Thursday, March 05, 2009

Back when I was an editorial assistant living in New York on the princely salary of $17,500 per annum, I noted that although my colleagues and I were laboring to sell books, few of us actually seemed to buy them.

New hardcovers were virtually unaffordable, but assuming one was patient (and with a tote bag laden with manuscripts that needed reading, such patience was an easy-to-cultivate virtue) one could generally lay hands on the desired books gratis, sometimes from a kindly publicist or editorial colleague, sometimes via the inter-house, cold-call assistant swap, or when stars aligned, from the “take shelf,” a magical spot where unwanted books waited to be scooped up by the penurious and/or acquisitive. For a while, I allowed the take shelf to dictate my “for fun” reading; it made for an interesting run. One memorable span included Al Haig’s memoir, A History of the Arab Peoples and Lorrie Moore’s incomparable collection, Self Help--Watergate, Shiites and anagrams make for a heady mix, let me tell you. Although I was awash in books, I am somewhat abashed to say that I acquired an astonishingly small percentage of these in retail bookstores. As a holdover from college and then grad school, I was an inveterate used book buyer, and I also went to the library, something I found few people in publishing ever seemed to do.

These days, I purchase books more frequently than almost never (somewhere around the dot com boom, I stopped thinking that only Croesus and his ilk bought hard covers, and started investing in a few of my own). I buy books, most often as gifts, but nowhere near as often as I imagine that a self-professed bibliophile ought to. I wonder whether the same is true of others connected to the publishing world; writers, agents, editors, scouts, if we help to create it, but don’t always float it. And in this dire time, when few people are buying books at all, I wonder if there is some ethically correct consumer position—a literary equivalent of a locovore or fair-trade-ite—so that a person who cares passionately about books would, for example, endeavor to buy them new, at full price, from an independent bookseller. Is buying from Amazon’s selection of used copies like tucking into a plate of Chilean Sea Bass or Alaskan King Crab? What about buying books at deep discount “big box” stores? How do places like The Strand fit in? I love used and antiquarian book stores, and I can’t quite reconcile myself to the idea that these shrines to reading aren’t good for books, though I know full well that the publisher saw not one penny of revenue on my nearly new copy of Iris Murdoch’s A SEVERED HEAD. And so I wonder, now that I’ve come clean about my own less than exemplary book buying habits, what are yours?

--Jessica

15 comments:

  1. Confession: I stock up on old hardcovers, at the local thrift shops, and the library close-outs.

    Question: I wonder how the whole Kindle/e-Read thing will factor in, in the long run.. Any thoughts?

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  2. I've been wrestling with this thought all week. I've been hitting up my local library fairly frequently. But they don't have many of the newer books I want to read. I would love to be able to purchase any book I wanted, to both support the industry and build a nice library of my own. Unfortunately, buying books is a luxury at this point because of our finances.

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  3. Natalie Arloa6/3/09 8:28 AM

    I do all of the above. I go to the library *a lot* but I also buy books from my local independent, although if I'm buying a hardcover and Target has it, I'm going there because of price. The argument, "you are trying to become a published author, so get out there and buydebut novels" is compelling to me, so I've started doing that more often.

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  4. I use my local library a lot, but rarely for ficition books. I'm lucky that this library has a fantastic writing reference section as well as great material for researching most any topic.

    A lot of the current fiction I read is not at the library, so I will buy (paperback) when able. I admit I do check the library first just in case, especially if I'm hunting down a fiction book that has been out awhile but I missed.

    I think as long as we buy when able we are doing fine. Plus, the library can often help you discover new authors that you end up buying their more recent books anyway.

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  5. I buy books. I buy them primarily from my local independent bookstore. For the most part, I buy softcovers, both for the price and the space issues on my bookshelves.

    Books are one of those pleasures I indulged in even when I was a poor and struggling graduate student.

    So am I the last of a dying breed?

