Mike MacLean

I have a dirty little secret.  No, it’s not the man I shot in Reno once just to watch him die.  No, it’s not the "Mayonnaise incident."  It’s much, much worse.

I buy secondhand books.

Of course, not all the books I purchase are used.  When an author I like rolls into town, I always grab something new at the signing.  Or when one of those books come along, one of those intriguing stories that I simply must read, I’m right there with my $25 bucks.

But just as often, I buy used.  It’s not something I’m proud of.

It doesn’t matter that I’m a high school teacher or that my wife is going back to college or that we’re expecting a baby next month.  I still feel guilty buying used books.  I feel as if I’m betraying all those great writers I’ve met over the past few years.  After all, according to both the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers the promotion of used book sales, by Amazon in particular, "will cut significantly into sales of new titles, directly harming authors and publishers" (NY Times).

So when you buy a used book, you’re essentially picking the pockets of authors and publishers.  It’s like stealing, right?  I certainly don’t want to steal from writers.  Hell, that’s what I want to be when I grow up–a working writer.

There is, however, another perspective.

At $25 bucks a pop, I’m unlikely to check out an author I’ve never read before.  But if the same book is only $5 bucks, I’ll give it a whirl.  If the novel isn’t for me, I’m only out a few bucks.  I might even give that same author another chance.  On the other hand, if I spend full price on a new book and it doesn’t scream to me, the writer goes on my black list.  More than likely, I’ll never pick up another one of her books again.

What often happens is I take a risk on a used book then get hooked.  Cost be damned, I’m not waiting for the next Lee Child to hit the used racks.  That could be months.  I need it right now! 

According to the New York Times, the sale of used books might have another, less obvious, impact. 

"The presence of a market for used books makes consumers more willing to buy new books, because they can easily dispose of them later. A car salesman will often highlight the resale value of a new car, yet booksellers rarely mention the resale value of a new book. Nevertheless, the value can be quite significant."

Furthermore, despite the comments from the Author’s Guild, I’ve never heard any specific writers speak out against the sale of used books.  Most I’ve met support libraries.  Why not support secondhand book sellers?

In the coming years, the novel will face competition like it never has before.  Low priced DVDs (a new movie is already cheaper than a new hardback).  Video games (which aren’t just for kids anymore).  The Internet (too much stuff).  Who knows what else is coming down the pike.  In the bloody free-for-all for the entertainment dollar, secondhand book sales might just keep a few more readers out there from straying–a few we can’t spare.   

So why do I still feel guilty about buying used books?  Are all the points I’ve explored merely rationalizations?

To published authors out there: What’s your take on used book sales? 

To the hardcore fans: Do you share my shame?               


15 thoughts on “I FEEL SO USED

  1. Alex Sokoloff

    Mike, like you, I tend to suspect that used books do convert fans, so they’re useful as advertisement. I’m certainly looking forward to having enough books out there to see them in used bookstores!

    But I don’t buy used anymore. At all – unless something’s out-of-print. I’ve heard too many authors and booksellers rail about it.

    I certainly can’t afford to buy everything new (I can’t afford to buy as much as I do, period) but I know that checking books out at the library has an impact on an author’s library sales, so that’s what I do. In fact, I often check friends’ books that I already have out for a couple days at a time just to make sure those books are circulating.

    Unless someone can prove to me that buying used DOESN’T hurt authors’ sales, I don’t want to take the chance.

  2. billie

    If it’s a new author I always buy new. If I discover an author with a backlist I want to explore, and those older titles are now only available in softcover, I will buy used copies of the hardcovers. I really don’t like softcover books.

    I use the library regularly too.

    Interesting aside – I just got a flyer in the mail yesterday from one of the longstanding indie bookstores in my area. This bookstore has had an employee recommendation section since the early eighties, brings in authors (new and established) I love to hear read, and in general has supported writers in what I’d consider a big, constant way.

    They’ve decided to carry used books, and will place them on the shelves with the new ones.

    I suspect they are doing this to make themselves competitive with Amazon and with the thriving used bookstores also in my area – there are a number of them.

    There are also a number of very established local writers who make a point of going to one used bookstore in town and signing their used copies – in support of the used bookstore.

    Interesting questions.

