My recent post on how Publishing Industry Gloom is Readers’ Gain discussed the pervasive fear of used books. But now I’ve found an article from a decade ago concerning and predicting its rise, in Philip Greenspun’s hilarious (and depressing) piece about his experience writing a tech book. Towards the bottom, he included this:
Looking at the way my book was marketed made me realize that amazon.com is going to rule the world. A traditional bookstore is useful as an entertainment venue. You can arrange to meet someone there. You can kill 20 minutes browsing. But if you’re picky about what you want, the chance of them having the book is pretty small. They carry books that are being heavily hyped and books that were popular and relevant six months ago. Traditional bookstores can’t respond quickly to customer demand for new or newly popular titles. In dozens of cases, friends of mine would go into a store to ask after Database Backed Web Sites. Usually the book had not been ordered and the store had no intention of stocking the title. The front desk clerks had no mechanism to provide feedback to the buyers. If a person did not plunk down his credit card and special order the book, no record would exist of the inquiry.
Although I couldn’t find a date of original publication on his site, it appears to have been sometime around 1997. Talk about prescience. Not long ago I desperately wanted a copy of Chaim Potok’s The Gift of Asher Lev—which was a mistake—so I could start it immediately after finishing My Name is Asher Lev. None of the Bookman’s stores in Tucson had it. Antigone (of course) didn’t have it, but that didn’t stop me from calling. Eventually I found two stores, both inconveniently located, that did: a Barnes & Noble and a Borders. The Barnes & Noble didn’t actually have it, though their computer said they did. The Borders did have it for about $15. If I’d just started driving to bookstores, I would’ve been irate by the journey’s end. For the privilege, I paid a little more than $15.00. Amazon charges $10.20 as of this writing. A used copy costs $8.08 with shipping. Don’t get me started on the dearth New York Review of Books Press or Library of America titles, which are two of my favorite imprints.
This is why Amazon is growing in power.
In Seattle, I would go to Elliott Bay and the University Bookstore to hear authors. In Tucson, I lack even that reason.
Still, it appears that used books might not be substitutes for most Amazon buyers, according to Internet Exchanges for Used Books: An Empirical Analysis of Product Cannibalization and Welfare Impact, which says
Our analysis suggests that used books are poor substitutes for new books for most of Amazon’s customers. The cross-price elasticity of new book demand with respect to used book prices is only 0.088. As a result only 16% of used book sales at Amazon cannibalize new book purchases. The remaining 84% of used book sales apparently would not have occurred at Amazon’s new book prices. Further, our estimates suggest that this increase in book readership from Amazon’s used book marketplace increases consumer surplus by approximately $67.21 million annually.
Then again, it was also written in 2005, and I wouldn’t be surprised if reader behavior changes quickly.