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Readers seeking E.L. Doctorow's new novel "The March," one of the best-reviewed books of the fall season, can buy the new novel at their neighborhood bookstore for $25.95 or on the Web for a few dollars less.
Or they can seek out an even better bargain, like the $13.99 (plus shipping) deal offered earlier this week for a "read once gently" copy on Amazon.com Inc.'s Web site.
The Internet is creating a new and fast-growing category in the book-selling market -- the barely-used book. An increasing number of consumers are snapping up used volumes online at invitingly cheap prices. These aren't yellowing copies of out-of-print titles but often unblemished copies of newly published books -- sometimes available just a few days after a book's official publication date.
Today, any consumer armed with a title or an ISBN number can search the Internet for the lowest price and get one within minutes. At the same time, the Web sites that offer such books, such as Amazon, Abebooks Inc. and Alibris Inc., have made it painless for readers to resell them. A reader who owns "The March," for example, can sell it via Amazon just by clicking on the "Sell Yours Here" button to the right of the new-book listing. The process is so simple that even the most technologically befuddled person can follow it. Once the book sells, Amazon collects a commission of $0.99 plus 15% of the sale price from the seller. It then deposits the remainder in the seller's account and provides the address of the customer. The seller ships the book directly to the customer. Amazon's payment to the seller includes a pre-calculated credit toward shipping costs.
In effect, Amazon and other online used-book sites, including eBay Inc., are creating a nation of amateur booksellers at a time when consumer book unit sales are flat or declining.
"This is the new Internet reality, which is the cheaper the better," says Laurence Kirshbaum, chief executive of Time Warner Inc.'s book group. With Web sites displaying new and used titles together, he says, "you can see two prices side by side, and the discrepancy is enormous."
Mr. Kirshbaum has reason to be concerned. There are currently 70 "new and used" copies of "The Widow of the South" -- one of Time Warner's biggest books of the fall -- for sale on Amazon. Although the novel carries a retail price of $24.95, there are several copies on Amazon described as "new" being offered for $16 or less.
The issue is so contentious that several literary agents are calling for authors and publishers to find some way to share in the revenue created by the used-book market. "The online transaction providers should pay a fee," says Richard Pine, a partner in New York literary agency InkWell Management LLC. "The commission should be paid directly to the publisher, who should pass through 100% of that income to the author."
Adds Ann Rittenberg, president of Ann Rittenberg Literary Agency Inc.: "I'd like to see the author getting 10% of a used book sale. I wouldn't have asked for this years ago, but it's so organized now that there should be a payment." A spokeswoman for Amazon says the company doesn't offer a commission and won't comment on what it may or may not do in the future.
Until recently, publishers barely noticed used-book sales. Nobody knew how large the market was for used volumes, or whether it was growing or not.
Certainly, there has always been a significant demand for used textbooks. But a new study conducted by InfoTrends Research Group Inc., a market-research firm in Weymouth, Mass., on behalf of the Book Industry Study Group, a trade association, has gone a long way towards quantifying demand for used titles.
While the market's size is still modest -- about $600 million, or 2.8% of the $21 billion that readers spent on consumer books in 2004 -- it is growing at 25% annually. Jeff Hayes, group director for InfoTrends Research Group, suggests that it could reach $2.25 billion in U.S. sales by 2010, or 9.4% of a projected $23.9 billion in consumer book sales.
Many in publishing worry that every sale of a used book in "new" condition will act as a substitute for an actual sale of a new book. Others are concerned that writers are losing out. "We want to make sure that authors receive the royalties they deserve," says Jane Friedman, CEO of News Corp.'s HarperCollins Publishers Inc., one of the country's largest publishers. "We'd also like Amazon to give some breathing room between the on-sale date of a new book and the sale of used copies."
All these barely used books come from a variety of sources. Some are offered up by everyday readers. Some are undoubtedly review copies that publishers provide to critics. Professional booksellers also offer copies. "Booksellers acquire used books from consumers and pay as much as 30% to 40% off the retail price and then resell it for as much as 60% of the retail price, depending on condition," says Mr. Hayes.
The new report doesn't make it clear how many newly published books are being sold as used books. Nor does anyone know how many dollars spent on used books would instead have been spent purchasing new books.
One reason the used-book market is growing is that the experience of buying and selling such books has improved, according to Mr. Hayes. "In the past, you didn't hesitate to buy a new book," he says. "But if you only have to wait a week or two, you may decide to hold off and buy a used copy."
Last week, Bethanne Patrick, who writes the Book Maven blog for Time Warner's America Online unit, says she bought a used copy of Zadie Smith's new novel "On Beauty" (dust-jacket price: $25.95) in very good condition for $14.50 on Amazon. "Why pay full price if I can get a hardly opened hardback copy online?" she says.