There seems to be a debate about buying used books instead of new books in order to better support writers. Which side of the debate do you fall on? I’m planted on the side of buying used books, but that doesn’t mean I avoid buying new books. In fact, I read new books at a greater rate than I read used books. I follow authors that I enjoy reading, and do so for both technical and recreational purposes. Thus I often either purchase their new books when they come out, or read them on Kindle Unlimited. I read nightly, and go through books that entertain me at a rate that puts me in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited list of top 25% of readers. (Yes, I’m sort of proud of that.) So, what is the debate about?
I was introduced to, “PAY THE WRITER—Pirates, Used Bookstores & Why Writers Need to Stand Up for What’s Right,” when I came across a link to Kristen Lamb’s Blog. As I understand her main point, all of us readers out there should buy new books from brick and mortar or online stores because writers only get paid when a new book is sold, although some writers may get paid for library books being checked out (much less likely, however). While her statement is true to the letter of the law, there are several nuances to it as well. I and hopefully you, are keeping in mind that Lamb is replying with gusto mostly to the social media comments of others related to the article about which everyone was chatting; “In the age of Amazon, used bookstores are making an unlikely comeback,” by Michael S. Rosenwald of the Washington Post.
First, many authors do work full-time in a writing career, and while they may not receive the same amount of money as engineers or even trades people, they are getting to do what they love, to write. Is it the kind of writing (fiction) that they want to do? Often not. It is usually technical non-fiction, or magazine and newspaper writing. But, they are getting paid whether or not readers run to a brick and mortar store to buy what they have written.
Second, when a reader buys an author’s new book, with the exception of those of the major writers (J.K Rowling, James Patterson, Michelle Obama, and so on), they are paying the vast majority of the cost of that purchase to the publishing house and bookstore; the author’s percentage of the sale is usually minimal. In my case, I wrote technical books for third-party sale through book stores, and was paid an advance for doing so. Advances were to be paid back from any royalties I had earned, before I would actually be paid any amount of money on a royalty check. Once I had proven that I was a qualified, dependable, and technically knowledgeable author, my royalty advances increased. The publishing house received 98% of the wholesale income, and on almost all of the technical books that I wrote, the royalties I earned were never sufficient to cover the advance, even after 30 years, so I never saw any of that royalty money. However, the publishing house received money not only for the sales on the first printing, but for any translations of the book they made and sold in other countries, with my royalty being significantly reduced to, in some cases, as little as one cent per book. Thus, I would venture that whether a reader buys a new book or a used one, the impact for the writer is hardly noticeable to them, with one exception that I will point out later.
Third, as of 2022, there are over 54,000 writers in the United States alone (Statistica.com). We readers cannot buy enough books to support all of those writers. I recognize that Ms. Lamb wasn’t really suggesting that, but is that philosophy much different from football fans being asked to buy a season ticket for a football team because we need to support new players on the team?
The reality of the publishing business for writers is that, while it may be lucrative, it only rarely is lucrative for the author. There’s only one exception that I know of, and that is for the author to also be the publisher, the marketer, the face of the brand, and pretty much do everything else it takes to write, publish, and sell their book. Then perhaps that $19.95 retail price book will gross her around $12.00. But since that approach does not permit them to making a living from only their creative property, the ability to succeed at doing so is less and less likely.
There is one more comment in Ms. Lamb’s blog that I would like to address. She emphasizes that “Readers are NOT writers. . . We have progressed past the point of consuming an intellectual/creative property and now we are producing this intellectual/creative property.” Any writer who takes a writing course is encouraged to read what they want to write. They aren’t told to stop reading once they become a writer.
Whether or not you like to purchase from used bookstores, they have their place; author exposure is a limited part of that, but most writers I know do it for the love of the art, and they got into doing so fully knowing that, unless you are paid by someone else to do their writing for them, you have about as much chance of becoming an author who can live off their writing income alone, as you do of becoming a famous painter, actor, football player, or CEO of the largest business in the world. As for me, I’m OK with that. I write because I love it, and have always worked for someone else to make that possible for me.