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  6. I water my book thirst at every trough available- Barnes &Noble, Amazon, the used bookstore and the library. I prefer purchasing (it's the hunter in me) but coming home from the library with two dozen volumes for free is equally rewarding.

    In fact, if I worked on my novel with the same intensity as I shop for books...

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  7. Mea Culpa. I rarely buy 'new' books unless I have a discount coupon or they are discounted because they are on the bestseller list. typically I haunt used bookstores and/or purchase used books through Amazon. So much for putting money directly into the coffers of authors and publishers.

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  8. I'm buying more books. It's always been a weakness but it's getting worse since I've been actively writing. And I often buy books for gifts.

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  9. This is interesting because I was just writing about this very thing in my journal. I rarely buy any books and I feel a bit bad about that. It's not by choice, but because I don't have the money. It's not like I eat out all the time or shop or anything and can cut corners to allow book money. My husband and I have chosen to live close to the bone so that I can write full time. While my wonderful agent (Hi, Michael!) has sold my first book, it will be two or three more sales before I can start buying books. In the meantime I am awash with ARCs from a friend who works for Penguin Canada, and I have a very good library where I live too. I was just looking at 50 ARCs and thinking, "I'll never get through these before she brings me more!". That's a very good problem to have! I think my other problem with buying books is that I really hate clutter, so then I'm faced with what to do with the books after I've read them and it kills me to just donate a $17 book, even though I know it's a very good thing to do! The library here will take new hardcovers and put them into circulation, which makes me happier than just giving them to the library book sale (I can't trade them to used bookstores because then I'll end up with more books!). I think that once I am a bit more flush, I will shop at the local indie bookstore and arrange to give away the books afterward to the library or the high school. In the meantime, all I can really do is support the library and blog like crazy about the books I love and hope that other people will buy them.

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  10. I buy new books, but not if I can find them used first. And I reread books I love again and again. I figure if people can watch the same movie over and over, I can reread books. It's a great practice when you live in a country where books in English aren't easy to find -- or cheap. After a year or so, even a book you've read and loved can be reread and enjoyed.

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  11. I like buying books. I'm also a movie fanatic, but I buy far more books than I ever would a DVD.

    My favorite form is hard-back, so when I go to the local bookstore, I'm always looking for fresh, new hard-backs. I shun paperbacks because they just don't hold up as well, nor do they look as good on a book shelf as a hardback does.

    I, like anyone, love buying discounted books, but my latest craze is buying e-books. Now that may sound strange coming from a person who professes to love hard-back books. I love that they are easy to buy, and I can read them immediately and most anywhere without actually carring them around.

    Now, it was quite some time ago when you were an editorial assistant, how do you think the ability to purchase e-books at that time would have affected you?

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  12. ive bought them at consignment shops - agh (bought inkheart for 2$ hardcover too - sorry Cornelia :(

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  13. Four or five years ago, I decided that if I was going to write books and expect people to buy them, I had to support my fellow writers.

    So I buy almost all my books (including the books I give away on my blog) at full retail from my local, independent bookseller. And I buy them when I want them, without regard to hardback versus paperback status.

    It turned out to benefit me. I've become good friends with my local bookseller. I can email him, and he'll ship books around the world for me, knowing I'll pay for them the next time I come in. He's come to know my taste and often recommends books I might not have found on my own. He introduces me to other booklovers, wonderful people whom I adore. And when I eventually have a novel to sell, I know he'll be hand-selling it to every person who comes through the door.

    But I worry about this too. Think about sites like Paperback Swap (which isn't just paperbacks), where you can ask for specific books and get them for the cost of shipping a book you no longer want. A lot of the book fanatics that follow my blog get most of their books from sites like that.

    I'm not implying any judgment. I know a LOT of my readers could never afford their two-a-day habit at full retail, and I'm just glad they read. And books have always been recycled.

    But I do wonder/worry about it.

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  14. Up until recently, I bought books regularly. But I just ordered an e-reader so I'll probably be buying e-books from now on.

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