“Used bookstores don’t help writers.”
I bristled when I saw this remark on Twitter. Fortunately this was one of those rare times when, before I fired off a response, I looked around a little, and realized that this stark statement was a response to a specific question. Someone had asked, “Do writers get any kind of residual royalties when a book is sold as used?”
When that’s the question, the answer is no. Authors make no money off the resale of a particular copy of a particular book, and it doesn’t enter into the tracking the publishers do when they determine if they want to offer a writer a new contract.
Libraries are different. (This was part of the Twitter discussion.) Libraries react to demand, which means they will order — and pay for– additional copies of new books, and those sales do produce royalties and sales number counts.
But used bookstores help writers in other ways. The biggest way is by introducing a curious reader to a previously unknown writer. Let’s imagine a browser picks up Author A’s 2106 book at a second hand bookstore. They pay $5.50 for it, not one penny of which reaches the publisher or the writer. They read it, they love it. Now they are first in line to pay for the 2018 hardcover new book (probably with a 20% discount)– or to pre-order it from Amazon which helps Author A’s sales count numbers. Plus, they probably tell their friends about this great new writer they discovered. In between, they may even track down the 2017 book and pay full price for that one. If they buy it new (full price) that will generate royalties. Admittedly, this is the best-case scenario, but I know people who have done it. I’ve done it.
The tweeter who opined that used bookstores didn’t help writers tweeted again to say that “writing reviews helps writers.” I’m guessing “writing reviews” in this case means on Amazon or Goodreads, not on a review site, the way I do. I’m not sure I see a direct link between reviews and sales. Then again, there is no easy way for us at Fantasy Literature to gather data on reviews and previous sales. It’s safe to say that new books by popular authors that we review do well –whether our review is positive or negative– but those are the rare books that have a marketing budget and a publicity plan from the publisher. Reviews on Amazon, in particular, have become so transparently artificial now that it’s sad to believe they carry weight. (I say that, and I’ve been known to post my thoughts on Amazon.) An enthusiastic review will probably usually help a book, and by extension the writer.
Reviews aren’t the only place to learn about books though. You know where else you can learn about books? At a used bookstore. Used bookstores are gathering places, places of book-related conversation they way new bookstores used to be in the old days. An adventurous reader can hear about all kinds of new stories and writers, and because the price is right, they can choose the adventure without shelling out $25 or more. It is easier to “try out” a new genre, a new writer, when you’re paying less than $10. And I maintain it is easier to browse a book in paper than it is on your Kindle, even if you “only paid 99-cents for it.”
(And if your concern is for “helping the author,” think for a minute about that 99 cents and how it translates, or doesn’t, to royalties.)
Ultimately, second hand books stores are there for readers and people who love books. Many of those people happen to be writers, but it is for readers that these shops exist. Second hand stores nurture and encourage reading. That can’t do anything but help writers.