Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Used bookstores: friend or foe?


More bookstore kvetching. Did you see that used bookstores are making a comeback?

Actually, I don’t really want to kvetch about used bookstores. They were always my favorites, partly because one of my earliest exposures to great books was at one of them. It was a downtown St. Louis store, and, sure, it happened to have an adult section curtained off in the back (with a couple of peepshow machines squatting just inside that provocative portal), but it was stocked floor-to-ceiling with every kind of tome you could possibly be interested in. And the smell in there was both exotic and familiar, a musty bouquet that’s like a bookworm’s cocaine. Once you’re addicted…

And when I was in London doing the year-abroad thing, I could be found in one of the ubiquitous used bookshops up and down Charing Cross Road, poring over cheap but seemingly ancient editions of every writer from Robert Burns to Joseph Conrad. I still have some of the treasures I bought that year.

Even more recently, my local bookstore in Sonoma County (where I lived till last March) had a terrific used section downstairs. I sold them several of my own books when we moved. (Should have thrown in a copy of Parts Unknown, now that I think about it!)
I’m also investing the littlest bit of hope in some nearby used bookstores up here in the foothills, on the off-chance they’ll be willing to carry Town Father on consignment. They might not have the same aversion to everything Amazon that the uppity indies have.

The best thing about used bookstores is that they’re not stocked with the hyper-hyped bestsellers you see in the windows of every Barnes & Noble all around the country. They’re idiosyncratic. You might find Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn, Loon Lake by E. L. Doctorow, The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler, or a manual on how to go treasure hunting in the Caribbean Sea. One of my favorite used books is a long Bertrand Russell essay, laced with argumentative margin notes by an earlier, cantankerous reader. I feel like I’m eavesdropping every time I pick it up.

So what’s the downside of a used bookstore?

Well, for one thing, the writer doesn’t get paid.

In theory, the writer got paid when the book was originally purchased. It’s a one-shot deal. According to the linked article in the Washington Post, used bookstores buy their stock for ten percent of the cover price then sell it for roughly half that price. It would be nice if the writer could snag another cut of that resale, but it’s like the used market in anything: Ford doesn’t get paid when you sell your old Taurus, and U2 isn’t getting royalties on those old CDs of “The Joshua Tree” either. We might ask, Why doesn’t intellectual property get a different arrangement? If copyright lasts 75 years after the death of the copyright holder, shouldn’t a writer get paid any time a book changes hands?

Even as a writer, I think there’s a sour grapes side to this complaint. It’d be nice to get paid again and again, but it’d be even nicer if publishers went back to living-wage advances, especially for mid-list material. These days you’re lucky as a first-time novelist to get a $10K advance, and even at that level you’re not likely to reach the threshold for receiving royalties. The economics of publishing, at least from the writer’s position, would be completely different if publishers paid, say, $50K, which would give the author some cash to spend on a publicist, not to mention pizza.

In other words, there are so many injustices front-loaded into the publishing business where writers are concerned that to moan and groan over the back end seems self-indulgent. We should take used bookstores as they are: depositories of tales that await rediscovery. Warehouses of imagination. Nostalgia farms.

They’re homes for literary orphans. Now go out there and adopt some needy books.

23 comments on “Used bookstores: friend or foe?

  1. islandeditions
    February 2, 2016

    I like that thought – adopting literary orphans! We should all become book rescuers who breathe life back into those treasures we find and adopt. Share them with friends. Give the authors another shot long after they’ve been forgotten by their publishers, the new-book stores and the initial flush of readers.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 2, 2016

      Right! Books have a timeless air about them, and there’s no reason they have to fade away, like old soldiers… 😜

  2. kingmidget
    February 2, 2016

    It’s interesting. My dad was a writer. Although he wrote some fiction, he was never able to publish it. What he did get published were books about writing. Way back when, in the early 80’s, his first book was published. The Business Writing Handbook. For which he got an advance of $30,000. Subsequently, the publishers acknowledged they overpaid on the advance, but still, it’s stunning that he got that for his very first book and fiction writers these days get something significantly less than that for a first book.

