Friday, July 23, 2010

New Books vs. Old Books

That economic times are tougher today than ever before in my lifetime (and I've been around long enough to live through some pretty tough recessions) is beyond doubt. Frankly, I don't see things getting much better for the average folks out there any time soon, either. In fact, I get the feeling that things will get worse before we finally turn the corner toward a real recovery some years up the road.

That's why what this Houston Chronicle article describes does not surprise me in the least. Some bookstores are doing pretty well, others are suffering greatly. The difference? The ones doing well are primarily selling used books; the ones doing more poorly are selling just the opposite. With new hardbacks going for close to $30, on average, and quality paperbacks selling for $15, or more, is anyone surprised?
Sales at Dallas-based Half Price Books began to rise when gasoline prices soared during the summer of 2008 and again when the recession slammed U.S. consumers that fall.

Both events drove more traffic to Half Price Books' 110 stores as Americans latched on to thriftier habits, said Kathy Doyle Thomas, the chain's executive vice president.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, Half Price Books racked up a 5 percent jump in same-store sales, which compare year-over-year revenue at stores open at least a year. Same-store sales at its 11 stores in the Houston area were up 5.6 percent.

The story doesn't read as well at Barnes & Noble and Borders Group, as consumers shift to buying books online or reading digital books on electronic devices such as Amazon's Kindle.

Borders has had layoffs and recently launched an e-bookstore to compete with Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook e-reader.
I generally read at least 125 books a year, and there is no way I can afford to buy that many new books. So, at least 20 years ago, I settled into a plan to buy used books as reading copies and hardbacks for those books I want to give a permanent place on my bookshelves. (That does mean I often buy the same title, in different versions, two times.) The used books, including paperbacks, are often used in trades or as resales that get me a few more unread books.

I still, though, do shop for new hardbacks even though I cringe a little when I pay for them. I bought Mark Twain's Other Woman by Laura Skandera Trombley the other day, a book about the woman who played a key role in Twain's life during his last decade (after the death of his wife). The book sold for $27.95 and I purposely bought it from one of Houston's independent bookstores. Add sales tax and I paid $30.25 for the thing because I want it for my permanent collection and I try to buy from indies when I'm reasonably close to one.

I suspect that books sales are in trouble and that library usage will increase at about the same pace that bookstore sales decline. Sadly, this is all happening just when local governments everywhere are slashing their library budgets.


  1. Sadly, I'm part of the problem. Like you, I only buy hardbacks by authors that I know I love and want to keep on my shelves... either to re-read or pass on to friends.
    New-to-me authors are checked out at the library. I can't justify the $30 or so if I'm not sure I will like it.
    I am a little more flexible with mass-market paperbacks. I'll buy new authors in PB but, even then, sometimes, I'll wait until I can get it at my used bookstore.
    It really is a vicious circle but, honestly, I have a limited budget for books and want to make it go as far as it can... like most readers, I guess.

  2. I'm glad to hear that used bookstores are seeing more business. I was sad last year to hear of so many closing. Myself, I always buy used books (or borrow) it is very rare that I buy new books. There is no way I could afford to, I read so many!

  3. I wonder how much a hardback "really" costs . I wonder if prices may go down to try to get people to buy.
    I love the feel of a hardback,so I dont buy many. I use my library and Paperbackswap constantly, so I feel like I still get to read a lot of "new" books. I save my birthday or Christmas giftcards or money for the gotta have hardbacks!

  4. I recently started a job after more than a year of unemployment. During that time I was able to read a lot of books, but I also pretty much gave up on going to B&N or Borders. As much as I enjoy the bookstore atmosphere, the cost seems hardly justifiable. For example, one day I checked out a historical book that I really wanted to read at Borders and was surprised when I was informed that it was $36. Yikes! I checked Amazon as soon as I got home and found that they were charging $25. I suspect that places like Borders will have to continue to rethink their strategy, especially as these difficult economic times continue. Meanwhile, I will remain a devout fan and promoter of public libraries.

  5. I rarely buy "new" anymore. It just isn't practical when you read as much as I do. I love my local used bookstore that uses its proceeds to benefit my local library. And I check out library books every few weeks.