Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls

In this interesting article from the New York Times, David Streitfeld writes about the growing practice of bypassing bookstores (and publishers' and authors' royalty cuts) to buy nearly-new books online:
Book publishers and booksellers are full of foreboding — even more than usual for an industry that’s been anticipating its demise since the advent of television. The holiday season that just ended is likely to have been one of the worst in decades. Publishers have been cutting back and laying off. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced that it wouldn’t be acquiring any new manuscripts, a move akin to a butcher shop proclaiming it had stopped ordering fresh meat.

Bookstores, both new and secondhand, are faltering as well. Olsson’s, the leading independent chain in Washington, went bankrupt and shut down in September. Robin’s, which says it is the oldest bookstore in Philadelphia, will close next month. The once-mighty Borders chain is on the rocks. Powell’s, the huge store in Portland, Ore., said sales were so weak it was encouraging its staff to take unpaid sabbaticals.

Don’t blame this carnage on the recession or any of the usual suspects, including increased competition for the reader’s time or diminished attention spans. What’s undermining the book industry is not the absence of casual readers but the changing habits of devoted readers.

In other words, it’s all the fault of people like myself, who increasingly use the Internet both to buy books and later, after their value to us is gone, sell them. This is not about Amazon peddling new books at discounted prices, which has been a factor in the book business for a decade, but about the rise of a worldwide network of amateurs who sell books from their homes or, if they’re lazy like me, in partnership with an Internet dealer who does all the work for a chunk of the proceeds.

They get their books from friends, yard sales, recycling centers, their own shelves. castoffs (I just bought a book from a guy whose online handle was Clif Is Emptying His Closet). Some list them for as little as a penny, although most aim for at least a buck. This growing market is achieving an aggregate mass that is starting to prove problematic for publishers, new bookstores and secondhand bookstores. [...]

Andy Ross, the former owner of Cody’s, told me that buying books online “was not morally dubious, but it is tragic. It has a lot of unintended consequences for communities.”

Mr. Ross said he realized that Cody’s was doomed when he noticed that in the last year he hadn’t sold a single copy of that old-reliable for undergraduates, Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason.” Students presumably were buying it online. Sales of classics and other backlist titles used to be the financial engine of publishers and bookstores as well, allowing them to take chances on new authors. Clearly that model is breaking. Simon & Schuster, which laid off staffers this month, cited backlist sales as a particularly troubled area.

To a certain extent, people have always been able to sell used books, and not necessarily at established secondhand bookstores. The thrifty book-shopper could scour garage sales, flea markets, thrift stores, and even antique stores to find used copies of classic novels, obscure works of nonfiction, and even some popular titles jumbled amid the dust and clutter.

The Internet has added a new efficiency to the whole process, though. Books long out of print that local bookstores would lock in glass cases and sell at a premium can often be located for only a few dollars; secondhand bookstores have to compete with people clearing out Aunt Lucy's overstuffed attic who really don't care how hard to find a particular set of mystery novels can be, but just want to get rid of them with the least amount of fuss and bother.

Some see this process as one which will eventually undermine the book selling industry, the way that music downloads threatened the music industry. But just as the music industry found a way to make a reasonable profit from downloads, so, too, will book publishers and book sellers be able at some point to make the new selling mechanisms work for them.

But it will come at a cost--and some of that cost is going to be a huge reduction, I think, in the price of books.

It seems reasonable to pay $0.99 for a downloaded song, and to pay as much for an "album" as you are paying for each song you want to include on it. Music sellers have had to compensate by lowering the price of CD albums here and there to try to tempt music buyers into buying the whole album, whether they are downloading it or purchasing it at a store. But I recall that just before the download revolution, music was sometimes getting to be ridiculously expensive; the retail markup on a CD could work out to be a lot more than a dollar or so per song.

And the music industry tried to claim that this was the only possible way things could work, that no other model which lowered the price of music would allow the industry to continue to function. But once it became clear that the demand for less expensive music was going to continue, the industry began to adapt.

I think the same will happen to the book industry, which only a few years ago was smugly predicting that today's $30.00 price tag for a hard-cover copy of a new bestseller would be $40.00 before five years had passed. Clearly, publishers weren't counting on the effect of second- and third-party sellers who only wanted to clear a little space on their living room shelves, and who didn't mind reselling the thirty dollar book they'd purchased on sale for $19 to a buyer who was only willing to spend $8, plus shipping, three years later.