    As for the issue of getting paid for re-sales of books, I don’t know how that could possibly work and it is why I think those musicians who are opposed to Spotify and other streaming services are short-sighted. If I buy a CD, the artist will never make more than $1 from me for that CD. But if I listen to Spotify throughout the day (which I do), artists are getting paid every time I listen to one of their songs. Yes, it is a very small amount per listen, but particularly for those artists I listen to a lot, that amount adds up to much more than the $1 they would make from a CD. But there’s just a fundamental difference with books — people don’t read them over and over and over again. Well except if they’re teenagers and pre-teens thumbing through their Harry Potter and Twilight books over and over and over again.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 2, 2016

      I just looked for your dad’s book on Amazon and found a used copy! http://goo.gl/EnI7QL A very nice review’s there too…

      I guess how artists and writers are compensated has always been a little screwy. Used to be a patronage system, and it’s probably still that way except now under the guise of a publishing or recording contract. In publishing, it’s all about the advance, so that’s what writers need to realize when they wish used bookstores paid them royalties.

      As for Spotify (and I’m listening to it right now!), it would work better if they paid the artists more and the labels less. As it is, the label or rights holder gets the lion’s share and the artist gets micropayments.

      Same as it ever was, maybe…

    • cinthiaritchie
      February 3, 2016

      How cool! I found your dad’s book too. What a neat thing. It looks very serious and informative, and I like the cover.
      P.S. I read books over and over and over again, at least the ones that I love.

      • kingmidget
        February 4, 2016

        That little book did wonderful things for our family for a year or two. I’m sure it is also massively out of date now given the changes in business communication over the last 30+ years.

  3. sknicholls
    February 2, 2016

    I liken used book stores to libraries. We find both classic and contemporary works there.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 2, 2016

      So true. They’re not wed to the bestseller list, so you can find hidden treasures and guilty pleasures there.

  4. francisguenette
    February 2, 2016

    Good point in that the whole publishing system is so front-loaded with inequities for the producer of the product – i.e. the writers – what can we say? I’ve always loved used book stores and oh – that smell. You just had to be there. My most recent sojourn was to one in Ottawa with my son. Oh my goodness – the cramped and twisted staircases, the shelves literally overflowing. Magic but I sure wouldn’t want to have been there in an earthquake!

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 2, 2016

      I think I read somewhere that somebody had created an air freshener called Bookstore. 😉 But you’re right, some of those places look pretty hazardous!

  5. John W. Howell
    February 2, 2016

    Used book stores have always been favorites of mine until I became immune deficient. Can’t take the chance.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 3, 2016

      Best to play it safe… BTW, John, I just caught your amazing review of Town Father! A thousand thanks, and I remain your servant for life. 👏

      • John W. Howell
        February 3, 2016

        I wish. But you are welcome. You must know I really enjoy your work.

  6. donaldbakerauthor
    February 2, 2016

    We have seen a drastic decline in used book stores in the Indy area since the digital age hit us. But the ones that remain are worth going to.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 2, 2016

      Interesting. I’ve noticed too a lot of indie bookstores adding a used section…

  7. Audrey Driscoll
    February 2, 2016

    There was a used bookstore in Vancouver, B.C. in the 70s that had a cage full of budgies near the front, cats lounging among the books, a dog wandering around, and ashtrays scattered around for the convenience of the book browsers. And one day I noticed a hot plate with a sizzling pan of chicken on the floor under one of the book displays. Atmosphere!

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 3, 2016

      Hmmm, cooking on the floor doesn’t sound too hygienic to me! Especially with cats and dogs running around… 😳

      • Audrey Driscoll
        February 3, 2016

        Well, I certainly wasn’t tempted to nibble. But there were good deals to be had on used books! (This was not, of course, an “antiquarian” bookstore).

  8. lvgaudet
    February 3, 2016

    Reblogged this on Vivian Munnoch, Author.

  9. cinthiaritchie
    February 3, 2016

    I love this: “…depositories of tales that await rediscovery. Warehouses of imagination. Nostalgia farms.”
    Oh, oh, yes!
    I frequent used bookstores and while I know I should buy new (and trust me, I buy a lot of books new, too), I love the atmosphere of used bookstores, love the way they smell and feel. I think my book would be happier in a used bookstore than the flashy buy-the-newest-big-seller bookstores of today.
    One good thing, though, is that someone is probably more apt to take a gamble on a new writer at a used bookstore, since the price is cheaper and the books a bit more worn and lived-in and comfy. It’s a great way of building a fan base.

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This entry was posted on February 2, 2016 by in Publishing and tagged , , .
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