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Study: Used books are hot sellers, $2.2 billion in 2004
The Associated Press
NEW YORK — For as long as there has been a publishing industry, there have been used books, that supposedly quaint world of polymaths and antiquarians poking about musty, cluttered stores for titles few readers would know.
But a landmark study released yesterday confirms what publishers, authors and booksellers have believed, and feared, since the rise of the Internet: Used books have become a powerhouse, driven by high prices for new works and by the convenience of finding any title, new or old, without leaving your home.
According to the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), used-book sales topped $2.2 billion in 2004, an 11 percent increase over 2003.
Much of that growth was due to the Internet. While used sales at traditional stores rose a modest 4.6 percent, they jumped 33 percent online, to just over $600 million.
"I think consumers are increasingly starting to notice that they can get used books in good condition, in a timely manner," says Jeff Hayes, a director at InfoTrends, a market-research firm that served as the principal analyst for the study.
More than 111 million used books were purchased last year, representing about one of every 12 book purchases. By the end of the decade, the percentage is expected to rise to one of 11, a troubling trend when sales for new works are essentially flat.
Authors and publishers receive no royalties from used buys. "Obviously, these are not statistics to warm the heart of publishers," says Simon & Schuster spokesman Adam Rothberg.
The BISG, a nonprofit organization supported by publishers, booksellers and others in the industry, reports that price is the greatest reason for popularity of used books. While hardcovers often cost $25 and higher, used books purchased in 2004 averaged $8.12 — except for textbooks, which averaged $42.31.
The study will likely revive the complaints of authors and publishers who say online retailers are hurting new sales by aggressively promoting used copies. On Amazon.com and eBay, for example, used editions are often available when, or even before, a book is released.
The industry, indirectly, may contribute to the problem: Author signings for upcoming releases are a tradition at BookExpo America, publishing's annual convention. But they also lead to a wave of offerings on eBay, publishers say.
The BISG survey looks at both education and general markets. The cost of textbooks has long been a matter of contention and the BISG reports that educational buys totaled an estimated $1.6 billion — nearly all through traditional stores — an increase of 8.5 percent from 2003.
Hayes was more impressed by the nearly $600 million — much of that online — spent on noneducation books, a 25 percent jump.
"I think you may be seeing consumer behavior changing," he says. "It could become like going to the movies: 'Do you want to see the movie in the theater or do you want to wait for the DVD?' The DVD is available a lot faster now."
"One of our cautionary tales is what happened in the textbook industry," says Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, which represents published authors.
"Because of used books, educational publishers tried to make up for the loss by raising the prices of new ones and quickly issuing new editions to make old ones obsolete. We don't want to see that cycle again for the nonacademic market."
The size of the used-book market has never been calculated before, and the report represents an unusual cooperative effort among the leading used-book retailers.
Amazon.com, Alibris.com and eBay are among those who provided precise sales figures, usually the dearest of industry secrets.
"There's a great deal of curiosity about this market. We all know our own numbers, but we could only guess about our competitors," says Boris Wertz, chief operating officer of Abebooks.com, an online retailer.
The BISG did not provide sales from individual retailers.
The BISG study raises other questions, such as how publishers can respond to the used market. Friedman rejects the idea of lowering prices but acknowledges she has no specific solution.
"It's something we've looked at for a long time," she says.
The study also does not resolve a fundamental dispute: Are they hurting the market for new books, as many publishers and authors believe? Or, as retailers say, do they simply enable customers to acquire books they otherwise wouldn't have purchased?
"My sense is, excluding textbooks, that at least half of used-book sales come at the expense of books still in print," Hayes says.
"But there may be an upside, because a consumer might buy a used book by a certain author, and like it enough to buy the author's next book. So at this point, the impact is hard to quantify."
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company