- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 1, 2005

NEW YORK - For as long as there’s 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 Wednesday confirms what publishers, authors and booksellers have believed — and feared — since the rise of the Internet: Used books have become a modern 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, used-book sales topped $2.2 billion in 2004, an 11 percent increase over 2003. Much of that growth can be credited 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 BISG study.

More than 111 million used books were purchased last year, representing about one out of every 12 overall book purchases. By the end of the decade, the percentage is expected to rise to one out 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 appeal for choosing used books over new ones. 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 that online retailers are hurting new sales by aggressively promoting used copies. On Amazon.com and EBay, for example, used editions are often available at the same time, or even before, a new book is released.

The industry, indirectly, may even contribute to the problem: Author signings for upcoming releases are a tradition at BookExpo America, the publishing industry’s annual convention. But they also lead to a wave of offerings on EBay, publishers say.

“I have made it clear that I do not like the signings at BookExpo,” says Jane Friedman, CEO of HarperCollins. “The author should at least make the signature personal, ‘Dear Jane,’ so it’s worth less to sell.”

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 percent over 2003.

But Mr. 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 the 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 thousands of 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 industry study group report represents an unusual cooperative effort among the leading used-book retailers. Amazon.com, Alibris.com and EBay are among those that 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, COO of Abebooks.com, an online retailer that, according to Mr. Wertz, had used sales of more than $100 million last year.

Sales from individual retailers were not provided by the BISG.

The BISG study raises other questions, such as how publishers can respond to the used market. Miss Friedman rejects the idea of lowering prices, but acknowledges that 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 over used books: 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-books sales come at the expense of books still in print,” Mr. 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.”

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