On Used Books and Money and Egos

I’m sure many of you have read Kristen Lamb’s slightly controversial blog post about authors promoting used bookstores. If not, click the link. Read. I will summarize for the pair of you in the corner who are too lazy to bother.  (winky face)

I’m a little late to the discussion, I know, but I’ve been sick and I wasn’t sure I wanted to voice an opinion on the matter. But then I started feeling better and here we are.

Basically, Lamb chastises those of us (and by “us” I mean writers) that promote used bookstores as good things for the writing profession. She also implies that used bookstores pirate our intellectual property and a few other bits and pieces, and now a lot of folks are pissed at her.

I think she’s got a right to speak her mind, and it’s an important discussion. I don’t agree with a lot of what she says, but that’s the wonderful thing about the big bad Internet. We all get to voice our thoughts and we don’t have to agree with each other.


I do care about bookstores. I also care about readers and even my fellow writers (although they’re a shifty lot). Bookstores are lovely and awesome and, used or new, I want them all to stick around. I also love Amazon and digital books. I love reading and being read. I love money and I love exposure. I love reviews and cuddles.

Why can’t a girl have it all? I know. Real world, blah, blah.

Anyway, Lamb later explains she has bought used books herself, but she’s pissed at the “attitude” that digital and Amazon are bad, while used bookstores and paperbacks are “cultural” treasures and good for writers.

If we want to write for A LIVING, we must GET PAID. If you want to get paid, Lamb believes used bookstores are a bad thing. Okay, she makes a good point. Used book sales earn us no money, but they have their purpose. I’ll get to that in a minute.

I want to say I don’t think her intentions were malicious. On the contrary, she meant well and she’s right, you won’t get paid for exposure. Not directly anyway.

But exposure isn’t a bad thing.


My love of reading and writing blossomed because of used books, and I would never deny another reader the same joy simply because I want to make money. I will always encourage readers to buy used if they must do so, because I value the experience of a good book far more than my bottom line. Is that also wrong? It might be. Probably stupid as well, because if I don’t make money, then I need to keep the day job, but it is what it is.

Of course I’d prefer my readers bought my books new. I prefer to get paid. Who wouldn’t? But I’m a realist in terms of how this industry works. The reality is readers aren’t always willing to invest in an untried author. Some of them simply can’t. They don’t have the means to waste money on an author they don’t enjoy. The ugly truth is that used bookstores do offer exposure, and sometimes that exposure, although many writers loathe the word and the concept, can be profitable down the road. How far down? I don’t know. Depends on your marketing plan and your readers. It also depends on your work. Is it good enough to sell future books? That’s up to the reader, I guess.

I believe Lamb is looking out for her fellow writers. She wants to see us all get paid for our work, and that’s a fine dream to have. I strongly disagree with her likening used bookstores to pirates.

freaking out

How are they different? I’ll explain.

Aside from the puffy sleeves and fancy facial hair, pirates are thieves. In most cases, books in a used bookstore were purchased new, not stolen, which means the author did see payment for said book at least once (I know one payment is shitty when the book is sold ten times). Sellers of used books often use the money they make to buy more new books, for which the author is paid, and the cycle begins again. They aren’t resold until they’re read by the new owner, so that single used book might take a month to reach more than a couple of readers’ hands. It could take longer. It might not be resold at all. There are still a few of us that like to keep our books on nifty shelves, where we can stare at them when the notion strikes us.

Readers who seek out pirated books are unlikely to EVER purchase a book new, whether they like the author or not. Pirated books are stolen. They’re almost never purchased new and a single copy can be resold/borrowed hundreds or thousands of times in a matter of days or even hours.

It’s a small difference, but one is theft, and the other is selling a product you have purchased, and therefore own, but no longer have a use for. We’ve bought and sold our possessions forever. Why should books be the exception?

But intellectual property!

