Selling gently used books online is often a maddening, mysterious process. Thousands of wonderful books in near-perfect condition must be priced ridiculously low to compete; but then, some seemingly random book will be worth triple its original cover cost, or more. As my partner and I worked this process, throwing our dice, casting our nets every day by listing books for sale, we wondered what invisible hand is driving the prices sky-high on certain books.
These books have gone out-of-print. They are not, however, the “collector” books one would normally associate with such high prices. Many are paperbacks, published only in the last ten years. They are not necessarily first editions. They are not in pristine condition, nor are they autographed.
I never took a single economics class, but even I can grasp the basic tenet of supply and demand. There are not enough copies of these books for everyone who would like to read them, and this means people must compete to buy them. As a bookseller who cares about my customers, and who loves to see people matched with the books they want, it pains me to explain to people that the third book in the series they were reading now costs twenty-five dollars … or forty … or more.
We have had customers get angry with us when they see the price tag on certain books: “WHAT does this price tag say? That can’t be right!” Unfortunately, it is.
The invisible hand driving books out-of-print is the same hand that is making it increasingly difficult for first-time authors to get published, or for many authors to get re-published. The hand belongs to you, and it belongs to me: every time we reach into our wallets at a big-box, chain store, or pick up a pen to fill out the form for that mail-order book club, we are helping to drive thousands of books out-of-print.
That may sound incredibly harsh, or fanatical, but opening a small, independent bookstore has placed me at ground zero of the sell-or-perish world. I have been able to talk at length with other online booksellers, a high school friend who now manages a Barnes & Noble in the Philadelphia area, long-time book collectors, owners of local independent bookstores, self-published authors, and authors who have had national success.
As I continue to talk with other small business owners in my community, and across my profession, I am better able to see how the big-box bookstores exert considerable control over who gets published, who gets marketed, how long a book stays in print, and even the variety of books available to consumers. The bottom line is this: if a book doesn’t sell a tremendous number of copies, then the big chain bookstores will no longer carry it. Since ordering decisions are rarely made by individual locations of chain stores, discontinuing a book means a huge drop in the percentage of copies ordered, leaving the publishers loathe to continue reprinting that book.
This wild spring election season is a perfect time to re-consider how your vote counts. The truth of the matter is that we often vote with our wallets, and we vote with our feet. If you want something to stay around, you need to show up. You need to support it. If you want more than the Top 40 books and the same displays in every store, then be sure to check out the indie bookstores tucked away in the little towns and big cities you visit. Of course, I’m biased. But I also believe that variety is the spice of life.