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Forty Thousand and Growing! A Used-Book Store Symbolizes a Problem for Publishers

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As I was driving two members of the PMA board of directors to the airport today, we passed a sign relating to one of the items we had been discussing at the meeting we had just finished–used-book sales. The sign said, “Don’t let our size fool you, we have 40,000 Used Books for sale inside this store.”

“Yikes!” was our reaction. This same topic was also discussed at the 2004 AAP annual meeting in Washington, DC, so it’s clear that it’s not just a matter of concern for smaller and independent publishers. It’s a matter of concern for the whole industry.

But what can be done? We all know that when a used book gets sold, we, as publishers, do not see revenue, and our authors do not see revenue. So who does get paid when our used books sell? The previous purchaser, of course, who is now reselling this product, and the bookseller who is acting as an intermediary between buyer and seller. Both get to share additional revenue from our products.

Resale of products occurs in other industries too, as we all know. You can resell clothing, for example, at Goodwill, Salvation Army, or other second-hand stores. Many stores of this sort, however, have the clothing donated to them and regularly use it to help needy people. This is not the pattern with books.

Effects on Prices and Profits

Many members have been calling lately to complain about the fact that a title of theirs is for sale at Amazon.com and other online bookstores as “used” before the title is actually out and available to the public. Where do these copies come from? Some come from review media; some come from prepub promo campaigns; some seem to mysteriously appear out of nowhere.

While this is a small annoyance today, it could easily escalate to infringe significantly on profits in the future. During our latest board meeting, one of our publisher board members posed a good question about this issue. Who, he asked, is the player within the traditional distribution chain who’s actually making a profit when a book sells? When you look at the percentages publishers pay retailers and wholesalers in relation to the cover price of a book, you can see how little the publisher earns on books that sell through to consumers, even if you don’t factor in the costs of copies that come back.

In today’s world, we keep on getting messages from many retailers that they’d like to see our cover prices decrease. So would we. We’d all like to make our books available to people in a wider range of incomes. I once suggested that the retailer might consider taking a smaller percentage (34 percent rather than 40 to 45 percent). That would certainly make it possible for us to lower cover prices. But I don’t think it will happen in the foreseeable future.

One entrepreneur in PMA (or maybe more than one) has decided to work within the current system by listing his “hurt or bent-cornered” books with an online retailer and actually selling against himself . . . in a win-win situation. These books won’t sell anywhere else, and he’s overjoyed that he’s getting more than half the cover price for returns he would have previously dumped.

But I think now is the time to begin planning other ways to deal with an increasing supply of accessible used books–not later, which might be too late.

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