Book Publishers Growing Wary of Online Used Book Sales

29 Sep ’05

The WSJ reports (paid sub required) on the growing success of online sales of used books and the parallel concern of the publishing industry over lost sales. Prices for ‘gently read’ books are often only half the price of new books, and the WSJ reports that sales are increasing:

While the market’s size is still modest — about $600 million, or 2.8% of the $21 billion that readers spent on consumer books in 2004 — it is growing at 25% annually. Jeff Hayes, group director for InfoTrends Research Group, suggests that it could reach $2.25 billion in U.S. sales by 2010, or 9.4% of a projected $23.9 billion in consumer book sales.

The discounts are considerable, and buying a used book has become very easy on the major websites, Amazon, Abebooks Inc. and Alibris Inc.:

There are currently 70 “new and used” copies of “The Widow of the South” — one of Time Warner’s biggest books of the fall — for sale on Amazon. Although the novel carries a retail price of $24.95, there are several copies on Amazon described as “new” being offered for $16 or less.

Publishers are growing concerned over lost revenues and are making noises about sharing in the revenue earned by used book sales.

Owners of used books and the sites that sell them will argue that once the book is sold it is sold. Publishers will argue that the current book pricing model is based on a use model that assumes de minimis resale, and that if the model becomes obsolete, prices will need to rise or they will need a share of resale revenue.

I’m very sympathetic to the publishers and authors on this – the business is based on established expectations about prices and volumes, and if those change, everything gets tossed out the window. The fact that this is intellectual property is somewhat relevant – this issue arises because the product can be quickly and (for many) permanently consumed, while remaining entirely reusable – but I wonder: are there other durable products, not mainly comprised of IP, that share those characteristics? I’m not sure.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Tad McIlwraith September 30, 2005 at 14:56

I suppose there are connections here (or analogies) with music? CDs, records, etc. have been sold in used record shops for years — like books, music can be quickly consumed and remain reusable. Anyone who has wondered what to do with those dozens (100s?) of Columbia House CDs they got for 1 cent knows what I mean.

Music has become easy, however, to share over the internet in part because it is so easily reproducable. Is this where books are going? E-books and scanned versions of the physical tomes are more and more easily acquired. Journal articles the same way. Visiting google scholar and google print (along with research portals that often require subscriptions) makes this abundantly clear. Control over distribution and royalties becomes tighter too. I expect we are heading away from print books towards e-books and the used book store may suffer the way used record stores have.

As to non-IP types of similar products? What about cars? Do we see a day when Honda will want a cut of my re-sold CR-V?

What about the market for home furnishings, or renovation items at places like Re-Store?

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