In all likelihood, the publishing industry will have to tighten its belt; everyone associate with book publishing, from the author onward, will have to accept lower profits; there will be a push to make e-books a bigger phenomenon than they are now, and to figure out a way for the publishing industry to capitalize on the Internet's secondary sales capacity. But even someone like me, who hopes to publish a book one of these days, can recognize that it's about time book prices returned to the realm of sanity.

For example, the article mentions Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Why should a student, or anyone else for that matter, pay $30.00 or more (prices from online bookstores) for a new copy, when copies are available for little more than a dollar--and that's ignoring the fact that the book is also available at Project Gutenberg and can be read online for free?

I don't think the publishing industry is going to disappear. But it is going to have to change--something it has done many times over in the days since the heyday of the "dime novel" or "penny dreadful".


Deirdre Mundy said...

A lot of the people I know who do the "Books for .01 + shipping" thing are young professionals who work hours that make libraries impractical. So they buy it cheap, read it once, then donate it to Goodwill.

I also have friends who make a good amount of extra cash by selling books online. We tried, but the hassle of packaging and posting wasn't worth it at this point in our lives.....

Still new books ARE cheaper if you're ordering several at a time. (Because the Amazon used charge a shipping fee per book, not on the whole package)

I don't think this trend will turn out to be nearly as significant as predicted. Though maybe, when the kids are older, I'll start selling things online again.

Lisa said...

I think you're right; the industry is going to have to adapt. There are too many of us out here who love a meandering hunt through a real live bookstore, most definitely, for the whole species to disappear. Remember a few years ago when online books came out and some people were doom-and-glooming about the end of books as we know them? Thanks be to God, I'm sure that'll never happen. But, if changing times means we'll get to pay less for new books, I'm for it.

&:o) Doesn't this whole discussion remind you of "You've Got Mail?"

Jeff Miller said...

Good post and I agree with the points you made. The industry has been changing over the years and I have seen more and more used book stores go out of business. At least there are still a good number of regular book stores, but most are the Barnes & Nobles or Books a Million type.

The internet has certainly been part of it, but if this is to believed there are also less people reading books overall.

Amazon has become a major source of books for me since I can get the title I want easily, the prices are good, and shipping is usually free.

The prices of new hardcover books always deterred me forcing me to usually wait for the paperback. Though on Amazon the pricing is good enough that I will consider buying a new hardcover if I want the book now.

Electronic publishing of books is still in it's infancy. Though I think Amazon will make an impact here with the Kindle. More important than the reading device is the Catalog and they certainly have the catalog and the convenience of downloading books anywhere via EVDO without charging for the internet access. I am waiting for the 2nd generation Kindle myself since I don't mind reading books electronically at all. I have read several books via my iPod Touch which has a very good screen and free software like Stanza gives you access to Project Gutenberg.

The pricing of electronic books is also attractive and it reduces costs because of paper/packaging and distribution. You never have to worry about an ebook not being in stock and delivery is immediate. Though with ebooks you really can't resell them because of Digital Rights Management, but at least they don't make my poor bookshelves sage even more.

Melanie B said...

And the article doesn't even mention the phenomenon of online book swap sites where people barter for used books. I belong to Book Mooch and give away my unwanted books. For every book I send to a new home, I get a point, for every point I can get a book from another member. All anyone pays is shipping. It's a much better deal for me than selling my books (though I have sold some of my more valuable hardcover textbooks) because I am guaranteed to get a book back for every book I send off.

Sometimes I feel a twinge about the author's not getting the money for the book. But realistically my budget is such that if I don't get the book for free I will either check it out from the library or do without. I just don't have money for buying new books except once or twice a year to splurge for a birthday or Christmas.

Charlotte said...

I have been selling books and CD's on Half.com (an Ebay company) for over 5 years now. Recently, I also started selling some books on Amazon, given that in a few categories, Amazon fetches a better price. For the most part, I have made excellent money doing so, although you need the experience of knowing how to price things to sell, rather than price things to just sit. If I can't get more than $2 for an item, I don't list it.

Similarily, I NEVER buy a book brand new unless I can't find it "new" on Half.com or in Amazon's Marketplace. In fact, I almost always find books I am looking for in New or Like New condition on these sites. Knowing that, I feel that people who pay full price (whether in bookstore or direct from Amazon) are missing the boat.

I just got my son a BRAND NEW Baby Einstein DVD on Amazon for $2 plus shipping. You can't do that very many places!