Thursday, January 1, 2009

Are online used-book sales killing the publishing industry?

In an article in the "Week in Review" section of the Sunday, 28 December 2008 New York Times, David Streitfeld examines the question of whether on-line resale of used books is hurting the publishing industry. Streitfeld seems certain that "traditional bookstores will continue to fade" in this new environment.

I prefer to think that publishers and traditional bookstores will continue to adapt to this new environment. Mr. Streitfeld seems only peripherally aware of an important part of this equation: if a copy of a recently-published book is available used on-line, then that copy was already bought from its publisher. If a book is in high demand, the used copies available on-line will disappear from the market quickly. Those who wish to have a copy immediately will purchase new copies. Mr. Streitfeld seems to think (I say "seems to" because he doesn't work this out explicitly) that a small number of copies will flow from reader to reader through on-line channels; that most people will be willing to wait their turn for one of these few circulating copies. I think that for many books there will be readers who don't want to wait, or who want a new copy. If the publisher can issue a moderate initial print run and then, if demand proves to be strong, bring new copies to market quickly, it may still have a window in which to make a profit before the market for used copies saturates. Surely this calculus is little different from the hardback/paperback computation that publishers already do? Libraries and some readers will want a more durable hardback copy. Some readers will be willing to borrow the book from the library while waiting six months to a year to buy the paperback edition. The publishing industry has been pleading incompetence since the late 17th century. Yet it adapted to the existence of libraries and paperbacks. It will adapt to the existence of an on-line market for used books.

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