Monday, January 5, 2009

Bargain Hunting for Books, and Being Confused About It

The New York Times over the holidays published a marvelously muddled piece about the book business titled “Bargain Hunting for Books, and Feeling Sheepish About It.”

The point of the article was that the sale of used books over the web was the death knell for bookstores and for book publishers. As proof of this idea, the author, David Streitfeld, recounted his experience buying a used copy of a book called “Room for Doubt” through the web site There he purchased the book for twenty five cents (the book sells new in paperback for $13.95) from a woman in California.

Streitfeld makes much of the availability of used books on the web for next to nothing. He even recounts finding copies of “Room for Doubt” being offered for as little as one cent! Books for a penny! Books for a quarter! It sounds almost too good to be true.

And of course it is. And maybe Streitfeld knew this was the case when he told us the title of the book he ordered.

The rub here is that Streitfeld gives exact figures for the new price of the book and the two astonishingly low used prices he finds on the web. But he glosses over how much he actually paid for the book, saying he “bought a copy for 25 cents from someone who called herself Heather Blue plus a few bucks for shipping.”

“Plus a few bucks for shipping” indeed. If Streitfeld really paid so little to get this book, why doesn’t he tell us what the bill really came to? Probably because if he did, he would be feeling sheepish about his whole article.

The standard internet charge for shipping a book these days is $3.99. This is for postal service book rate shipping; arrival in 5 to 14 business days. Some places charge $4.50 or $5.00 for this standard shipping. So Streitfeld almost certainly paid a minimum of $4.24 for his book, and he had to wait 5 to 14 business days for his purchase to arrive.

Paying $4.24 for this book is a decent bargain, but it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of the industry-changing phenomenon that Mr. Streitfeld claims. And talk about twisted economies--Streitfeld likely paid 16 times more in shipping charges than the supposed value of the item he purchased. To put this in perspective, let’s apply this ratio to the purchase of something that you might actually need to have delivered to your home. I’ve got a great deal for Streitfeld on a new refrigerator--$500, plus a few bucks—say $8,000--for delivery!

The seller’s side of this transaction is stranger yet. When contacted by Streitfeld, Heather Blue said she sold the book “because she had too many books and wanted to raise money to buy more.” But how can selling a book for 25 cents, when it will cost her at least $4.00 to get a similar book, be a smart move? Of course, she probably made an actual profit of about $1.25, since the post office charges $2.23, book rate, to ship most books. (And she would also have paid something for packing and shipping materials).

But going through all the work of posting a book on the web, accepting an offer, packing and shipping this book for a net of $1.25? It’s hard to see how this is a good use of anyone’s time or energy.

Why didn’t she gather this book together with others she wanted to sell and bring them to a local bookstore? At The Regulator she could have received $2.00 in store credit for her copy of “Room for Doubt,” and more (than selling on the web) for her other books as well. In just one short trip, she could have gotten a bunch of credit that she could spend in our store on used books, new books, remainders, cards, gift items, magazines, etc. Compare this to the effort of selling, packing and shipping her books one book at a time to folks like Mr. Streitfeld, with each transaction netting a smaller profit on each item.

What’s going on here? My guess is that both the buyer and seller in this transaction have fallen prey to the thrall of the internet. Many folks these days operate under the assumption—usually unspoken and almost always unexamined—that if you can do it on the net, most especially if you can do it peer to peer on the net, that’s the best way to do everything and anything. As this case shows, this is not always so, particularly when there’s a reasonably close-by local alternative.

There’s one more thing David Streitfeld should really feel sheepish about. That’s the carbon footprint/global warming impact of his method of buying books. Even without a carbon tax—which we should all hope gets put in place soon—the huge imbalance between the price of his book and the cost of shipping should have tipped him off that something wasn’t quite right with this way of buying things. Shipping a single book, with all its packaging, hundreds or thousands of miles is a global warming nightmare. Buying (and selling) locally is a greener way to go.

When we finally do get a carbon tax, some ways of doing business may no longer be viable. Selling small items one at a time over the net could well be one of these. Sell your amazon stock now?

Read Streitfeld’s original article at this link


Peggy said...

Brilliant blog on an important topic!

Bud Parr said...

I agree with you mostly, but there is an environmental cost of an individual driving to a store to shop, whereas it's not as though the book being shipped has chartered a private jet; it's being shipped along with a lot of other things that will be shipped whether or not that book is with them.

And, for what it's worth, sells new and used books online and offers free shipping and offsets their carbon footprint via the carbonfund.

an avid indie-bookstore consumer

Hut Landon said...

Nicely done, Tom! Not the first time Streitfield has engaged in sloppy or misleading writing, so good for you to call him on it this time.

candler h said...

Good post, Tom. Keep up the good work!

To Bud Parr I would suggest that no one is making you drive anywhere. Biking or public transportation are just two alternatives.

Deb E said...

All of these points may be valid, as far as they go, but here's the real point, as Mr. Straetfield put it: "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?"

That's the real issue. What is a work of literature worth, intrinsically, and who is entitled to be compensated for creating it? Same as music, film, etc. - any creative "product." It doesn't matter whether you buy/sell it on line or elsewhere. The bottom line is: an author creates something that may/may not be of some value to a reader. The publisher and the bookseller have a responbility to make the book available to the reader at a price that compensates them for their creativity, work, and financial costs. The reader has a responsibility to pay the full price, if he decides "I really want to read this book."

Discounters, resellers, et al. get in the middle of that reader's decision and reduce the transaction to a meaningless haggle over a now-worthless object. Again, as Mr. Staetfield says, "In practice, I decide to save a buck." Of course he does. Everyone along the line has made it possible for him to do so, convincing him in the process that the book isn't worth more than a penney plus shipping, and that he's a fool to pay more.

If this is the end of book publishing and bookselling, so be it. I'm thinking it's not - that it's a re-sizing of serious (i.e. not primarily commercial) publishing and bookselling that places appropriate value on an important cultural resource. What's not valued in book form will eventually spin off into the bargain bins and the Internet and become a different line of business, and that's fine. Not everyone has to publish and sell all the same things the same way forever. Prices will sort themselves out, the integrity of the process that connects writer and reader will be restored, and real value will find its level. It could happen!