Used, But Not Used Up

Last week, my daughter sold back a barely opened $120 textbook for $35, which of course is a rip-off coming and going. But education publishers will tell you they're barely staying above water. Ironically, as all things on paper give way to the Internet, we're hearing a lot about the persistence -- even the destructive effect -- of used books:

BookFinder has released their always amusing list of the top 10 out-of-print books in the United States. Madonna, God bless her, is still there with her metal-clad book of erotic photos called "Sex" (1992). But so is "Carpentry for Beginners" from 1900, so I think we're looking at a pretty eclectic group of used-book readers.

Our own publishing reporter, Bob Thompson, ran an interesting story about the owner of Wonder Book and Video, a 54,000-square-foot warehouse in Frederick, Md., that houses about a million used books. The task of receiving, sorting and selling so many volumes sounds like something for "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."

And ex-Book World staffer David Streitfeld writes in the New York Times that the book industry is being destroyed by "people like myself, who increasingly use the Internet both to buy books and later, after their value to us is gone, sell them. This is not about Amazon peddling new books at discounted prices, which has been a factor in the book business for a decade, but about the rise of a worldwide network of amateurs who sell books from their homes or, if they're lazy like me, in partnership with an Internet dealer who does all the work for a chunk of the proceeds."

A romance novelist who recently retired from the Post told me that romance publishing, too, has been devastated by the prevalence of readers who pass around their favorite books -- among their friends or across the Internet. Who knows where this promiscuous practice will end!

By Ron Charles |  December 31, 2008; 7:00 AM ET Ron Charles
Previous: Tony Blair's Holiday Reading | Next: Five Books About Peace


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Hasn't there always been a vigorous shadow economy in used goods? E-bay, Alibris and ABE have merely superorganized the used book culture that has always been there. I was very fortunate that 30+ years ago, someone sent excellent copies of every book on my lit syllabi to the local thrift shop. My Shakespeare anthology cost the most, a dollar. In the 1980s, companies showed up on campus to buy back books and make used texts a regular commodity. Used paperback romance novels for a pittance have been the stuff of flea market stalls for ages. Of course, my vigorous new book purchasing habit slowed this year as the tanking economy ate up one of the jobs at our house. I've been using the library more often and the used book services, but it's because of (what I hope is temporary) the downturn in our personal economics. I keep the books I acquire or pass a few to the local library for its annual book sale, which has made building expansion and extra services possible this year.

Posted by: cebeling | December 31, 2008 11:54 AM

Yes, I'm sure you're right: A market in used books has been around since books have been around. But the Internet has made that market infinitely larger and more efficient, and that has changed the industry dramatically.

Posted by: ronchar | January 1, 2009 12:19 AM

Not sure if anyone checks the comments but if you like free used books, check out book thing in Baltimore
They are a great place and its all free. I stock up atleast once a month.

Posted by: discoveri | January 3, 2009 10:34 AM

I take my unwanted books to the Friends of the Library used bookstore in the run-down Randolph Hills Shopping Center at 4886 Boiling Brook Parkway in Rockville (301-984-3300).

Posted by: ronchar | January 3, 2009 10:48 AM

If ebook readers such as the Kindle become the norm it will help. You can't resell a Kindle book purchased from Amazon, or even give it away.

What I really hate is the preposterously escalating prices of certain scarce but unimportant used books.

NOBODY is going to pay $125 for a copy of some of the titles on Egyptian Jewish history I want, but some idiotic automated pricing algorithm places them all that high. Scarce is not the same as desirable.

Posted by: jweissmn | January 5, 2009 1:16 PM

All hail!

Posted by: kbockl | January 6, 2009 3:58 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company