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On Used-Book Sales

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Dubious Definitions & an Argument for Residuals
by Cynthia Brian

An interesting thing happened on my way to becoming a PMA member!

During the past year, the Authors Guild sent out notices advising members not to list their books on Amazon.com or to link to the Amazon site because of Jeff Bezos’s practice of selling “new-used books” at half the retail price. Sometimes angry authors would write to the Guild’s newsletter editor and complain that Amazon seemed to be selling consumers “review” copies of books (at deep discounts) that weren’t even in the stores yet. This was very troubling news.

With rapid resolve, I typed in the URLs for my two books (published by HCI and Ten Speed Press) and found that several copies were listed as “brand new, never been read.” These “used-new” books were cheaper than my author price from the publishers. My alarm signals surged, but what could I do about it?

My Test Case

This year, I decided to become a bona fide publisher with my 13th edition of my comprehensive career guide for actors and models, The Business of Show Business. For the past several years, I had published this manual with a spiral binding for the San Francisco acting community, printing the copies as needed.  It sold more than 25,000 copies by word of mouth. Since I was now getting orders through my Web site from around the U.S. and sometimes from foreign countries, I realized that the time had come to format the book for aspiring thespians and poCAgMial models nationwide.

I spent the next four months writing–not even thinking about potential publisher partnerships. By the time I was finished with my manuscript, it was obvious that this material needed to be published NOW, before the entertainment industry changed again. I did not have time for submissions to other publishing houses.

I was smart enough to join PMA at this point and I also decided to test the validity of the Authors Guild statement about Amazon before beginning my promotional campaign for my new edition.

The books arrived from the printer three hours before I had to leave on a speaking tour, allowing me enough time to send out one review copy–to Amazon.com!

When I returned from my trip 10 days later, a letter of approval from Amazon was in my mailbox, requesting two copies to offer for sale. After slipping two copies into an envelope, I again went off on a speaking tour. The next time I logged in to my book’s site at Amazon.com, the headings read: “Two books available at $19.95, and one USED book available for $8 in ‘brand new, never been read’ condition.”


Amazon Isn’t Alone

Of course I immediately contacted Amazon and asked where this third “brand new, never been read” book had come from. I told them that it was unethical to sell a review copy and clearly stated that only three copies of my book were available on the open market–two for sale and one for review. Amazon, I told them, possessed all three. Amazon’s prompt response was: “As stated previously, we do not sell copies of items sent to us for cover art or review. The item you are referring to on your item’s detail page is an item that is listed by a seller using the Amazon Marketplace. We do value our authors and publishers, and would not compromise a relationship with them by selling the review or cover art copies sent to us. We consider this matter resolved, and will be unable to respond to any further inquiries concerning this issue.”

That was a worthwhile lesson for me, and it’s a lesson for all of us. Review copies are being sold and Amazon is not the only culprit.

Subsequently, I signed with wholesalers and distributors and shipped more review copies, again keeping careful records of each and every copy sent. Even more “brand new, never been read” copies were advertised on Amazon with links to online stores I’ve never heard of, all offering immediate delivery–and this was before my publishing company had even begun to take orders, let alone ship copies to fill them.

I am confused. A part of me is delighted that consumers will buy and utilize the information in my book. Another part of me is angry because as a publisher and an author I will never see revenue on these sales. I’d rather have review copies donated to charities that encourage literacy–including but certainly not limited to mine, which is called Be the Star You Are! and which collects books (including returns, overruns, and outdated copies as well as used books) and donates them to groups in need of hope and inspiration. (For more information, visit http://www.bethestaryouare.org or call 877/944-STAR.)

Important Agenda Items

As a 26-year veteran of SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), I have always received residuals for all my work as an actor–be it in commercials, films, or television. It seems reasonable to expect a return on my writing and publishing endeavors too. Perhaps PMA, the Authors Guild, and other writers’ associations could utilize the lessons learned from SAG, AFTRA, or The Writers Guild to help organize a royalty fee payment for used books, including review copies.

John Elray recommended some solutions to the used book problem in the August issue of the PMA Newsletter. I think we need to address the fundamentals of the copyright law and amend the “first sale doctrine” (Section 109 of the Copyright Act, 17 U.S. C. 109), which is outdated and detrimental to our profession as a whole.

Cynthia Brian, President of Starstyle® Productions, LLC, is a media coach and acting consultant, a host of radio and TV shows, and the author of the syndicated column “Business Bytes” and the books “Be the Star You Are! 99 Gifts for Living, Loving, Laughing, and Learning to Make a Difference” and “The Business of Show Business.” She can be reached at P.O. Box 422, Moraga, California 94556, 925/377-STAR, cynthia@star-style.com. Web sites: http://www.starstyleproductions.com and http://www.bethestaryouare.org.

Rx for What Ails Us: Drink the poison; it will make you stronger

by , George DeTellis Jr.

Earlier this year, one of my fellow graduate students started bragging that he’d sold our accounting textbooks on Amazon for fifty bucks. Cash is king and that evening I listed about 40 of my used books for sale on Amazon. When I woke up in the morning, I had sold four! I was hooked. Immediately I started going through my library and offices looking for books to sell. Since then I have sold close to $2,000 worth of used books on Amazon.


What’s Happening Here

Social changes that I have observed include:

  • The college bookstore has lost its monopoly. Instead of purchasing textbooks there, I purchase them used on Amazon. Textbook publishers have to compete with every student who has a used textbook to sell. The more copies of a title in circulation the lower the demand for new copies.
  • It’s a global market. About 5% of the books I sold were to buyers in Europe, South America, and Australia.
  • If your book is poorly written or unworthy of keeping for the long term, the used book market will be flooded with sellers looking to dump it for cash. I buy about 100 books a year for my personal reading. But now I immediately re-sell the ones I don’t want to keep. I encourage you to search Amazon and see what some titles are selling for used, and then to think about the prospects for selling a copy at retail if the same title is available used for $2. Although the threat seems especially strong for fiction, I see the retail shelf life for books getting shorter in several categories.

Here’s a real-time example of used-book cannibalization of retail sales. At The Manger–publication date, October 2001–is retailing at Amazon for $16.95. But there are 15 used copies for sale, at prices that start at $8.95.

  • Publishers seem to be coming around to the idea of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” I notice that many are now selling their returns and damaged new books on Amazon.


You Can Do It Too

My recommendation for all PMA members is to do just that. At the very least, this will be a learning experience about a new phenomenon on the Internet.

According to The New York Times, Amazon was generating 15% of their revenue from used book sales in the spring. Recently I’ve heard that this percentage is increasing. Why not get a piece of the action?


George DeTellis has a B.A. in marketing and a master’s in business administration. In the process of running a mission in Haiti, he has published a monthly newsletter for the past 20 years, along with four books. He got the vision for his next book–to be released this year along with a theatrical play–when he attended PMA University in Chicago in 2001.


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