Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Sunday, December 28, 2008

book buying

David Streitfeld has a curious essay in the NYT about bad times for the publishing industry — publishers not buying new books, bookstores closing — and his preferred explanation for the troubles:

Don’t blame this carnage on the recession or any of the usual suspects, including increased competition for the reader’s time or diminished attention spans. What’s undermining the book industry is not the absence of casual readers but the changing habits of devoted readers.

In other words, it’s all the fault of 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.

Seriously? Are there that many people buying used books online? I suppose it’s possible, but my own experience wouldn't suggest that that market is huge. But then, a lot of used book sales are done via Amazon, and no one really knows how well Amazon is doing. Maybe Streitfeld is right and used-books-via-Amazon-and-eBay constitute a major threat to the whole publishing industry. But I have my doubts.

Something else in the essay that I find intriguing: Streitfeld’s claim that the ready availability of used books makes book-buying a morally-charged enterprise:

One consequence has been to change the calculations involved in buying a book. Given the price, do I really want to read this? Now it’s become both an economic and a moral issue? How much do I want to pay, and where do I want that money to go? To my local community via a bookstore? To the publisher? To the author?

In theory, I want to support all of these fine folks. In practice, I decide to save a buck.

I’m sensing a whole brave new world of examples for writers of ethics texts.