For as long as there has been a publishing industry, there have been used books - that supposedly quaint world of polymaths and antiquarians poking about musty, cluttered stores for titles few readers would know.
A landmark study released Wednesday confirms what publishers, authors and booksellers have believed - and feared - since the rise of the Internet: Used books have become a modern powerhouse, driven by high prices for new works and by the convenience of finding any title, new or old, without leaving your home.
According to the Book Industry Study Group book sales topped $2.2 billion in 2004, an 11 percent increase over 2003. Much of that growth can be credited to the Internet. While used sales at traditional stores rose a modest 4.6 percent, they jumped 33 percent online, to just over $600 million.
"I think consumers are increasingly starting to notice that they can get used books in good condition, in a timely manner," says Jeff Hayes, a director at InfoTrends, a market research firm that served as the principal analyst for the BISG study.
More than 111 million used books were purchased last year, representing about one out of every 12 overall book purchases. By the end of the decade, the percentage is expected to rise to one out of 11, a troubling trend when sales for new works are essentially flat; authors and publishers receive no royalties from used buys.
"Obviously, these are not statistics to warm the heart of publishers," says Simon & Schuster spokesman Adam Rothberg.
The BISG, a nonprofit organization supported by publishers, booksellers and others in the industry, reports that price is the greatest appeal for choosing used books over new ones. While hardcovers often cost $25 and higher, used books purchased in 2004 averaged $8.12 — except for text books, which averaged $42.31.
The study will likely revive the complaints of authors and publishers who say that online retailers are hurting new sales by aggressively promoting used copies. On Amazon.com and eBay, for example, used editions are often available at the same time, or even before, a new book is released.
The industry, indirectly, may even contribute to the problem: Author signings for upcoming releases are a tradition at HarperCollins. "The author should at least make the signature personal, 'Dear Jane,' so it's worth less to sell."
The BISG survey looks at both education and general markets. The cost of text books has long been a matter of contention and the BISG reports that educational buys totaled an estimated $1.6 billion — nearly all through traditional stores — an increase of 8.5 percent over 2003.
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