As a kid, I went to the library multiple times a week. Read through all their youth books, and into the classics on my own, in addition to the books my parents read me. We bought books too, of course. Those Scholastic book order forms were studied like maps to treasure. In college, and graduate school, used books became the thing among my peers. I remember Ann Bancroft’s speech about used books from 84 Charing Cross Road about their peculiar history—a lineage of sorts—and that idea rang through me. Some strange note in the margin and I would imagine the sort of person who’d once held this book, and scrawled such a comment.
That was before I thought much about the artist’s livelihood. Artists are paid a percentage on new book sales. That’s all. So, libraries pay a percentage for the single copy they buy ONCE. If you buy a used book, the artist doesn’t make any money off that sale at all. The bookstore does, of course, or the seller, but not the artist. This summer a woman told me that she’d bought a used advanced reader’s copy of my book at Powell’s. I don’t make anything off ARC’s, so that means I lost out on two sales.
Am I complaining? No. There’s a lot to be said for building a reputation by word of mouth. There are so many books out there, and so much to wade through, that no one could be expected to buy everything she reads new. It’s just not possible. However, if you buy a used book, and it just blows your mind, how about buying a new copy and giving it as a gift? Or, the next time that writer has a book come out, you buy that book new? Looked at this way, writing is a long-term investment for the reader, as well as the writer.
Part of what has made publishing in America a languishing venture is this ridiculous insistence on hardcover books. Often these books are priced from $24 to $30 for adult books, and often $14 to $18 for kid books. Collectors, prestige, status, etc., I get it. But for most readers hardcovers are cumbersome and pricey. I’d like to see a shift to paperback originals for most books, with the occasional simultaneous release of a collector’s edition hardcover when such a thing can be done with love and style. But now I’m dreaming. Sherman Alexie is the only major writer I know of who agreed to a paperback original of a new book (Flight) and his next book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the kid’s book that won the National Book Award came out in hardcover first.
Anyway, it’s worth saying that I can’t think of higher praise than a reader’s recommendation—whatever form that recommendation takes.