is finding that sweet, sweet equilibrium point between “I as an author get paid and make what I feel I deserve for my work” and “You as the reader feel that your money was well spent on my book.” If someone is only willing to buy my books at half-price or used because my value in their eyes is not high enough, I need to ask first if that selection of readers is large enough to adjust the pricing of my books in general, but if it is not then if there is a way I can later compete with that used market after the fact and add a little extra business.

    So no, I don’t see used sales as a competition. I see it as a possible route to extra sales later down the road, but those who are buying on a budget are secondary to the readers who are dedicated and will buy my book at full price (note that this doesn’t mean I believe in gouging them. Providing a fair price is still vital, but there will always be a small subset who want what anyone offers for less).

    1. Authors probably liked me before I got married and bought a house. A lot more income and time to spend at the bookstores and going to cons. I also didn’t participate in community service as much. So I’ve gone from a hard core fiction reader, (4 or more genre books a week), to someone who feels almost guilty for spending anytime reading the “penny dreadfuls”, (maybe 1 or 2 genre books a month).

      Short of getting an financial windfall, my genre reading will have to be limited. I’ll probably get some Amazon gift cards during the holidays and can spend some of that on ebooks, will be looking for quality suggestions.

      1. Well, that’s why it’s all the more important (in my eyes, anyway) that an author deliver the absolute best they can for a reader’s money. A reader who buys a book and says “Well, it was okay” doesn’t feel as if they’ve wasted their money … but also doesn’t feel invested in what else the author is offering. A reader who loves the book but feels that it was too much money for even such a good story is probably going to feel the same way.

        But a book that’s presented at a good price that makes the buyer feel good and delivers a satisfying, enjoyed story? That’s the author that the readers are going to keep going to. Cost matters as much as substance.

        Basically, what I’m saying is that your type of reading—a book here and there—is the kind of reader that I want to satisfy, more than one with a lot of money to burn. A reader with a lot of money is still money for me, sure, but a reader who buys one novel a week or a month and makes mine one of them? That’s a dedicated, satisfied reader I need to keep if possible, and ten of those matter far more than one reader with expendable income.

  14. As a reader my preferred format for reading has become eBooks. As such, I usually only pick up used books for stuff that is either unavailable as an eBook or is overpriced ($12 or more for a 20 or 30 year old book? No thank you, it’s not _that_ good.)

    For newer stuff that’s priced half that, I don’t think it’s going to be huge problem, but that’s just my opinion.

  15. Only to extent that any other dollar spent on any other leisure item ‘competes’ with me.

  16. I’m not terribly worried until I see how this affects things in the long run. I don’t necessarily see ebooks and used books as being different markets, because I’ll do ebooks and cheaper ones I find in paper, but I don’t think a ton of people do ebooks just because they’re cheaper, they do it because they’re convenient. You can get it right then and there, and start reading right away, within about a minute of deciding to go book shopping.

    As for the older books getting the reader’s money over the newer books, again I’m not too worried since I do see those as different markets. The old speculative fiction is sooooo different from most of the stuff I see in my genre (urban fantasy) that I don’t see it as competition for my readers. Older stuff in the genre are from the authors that got it going and are still around and are big names so they were going to get the reader’s money first and be the big competition anyway.

  17. Having read the comments before writing this response, I can see that used books probably won’t compete realistically with e-books. Particularly the indie SF and Fantasy.

    If its a recent used book, are you really in the market for SJ saturated fiction? Or do you want a good story?

    I do buy used books, but it’s usually old, dead authors that are out of print. Donald Hamilton, for instance, wrote several I haven’t read. And I lost a good portion of my collection to a “shop flood”. A few inches of water isn’t the ideal treatment to paperback books stored in cardboard boxes.

    1. There are still a few of Hamilton’s early books I haven’t found. I could probably click them up on Amazon now, but half of the fun is the search.

      Somewhere in a dusty corner of my hard drive, keeping the spiders and data mites company, is an unfinished screen adaptation of “Death of a Citizen.”

      1. I was first introduced to Hamilton with “Line of Fire” as a young teenager. His pacing was captivating, and this was a good precurser to the Matt Helm series.

        His westerns are usually in third person, but the same message is there, and for me it resonates.

  18. I’m a reader, not a writer but I’ve added a new Amazon wishlist, books I put on it are ones Amazon has flagged “Price set by publisher” and anything from TOR. I’m not going to buy and support folks with attitudes like theirs and If I have to wait a while for a used paperback to come out I’ll wait. I’d rather have a new e-book but not enough to hand these publishers my money.

  19. As I get older I find it’s not as easy to read paper books due to the eyes not adjusting as fast, so I’m buying ebooks where I can adjust the font when needed. I get a lot of books from Amazon, but my first stop is always the Baen Monthly Webscription then the rest of the authors catalog from there.

  20. The trick to penny eBooks is that they are a tax dodge. The profit is in the shipping and handling charges, that are not subject to sales tax.

    That said, the smart used bookstore should take advantage and become an Amazon partner and list their inventory (especially their excess and unwanted inventory) on Amazon to get it in front of a broader market.

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