Yes, books are intellectual property. I’m as far from a legal expert as one can get, but I understand the basics of copyright when it comes to books. Basically, when you sell that paperback and earn a royalty from it, a sort of limited transfer of copyright happens. No, the buyer doesn’t own the ideas in that book, but he does own THE BOOK ITSELF. Basically, the buyer of that new book has the right to “dispose” of said book in whatever manner he chooses, because he bought it. So if he wants to toss it in the garbage, give it to a friend, burn it, shred it, or sell it, he has the right to do so. Yes, the book is intellectual property, but it is also tangible property, which means the person that bought the paperback can sell it to a used bookstore if he wants to.

In the United States, this is because of a thing called the first sale doctrine.

Basically, once you buy a book, you may resell that copy without violating copyright laws. Copyright laws protect intellectual property such as books from being copied or reproduced, but they don’t protect a copy of your book from being resold by the buyer after that first sale.

From the link above:

“The first sale doctrine, codified at 17 U.S.C. § 109, provides that an individual who knowingly purchases a copy of a copyrighted work from the copyright holder receives the right to sell, display or otherwise dispose of that particular copy, notwithstanding the interests of the copyright owner. The right to distribute ends, however, once the owner has sold that particular copy. See 17 U.S.C. § 109(a) & (c).”

Digital books fall in a murkier category, but we’re not talking about the resale of those. Thank God. You don’t technically “own” digital media in the same way you own something “tangible” like a paperback. It’s more like you’re “renting” that book from the seller, be it Amazon, Apple, Kobo, etc. In this way it is better to sell digital books, but then again, they’re vulnerable to piracy, so…

the horror


It’s shitty that a used book earns us nothing, and I’m with Lamb on this one. I’d much rather encourage a reader to buy new, but I won’t tell them not to buy used and I don’t think used bookstores are the reason we fail to make a living. We take a gamble when we publish paperbacks. When we sell a physical copy of our books, there’s an understanding that said book will eventually be loaned to a friend or given to a library or sold in a yard sale… or at a used bookstore. We don’t have to like it, but we all know it’s likely to happen.

If you want to encourage your readers to visit used bookstores, you’ve got every right to do so without getting your knuckles slapped. Most of us would be hypocrites if we criticized you for it, and we all know it. You can’t buy used (whether you buy digital later or not) and then pretend like the whole concept of used booksellers is beneath you because you’re a writer. If you TRULY never buy used books, then bravo! You’re a stand-up writer and reader. I applaud you.  Personally, I can’t afford to buy new all the time, particularly if I’ve got a hard on for a particular book in hardcopy. What? I’m aroused by the smell of glue and paper. Shut up.

While I don’t bitch about my day job, I don’t get upset at those who do. Who wouldn’t love to quit doing what they must to do what they love? It’s not something that most of us get to do. Even if I encouraged all of my readers to buy new, and they did, I know my profits would still not be large enough or reliable enough to quit the day job. The day job gives me financially stability, so that I can do this thing I love without worrying about whether my kids will eat tomorrow. If I want to bitch, I shall bitch, and I shall say used bookstores are fantastic, because they are.

I think the point Lamb was trying to make is that we’re never going to get anywhere in this business if we keep doing things that let readers believe we’re okay with not making money. She’s got a point. However, used book sales aren’t entirely bad. No, they don’t result in money for the author, but they can be beneficial. It’s a long, twisty path, but that used book can result in the writer getting paid. Now I’m going to mention that dirty word: Exposure.

Let’s be clear; I’m not just a writer interested in cuddles and sweet nothings, although those things are quite pleasant and I could use more of them.

painted whore

Before I discuss “exposure,” can I point out that just because Amazon gives the reader the option of buying new along with used, and lists other titles by the same author, doesn’t mean it’s not taking money from the author’s pocket in the same way as used bookstores do? Seriously, guys. Do you honestly think the average reader ISN’T going to go with the cheapest option (even if it’s the used option)? Please.