  3. Mike MacLean


    That’s a good point on the library sales. If an author’s book is checked out over and over, the library might buy more copies and furthermore might purchase more of their next title.

    Do you know what happens when a library has more supply of a novel than demand? Or when they receive donations? They sell the extras with the proceeds going to community groups (At least that’s what the library I worked at did).


    As always, thanks for your remarks.

    I think you’ve illustrated a trend that’s bound to continue. Bookstores more and more will offer both new and used titles. Changing Hands is a great bookstore in Tempe and they do just that and still have author signings.

    And that’s an interesting point about the authors who sign used books. Perhaps they see the writing on the wall and know the trend you mentioned will continue. If they can get readers to buy their books used maybe those same readers will buy new in the future.


    I’m showing my inexperience here, but does anyone know how the sale of overstock books figure into the equation? Do author’s still receive royalties from these?

  4. Louise Ure

    I’m not sure, Mike, but I think overstock sales are part of the “returned” books, and are therefore not part of an author’s royalties. More experienced folks may have specific info here.

    I rarely buy used books now, because there are so many authors I want to support with a new sale. But I love the fact that someone may discover my writing through a used bookstore sale. That’s fine with me.

    So I don’t buy secondhand books, but I recently sold one. One author, currently on my sh*t list, autographed his new book to me with the words “Dear Louse, it was great to see you here!”

    LOUSE? Sorry, that’s one signed first edition I’m not keeping.

  5. pari

    Mike,Novelists, Inc. is another organization that is opposed to used book sales as they stand today.

    The used car analogy doesn’t quite work for me anymore, because usually the person selling that used car bought it from the original seller rather than a third party. What irks me most is when people who received my books free then sell them. I don’t see why they should make a profit off of my work.

    I used to believe that any exposure was good exposure — and that authors who bemoaned $1.30 or $.35 in royalties lost were being small-minded. Now, I’m not so sure. In the romance world, whole lines of books have been stopped because of lack of sales that most likely would have been different if those books hadn’t been sold as used so often.

    The truth is . . . many of the people who frequent used bookstores AREN’T looking for new authors to support; they’re looking for good deals. It’s a different head set. Again, using the romance genre, these books often are sold by the bagful for $1. Is it likely that a person who buys like that will ever shell out $25 for a book? Or, even $7.99. I doubt it.

    I support libraries wholeheartedly; they buy books and make them available to people who can’t afford to buy (alot of people on fixed incomes frequent them) — or who don’t want to buy. I think that’s okay.

    Now, I do admit that I, too, buy used on rare occasions. This happens when I have to moderate a panel and can’t find the authors’ books in the library. I can’t afford to buy four or five books at a pop each time this happens — especially if they’re hardcover.

    It’s a sticky and ambivalent issue, Mike. Thanks for bringing it up. I know my opinion has changed tremendously during the last few years.

  6. Mike MacLean


    Good points.

    I could see where the growth of used bookstores could have an impact. Maybe it could force publishers to lower their prices (or possibly raise prices as textbook companies have). And I’m sure the loss of profits to the publisher will result in lower royalty payments for authors. This would seem a positive for consumers. But maybe companies will take fewer chances on unknowns as well.

    However, for better or worse, used books stores aren’t going anywhere. So, I choose to look at the positives.

    Until the big chains get into the secondhand game, used books may be the only way independent stores can compete, offering consumers something they can’t get elsewhere.

    And used book buyers are infinitely more valuable to publishing than non-readers, because they still talk books. Eventually, their word of mouth might sell some new.

    Whatever the case, my intention in writing this piece WAS NOT to champion used bookstores. The more writers I meet face-to-face, the more new books I end up purchasing. I’ll continue to buy new when I can, and I’ll support the library as I always have.

  7. pari

    . . . and, I’m not uniformly opposed to used book stores either. There’s a wonderful one in Las Cruces, NM called COAS that probably does more for literacy there than quite a few other places.

    Also, some libraries are quite unfriendly (sorry, but I’m thinking of one in a small NM town–not Belen or Clovis–that shocks me with the rudeness of its staff every time I visit) — so, for folks who want to read in that place, a used book store would be a godsend.

  8. JT Ellison

    Mike, a great topic which I know very little about. What I do know is I feel horribly guilty if I can’t buy the first edition hardcover of people’s novels, but man, I’d starve if I did. So I’m like Alex, I do the library thing. I can’t remember the last used book I bought that wasn’t some obscure, out of print item.

