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A penny-book author’s take on secondhand sales, physical and digital

There was talk on Slashdot on Friday about reselling digital media, and typical sky-is-falling predictions saying that secondhand sales will drive down prices and drive artists out of business. “Look!” some say. “There are used books on Amazon that sell for a penny!”

Yes there are. My book was one of those, until Windows 95 became old enough that retro computing enthusiasts became interested in it. Now when I want to buy a copy, I have to compete with those hipsters. But you know what? Copies of my book selling for a penny never bothered me. I’ll tell you why.

Books sell for a penny because there are too many of them. And on the other extreme, Margin of Safety sells for hundreds because it’s been out of print for two decades and there aren’t enough copies of it to meet demand. I paid $100 for a Wayne Wesolowski model railroading book a few years ago, before that hundred-dollar price drove more secondhand copies onto the marketplace and knocked the price down. It’s just pure supply and demand.

Many of the books that sell for a penny are bestsellers from ages past. Hundreds of thousands, or even millions of the books sold when they were new; now there aren’t a million people who want the book anymore. It happens. In past years, used bookstores just stopped taking those books, so old books that nobody wanted were an easy thing to ignore. Now, Amazon has the problem out on the Internet for everyone to see.

Even when my book was in print and on bookstore shelves, I never felt robbed or cheated by used sales. I got paid when the book sold the first time. Some people who bought the book decided, for whatever reason, not to keep it. I didn’t get rich off that book, but that’s fine. That’s why I kept my day job. The money from the book did help me make a downpayment on a house and get out of the one-bedroom apartment I was living in, so I got something out of the deal. I never had to sleep on a park bench because people were selling used copies of my book.

I sold used books myself for a while. It helped me achieve my financial goals at the time, and I got books out of the hands of people who didn’t want them and into the hands of people who did.

Let’s think about things for a minute, too. When someone sells a book, what do they spend the money on? Chances are, more books. How does the person who bought the used copy spend the money he or she saved? Frequently, more books. Sometimes people buy books mostly because they know they can make some of the money back by reselling it. But the important thing is that this book churn creates people who would rather spend their time reading books than watching TV, which means they buy more books, and eventually they might buy one of mine. Well, first I have to write another one, but maybe they buy a magazine with something I wrote in it.

Philosophically, I don’t have a problem with used digital sales. I would get paid the first time it sold; the more times it gets resold, the more people there are hooked on digital books, and if I ever get around to writing another book, there will be people to buy one.

Technically, I have a quibble with used digital sales. How do I know the digital copy is no longer in the original owner’s possession? With MP3 files, I really don’t. Amazon can purge the MP3 from the Amazon cloud and from the computer the seller completes the transaction from, and, I suppose, from any other device the seller syncs with the Amazon cloud in the future. But if the seller keeps an offline stash of MP3s, Amazon really has no way to know about that.

Books are easier, since the major book formats have DRM. I don’t like DRM because it restricts what hardware I can use to read the book, but if I could resell my digital books, I would certainly be more open to DRM verifying that I’m being honest. The problem with DRM up until this point is that the rights have all been one-sided: from the consumer’s point of view, the “r” in DRM stands for “restrictions,” because restrictions are all the consumer gets.

Copyright holders exist to serve consumers. For the entirety of my adult life, this country has had that backwards. Turn that priority back around, and those consumers will be a lot more interested in buying stuff.

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