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Why Indies Are Selling Used Books

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Listening to PMA members’
complaints and fears about used-book sales, we decided to do a little investigating.
And knowing that a study now in the works will be based on sales figures from
the likes of Amazon, eBay, and B&N, as well as from traditional used-book
retailers, we decided to concentrate on brick-and-mortar independents (see
“Coming Soon” below for more on the comprehensive used-books study).

 

The primary findings that emerged
from interviews with a variety of indies are:

 

·      Sales of used books in independent
bookstores are part of a bigger phenomenon.

·      Booksellers see sales of used
books as a positive development for publishers as well as for themselves.

 

Margins Matter

 

Most booksellers and independent
observers believe that indies’ sales of used books are up, although we have no
hard numbers from the American Booksellers Association. But several booksellers
stress the point that adding used books isn’t an isolated trend. It’s part of
the campaign by booksellers to find ways to expand their offerings and broaden
their customer appeal.

 

In other words, used books equate
to just one more tool for building a profitable business. “Book publishers need
to look around and see what is happening,” says Neal Coonerty, owner of
Bookshop Santa Cruz in California. “Barnes & Noble is publishing its own
books. Amazon is selling used. The average independent [bookstore] lost money
last year, according to the ABA, and they have to address that.”

 

The biggest impetus booksellers
cite for selling used books is the need to increase margins and profits. “The
reason that we are right now adding more used titles and giving them a more
prominent display is the improved margins on used books,” says Coonerty. He
adds that at the same time that the margins are improving on used books, the
opposite is happening with new titles. “New books are becoming more difficult
to make a profit off of,” he says. “Therefore, we’re looking to expand used
books, maybe add sidelines, something else, anything with better margins.”

 

Bob Sommer, co-owner of Changing
Hands in Tempe, Arizona, sums it up this way: “Why are we selling used books?
It helps our margins. It gives our customers wider selection.”

 

“It’s content that’s king, not the
medium,” says Miriam Sontz, chief executive officer of Powell’s, which operates
seven locations in greater Portland as well as an online store. “We’re trying
to provide the widest spectrum.”

 

Changing the
Used–New Mix

 

The day <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>PMA Independent

called to interview Neal Coonerty, he and his staff at Bookshop Santa Cruz were
in the middle of moving the store’s used books to a more prominent spot on the
shop floor. And right after they finished beefing up its used-books display,
Coonerty was off to an ABA seminar on how to increase margins. “The reality is
that new books, with a few exceptions, are tending to be loss leaders. There’s
not much that bookstores can do to change that,” Coonerty says. The solution
then is to look for other ways to expand sales, and that includes used books.

 

Bookshop Santa Cruz has gone
through several spurts of selling used titles. It began selling them shortly
after it opened 28 years ago, concentrating on textbooks for college students.
When a Super Crown store opened up across the street, the indie expanded its
used offerings as a way to differentiate itself. The Crown store has since gone
out of business, but a nearby Borders has kept the pressure up.

 

Powell’s Books actually started as
a used-book store back in 1971 and then branched into new-book sales, becoming
one of the world’s largest independent booksellers. “There’s a heightened
consciousness about used books because of Amazon, but it’s not new,” says
Powell’s Sontz.

 

Sontz also observes that all used
books are not created equal, noting that some, such as those focused on travel
or cooking, don’t age well. “They get out of date fast,” she says. By contrast,
many book buyers don’t care whether a classic title such as <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Jane Eyre
or <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>To Kill a Mockingbird
is new or used.

 

Another major bookseller points
out that carrying used books may not make sense for a particular store. Dickens
Books Ltd., the parent company of Harry W. Schwartz, doesn’t sell used books in
all of its four (soon to be five) stores in and around Milwaukee. In fact, Mary
McCarthy, the chief operating officer, reports that only about half of Harry W.
Schwartz bookstores sell used titles. “It’s a little bit a function of space,”
says McCarthy, who adds that more important factors are how “urban” a
bookstore’s neighborhood is and whether a college and budget-conscious students
are nearby.

 

The Benefits of a Better Bottom Line

 

Asked to respond to publishers’
complaints that used-book sales cut into the sales of new titles, Sontz says,
“Are public libraries cutting into publishers’ sales?” She and other booksellers
argue that used books draw more traffic to the stores, which can increase sales
of both new and used titles. In addition, booksellers point out, sales of used
books help ensure that independent publishers will have outlets in which to
sell their titles, since they help keep independent bookstores economically
viable.

 

Sontz and others note that selling
a used book is the only option for titles that are out of print, and that
people who buy used books may decide later on that they want a new copy of a
cherished used title.

 

“I believe that used books get
people coming into your shop and that they buy more of everything,” notes Harry
W. Schwartz’s McCarthy. “It’s healthy for our bottom line, and it allows us to
buy more new books.”

 

 

 

Coming Soon: A
Comprehensive Study of Used-Book Sales

 

With support from PMA and
other industry organizations, the Book Industry Study Group has arranged to
collect and analyze data on sales of used books from all major participants in
each used-book sales channel—including Amazon, eBay, Alibris, Abe Books,
the American Booksellers Association, and Barnes and Noble.

 

The BISG study will cover
yearly sales trends and consumer attitudes toward used books, among other
quantitative and qualitative aspects of the used-book market. We’ll report on
its findings when the study is published this fall.

 

 

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