A smart author lists her other books in the back of every e-book and paperback. Why? Because when a book is borrowed from a friend, or purchased used, or downloaded for free (during a promotion or via other less honest avenues), which we know is going to happen, the reader can find other titles that she can then buy new should she enjoy the author enough to do so.

Okay, back to the exposure thing. It really pisses me off when authors dismiss exposure as useless. Yes, writers deserve to be paid, and should avoid working for free whenever possible. We’re selling a product, though. As with any other product being sold out there, we have to prove our worth and build our “customer” base before real money can be made. Writers often do this by giving away free digital copies to gain reviews, and to expand our audience and our brand, and often results in very little money for us. We offer sales and freebies and paperback giveaways all over social media, and we encourage new authors to do the same. Why? Because free is a useful marketing tool. Exposure is something we need, even if it tastes dirty and gross.

So let’s stop pretending we’re too good for “exposure.” Not all of us are at a point in our career where we can turn our nose up at it, and we shouldn’t. Whatever gets you more readers, you damn well embrace that shit. Exposure is valuable to writers. How you get it is up to you. For example, Lamb got tons of exposure by writing a controversial blog post. She continues to get it every time one of us blogs about said post.

I don’t write for free if I can avoid it, but I’ll take the exposure I get when someone finds my book used, new, free, on sale, at a library, whatever.

And some of us have day jobs that suck no matter how much our books earn. So we’re going to bitch about it. If I want to share an article touting the merits of used bookstores, and then bitch about my day job, I will do so, because I’m funny like that. To be honest, I don’t hate my job. I work with a great bunch of people and we laugh more than we cry. However, if I wanted to go on Facebook and say something like, “Found this awesome little used bookstore. It’s cozy and smells of paper and cheese. Check it out.” And then in the next post say something like, “I wish I could just write full time. This getting up and going outside sucks.” There’s nothing wrong with that.

Kristen Lamb has the right to her opinion. Whether you believe she’s right or wrong, we need people in this industry to speak out when they feel they must, as she did. However, I don’t think that speaking out should take the form of belittling or attacking each other. I also think we need to be honest with ourselves and the rest of the world.

Some of us shop at used bookstores and encourage our readers to do the same. There’s no sin in that. You can hate your day job too, if you want.  What we should do, though, while sharing our love of such things, is also show them where affordable new books can be found. And don’t forget to tell them to leave a review, no matter where they found their next great read.

2 thoughts on “On Used Books and Money and Egos

  1. Hey Renee,

    I completely agree. Used bookstores are not the cause of having to work at something else to keep that mac&cheese on the table. One could just as easily bitch about libraries. After all, they buy the book once, then loan it out (hopefully) to dozens of readers for free. Maybe we should make them illegal. Can’t you see a horde of pissed off writers besieging their town library with pitchforks and flaming torches? Kind of self-defeating, no?

    Also, several used bookstores have hosted my readings. They are actively supporting local writers and promoting the scene here. Beside, if they weren’t around what would happen to all those pre-read books? I hate to see books thrown out.

    And finally, what’s the point? Why bitch about something you can’t change, even if you wanted to? I’d rather spend my time writing about something interesting. Kristen Lamb should get a life, then she wouldn’t waste her time, and ours, jousting at used wind mills.

    (Also, anyone who doesn’t like used books can always send them to me! When it comes to acquiring books, I’m completely without scruples.I feel sorry for the lower back of the person who has to clean out my house after I die, but that’s their problem!)


    1. Haha! Hey, I completely forgot about readings. Used bookstores are venues that are open to new, established and (gasp) even indie authors. Thanks for reminding us of that.

      My kids keep almost all of their books too. We make them “clean house” now and then because it’s getting crowded. We donate any books they’re willing to let go of to our library (which relies heavily on “donations” so authors often don’t get paid for borrows) or to friends and family. And once a year, our library holds a huge sale to make room for new books and to get rid of duplicates and books that are no longer being borrowed. Are they pirates? I don’t think so.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s