Larry Portzline, creator of the bookstore tourism meme, has been blogging from Book Expo America in New York. He recently covered a BEA panel called "Toward Quantifying the Used Book Conundrum." There were panelists from Alibris and Powell's on the used-books-aren't-evil side, and the Author's Guild and InkWell Management disagreeing
Larry's writeup of the panel is worth reading, and includes many interesting points made during the discussion.
The words "Used Book Conundrum" remind me of historical terms like the "Chinese Question" or the "Jewish Question," in the way that the concept is defined as being inherently problematic, so as to confirm the interests and prejudices of relatively powerful or entrenched interests.
American college students, for example, face a very different kind of Used Book Conundrum, a two-part problem caused by the publishing industry. Many textbook publishers update editions very frequently; this is, in part, a way to drive new textbook sales by subverting the potential aftermarket. This is problematic. But it's made much worse by the fact that new textbook prices are also soaring, causing universities, governments, and advocacy groups around the country to take notice.
If there were only the frequent edition changes (without the high prices), most students would be able to buy new copies whenever they came out. If there were only the high prices, but infrequent edition changes, students would be able to justify buying expensive new books, knowing they could sell them in the aftermarket. But when students have both factors working against them, many can't afford to buy new books, and have no aftermarket to turn to for current-edition titles, leading some to either avoid buying books, or to break the law by photocopying texts. This is an absurd situation, caused in part by industry-wide dislike of a potential market for used goods.
The textbook publishing industry's active two-pronged subversion of the market for used copies of their books is as valid a Used Book Conundrum as the one being discussed at BEA.
The publishing industry and groups like the Authors Guild have done a very good job of framing the buying and selling of used books as illegitimate or vaguely immoral, treating it in the same way that the movie and recording industries do peer-to-peer file sharing technologies. Those of us who engage with the used book world (buying used books, selling our old ones, or working in the bookselling industry) have nothing to be ashamed of. Books have been shared, given away, sold, and resold for centuries.
The right to trade goods that one owns is deeply ingrained in virtually all cultures around the world. Your contractor can't stop you from reselling your home. Ford can't stop you from reselling your car. Apple can't stop you from reselling your computer. And the Authors Guild can't stop you from reselling your books.
At BookFinder.com, we focus on helping our users find and buy new and used books. Both are equally important to us. As individual readers, members of the BookFinder.com team enjoy buying new and used books, offline and online; we also make use of city and university library systems. I believe we're broadly representative of our users, in that we bring books into our lives in many ways. I wish that the parties wringing their hands over their so-called "Used Book Conundrum" would work harder to increase the number of readers, rather than opting to slam their customers for choosing to buy or sell used books, in addition to buying new ones.
[Now Reading: American Sucker by David Denby]
Posted by Anirvan