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Editorial: Feeling Used

Why do people in music and books always think so small? Is it the art gene?

Case in point: the Authors Guild's 16-month effort to get Amazon.com to stop offering used books on the same Web pages at the same time as new releases.

The effort is a futile exercise in market myopia.

The organization sent an e-mail last week to 5,000 of its members calling on those who have Web sites to remove links to Amazon.com's affiliate program in protest of the merchant aggressively marketing its used book service.

“Amazon's practice does damage to the publishing industry, decreasing royalty payments to authors and profits to publishers. In time, as we pointed out to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos when it first began this practice over a year ago, the financial loss to the industry could affect the quality and diversity of literature made available through booksellers. If profits suffer, publishers will cut their investments in new works, and authors facing reduced advances and royalties will have to find other ways to earn income.”

Anything that has the potential to head off another insipid best seller like “Who Moved My Cheese?” can't be all bad.

Meanwhile, the guild claims it is not trying to halt the sale of used books online. Good thing, since used book sales are perfectly legal and ethical, and happen regularly offline.

However, the guild would like Amazon.com to be a little less blatant about pitching the used book service.

Great. My college English professor is telling Amazon.com how to merchandise.

Reportedly, most authors don't sell enough books to “earn out” their advances, so the royalty argument is probably moot for all but the top sellers.

Used books are going to be sold online. The author may as well get a cut if possible. An Internet affiliate program is a way for an author to get a piece – albeit a small one – of sales resulting from traffic driven by his or her Web site. What's more, under an affiliate program, the author gets a slice of entire purchases. This doesn't happen offline. Granted, affiliate income is often miniscule, but wouldn't it make sense to link to the bookseller clearly doing everything possible to raise its average order size and, as a result, raise the author's cut?

According to Authors Guild executive director Paul Aiken, online merchants have the potential to drastically change the economics of publishing. He likened Amazon.com's service to a used bookstore on steroids.

The Internet reportedly accounts for less than 10 percent of book sales overall. Used books accounted for 15 percent of Amazon.com's sales last year.

If every online bookseller followed Amazon.com's lead – they don't – used books sold online would at best account for less than 1.5 percent of book sales overall. Those are some pretty weak steroids.

And while Internet used book sales present no threat to book sales overall, they constitute a substantial percentage of Amazon.com's revenue.

Isn't it in authors' best interest for Amazon.com to survive?

The phrase “information wants to be free” was always the mantra of new-economy la la heads. Of course, authors should be paid for their work.

But the guild is not defending authors' right to be paid for their work. It is defending a business model, and if online book sales, new or used, affect the publishing economy that drastically, the market is signaling that it's time for that business model to change.

To what? Who knows? That's the beauty. The ones who figure it out get yachts and private jets in return.

It is certainly possible — as Amazon.com contends — that a significant number of people who balk at full price for a new genre or the work of an unknown author will be willing to test them for less. Think of it as a loss leader.

Having read and enjoyed the used book, the reader may buy the next one at full price. Readers, especially avid ones, love new books.

Also, Amazon.com's recommendation feature may inform used book buyers of other previously unknown works as a result of their used book purchases. Newly enlightened, the customer might buy the new recommendations as well.

Might it be possible that significant online used book sales could result in more book purchases overall?

Nah. That would take a dynamic marketplace. Amazon's going to kill bricks-and-mortar bookstores, remember?

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