David Nicholls may decry those who buy their books online, but even he knows why we do so. We shop online because the books are cheap, and the reason the prices are so low is that supply exceeds demand.
Take those one cent books on Amazon.com and other sites, for example. I’m sure you’ve browsed the Amazon Marketplace sellers and wondered where those ebooks came from and how a company can make money selling a book so cheap.
The Guardian looked into it, and they found that many of the largest sellers of used books ran highly automated operations which collected books from charity shops, libraries, and schools.
These books were mostly going to be thrown away, and in fact 90% still are thrown out. But the remaining 10% still amounts to more books than the market can handle.
Basically you can take the origin story of one online seller and multiply it by a hundred:
Colin Stephens, founder and director of Sunrise Books in England, was thumbing through a charity shop’s bookshelf when the manager told him how much she’d come to hate used books. Every few days, she complained, she would have to load the trunk of her car with the shop’s excess donations and shuttle them to the landfill, in her own spare time and at her own expense.
Back then, Stephens happened to be out of work; he had long enjoyed buying and selling books on eBay, and suddenly saw an opportunity to turn his hobby into a full-time job. He told the manager that he would come by once a week to take the books and find them a new home. She was thrilled.
“The next day I got a call from one of her friends who manages another charity shop,” Stephens told me by phone, “and then another, and another.” He started selling these orphaned books online, out of his living room. Ten years later, Sunrise Books has four warehouses to its name, and is about to take over a fifth. “We have two vans out on the road every day that go around to charity shops on set runs,” he explains. They take in upwards of 20 tons of used books each week.
I was surprised to learn that the reuse/recycle operations had grown that large and that organized. While I had know that the internet had concentrated supply to such a degree that it forced prices down, I had never realized the degree to which the supply exceeded demand.
This is what the used book operations see, day in and day out:
One could look at this and blame the internet for ruining the book business, but what I see is evidence that the publishing has been over-producing a durable good for far too many decades (but we already knew that from the fact that publishing had a word for remainders).
In the pre-internet days, the publishing industry could continue blithely over-producing and count on an inefficient aftermarket to make sure that the excess disappeared.
But thanks to the internet, the aftermarket – the used book market – is now as efficient as the new book market.
Your potential supply of books has expanded beyond the shelves of the bookstores in your limited geographic region to include every shelf in every warehouse in the world.
Folks, this is part of the reason I’ve said that any workable plan for a future bookstore will have to include an online component, and it will have to include used book sales.
So long as books continue to be over-produced, the aftermarket will remain quite large. There’s acres and acres of books for you to buy online, and any bookseller looking to thrive is going to have to figure out how to stake out a claim and make money off of that excess supply.