  9. Gail Bowman

    Well, I buy both new and used. I save my book money to support authors who are not mega-sellers. I buy used books of those mega-sellers who I personally feel will not miss my $$. I have also found new authors by buying their books used, it’s hard to part with $20+ dollars on a whim or even a recommendation. That being said, once falling in love with the author, every subsequent book is bought new. As an aside, I am not a library person. Due dates I can’t deal with. I want that book on my shelf so I can get a warm and fuzzy feeling just looking at it. And I want to read it when I’m ready, not when the library says it’s in waiting to be picked up…..

  10. Fran

    Pari, to echo your sentiment about COA’s, Pat, Mike and Christie all champion authors’ rights and causes, and they’re staunch supporters of all indy folks, so I’m with you all the way in supporting them. They’re good people.

    From an indy bookselling perspective, it’s almost impossible not to sell used and stay afloat. It’s hard enough for us to get decent first editions since they all get shipped to the big box stores. We’ll get folks to buy new books, get them hooked on all the best authors, but we have to acknowledge the fact that used books are here to stay, especially with how quickly books go out of print.

    I’d like to see a new kind of scanning software developed that, while acknowledging that a book is used, also records the title/author info to report not only sales figures but for royalty purposes. That way everyone wins.

  11. Mike MacLean


    “…once falling in love with the author, every subsequent book is bought new. As an aside, I am not a library person… I want that book on my shelf so I can get a warm and fuzzy feeling just looking at it.”

    Any author would be lucky to have you as a fan. I enjoy libraries, but there is something to be said about owning the book yourself, having it on your own bookshelf.


    Thanks for dropping in. I really appreciate your perspective. Someday, unfortunately, I think the big chains will start dealing in used books as well as new. It might not happen soon, but chances are it will happen. I’m not sure how many of the independents will survive.

  12. pari

    Fran’s suggestion about scanning and keeping track is absolutely marvelous. It would give publishers an idea of how much their writers continue to be read and could make a good case for ensuring lines don’t get axed as easily.

    . . . or, maybe, I’m just dreaming.

  13. simon

    I must admit I try to buy all new books because of royalties subject. But I do scout 2ndhand stores for out of print titles. At the weekend, I picked up a great Hammond Innes book from the 60’s in wonderful condition.

  14. Tom, T.O.

    I buy new for all authors who come to speak and/or sign at our local indy store, Mysteries to Die For in Thousand Oaks, CA. If they take the time to visit us, I feel I owe them my support. I also buy new my favorite authors from before I discovered MTDF (about 5 yrs ago) and the fact that many authors did such things. I’ve since added a few very nice authors I’ve met at Thrillerfest, luncheons, and a few other places. Many of these people have a number of published books that aren’t available in hardcover (and I’m at the age where I find the larger print more comfortable than the small), and so I search for used (uh, previously read”) books at a local charity used book store (The Book Bag), and if they don’t have it, I’ll go to Abebooks or one of the others (not Amazon or E-bay); failing that, I’ll buy a new paperback, and last resort, used paper.I try always first to support the writer, since I’m tired of having good writers dropped by publishers; but neither will I not buy a book just because it’s used and deny myself the pleasure of reading it. Sorry, but that’s the selfish streak in me. (I DID give up grapes and wine for Caesar Chavez, and that damn near killed me; but I won’t give up books!)

  15. Jan

    Sorry for chiming in on this so late, but I just stumbled across the page for this entry today.

    Mike wrote: “Furthermore, despite the comments from the Author’s Guild, I’ve never heard any specific writers speak out against the sale of used books.”

    You should talk to the owner of the secondhand mystery bookstore in my area. He got into quite the, er, discussion with an author who felt that it should not be allowed under any circumstances.

    Personally, I find that attitude shortsighted. Whenever possible, I prefer a new book. But I’ve discovered many authors when they already had a backlist with some (or all) of the books out of print. Here’s the thing: I like to collect the whole series, and if I can’t get the early, out of print books secondhand, I won’t be buying that person’s new books, either.

    Mike again: “Someday, unfortunately, I think the big chains will start dealing in used books as well as new.”

    A number of Barnes & Nobles already sell library discards right alongside the remainders.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *