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Second-hand books boom

12 July 2004

A recent article in Publishing Trends, the newsletter of US consultants Market Partners International, has reopened the debate about the effect of used book sales on new books. Second-hand books have always possessed a resale value and been a way that people with less money can feed their reading habit. But in the past these sales have largely escaped notice and been effectively unquantifiable.

Amazon has changed all that, with its listing of used books right alongside the new versions. If a book’s out of print, the used version may be the only one available. Some of the prices are so low that it’s difficult to see how Amazon makes money out of these transactions, at least until one remembers the sheer volume of Amazon sales. The listings present a good opportunity to sell even a low-value item such as a used book, especially if it’s the only version available. There’s also the income from delivery to take into account. Amazon has done its sums carefully and it’s all incremental income, since the online bookseller is listing the book anyway.

But does all this damage new book sales? And how are authors affected since they get no income from used book sales? The outlook is not good. In certain areas, such as student books, the rapid growth of the second-hand market is beginning to have a major impact on sales of new books.

Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners, says that: ‘Used books are to consumer books as Napster was to the music industry.’ The comparison is chilling.

Ipsos Booktrends said that 15% of all books for adults and teenagers that were purchased in the US from April to December 2003 were used. The percentage of used books may already be much higher than that in countries where book buyers have less disposable income and there is no stigma attached to buying second-hand. Internationally, the web has facilitated these sales and will provide the means by which they continue to accelerate – which they undoubtedly will.