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Neil Gaiman Has Something to Say About Authors Promoting Used Bookstores

5234548420_e5f6608f7c_oOver the past week the author blogosphere has been taken over with a debate on getting paid. Kristen Lamb sparked the discussion on  Tuesday when she wrote a post arguing that authors who want to make a living should only promote channels that get them paid, and that sparked a long debate on The Passive Voice as well as commentary on Teleread.

I had been sitting out the debate and simply linking to the coverage because I just wasn’t interested in arguing with someone who was haranguing me on the acceptable ways to support writers (and yes, Lamb does lecture readers after first "excusing" them). And that goes double when the post comes from someone who defines this issue solely in monetary terms.

But late on Saturday I came across a post that Neil Gaiman published on Tumblr. The post actually predates this discussion but it is also quite relevant.

Gaiman reposted a quote from some time back. His post was a graphic with text, but I went and found the text of the quote for you. Needless to say, Gaiman takes a very different view from Lamb on the topic of getting paid:

Don’t ever apologize to an author for buying something in paperback, or taking it out from a library (that’s what they’re there for. Use your library). Don’t apologize to this author for buying books second hand, or getting them from bookcrossing or borrowing a friend’s copy. What’s important to me is that people read the books and enjoy them, and that, at some point in there, the book was bought by someone. And that people who like things, tell other people. The most important thing is that people read.

Where Lamb is lecturing readers about the care and feeding of authors, Gaiman values fans (both current and potential) more as readers than as customers.


His position is similar to other authors who have said that obscurity, and not revenue, is the greater threat to authors. Tim O’Reilly was one of the first to put forward this argument in 2002 when he wrote that piracy was less of a problem than obscurity.

More than 100,000 books are published each year, with several million books in print, yet fewer than 10,000 of those new books have any significant sales, and only a hundred thousand or so of all the books in print are carried in even the largest stores. Most books have a few months on the shelves of the major chains, and then wait in the darkness of warehouses from which they will move only to the recycling bin. Authors think that getting a publisher will be the realization of their dreams, but for so many, it’s just the start of a long disappointment.

Sites like Amazon that create a virtual storefront for all the books in print cast a ray of light into the gloom of those warehouses, and so books that would otherwise have no outlet at all can be discovered and bought. Authors who are fortunate enough to get the rights to their book back from the publisher often put them up freely online, in hopes of finding readers. The web has been a boon for readers, since it makes it easier to spread book recommendations and to purchase the books once you hear about them. But even then, few books survive their first year or two in print. Empty the warehouses and you couldn’t give many of them away.

Many works linger in deserved obscurity, but so many more suffer simply from the vast differential between supply and demand.

With the rise of ebooks, self-publishing, and the re-release of so many backlists, his point is even more true today than it was thirteen years ago.

And this, folks, is the fundamental oversight that many of us seen in Lamb’s original post (this includes Lamb’s comment section). She devotes a lot of energy to, and gets very angry about, getting paid, in contrast to other authors who care more worried about getting noticed.

To be clear, I am not saying Lamb is wrong so much as her focus is too narrow. In that post Lamb focuses on money as the sole way for readers to support authors, when in reality the non-financial support could be worth so much more.


The used bookstore that Lamb rails against might not be generating any revenue for Lamb, but if it has her books then it is giving readers the chance to discover her work. Similarly, a tweet about a book, or a book shared between readers might not be a sale, but they too are a chance for a new reader to discover Lamb’s books.

My point is that getting noticed is the first step towards getting paid, and any author who discounts that step does so at the risk of their own peril.

images by nSeikalinmtheu, steve greer

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fjtorres January 3, 2016 um 12:39 pm

One thing to keep in mind is the context: what triggered Ms Lamb’s piece was the hypocrisy of the WP article vilifying Amazon for selling cheap books while glorifyihg the used bookstore.
Selling books cheap while generating income for authors is bad but selling books cheap without generating income for authors is good?

Her phrasing may be off (though she says *if* you care, not that you *should* care) but her gripe is real.

The media hypocrisy is annoying.

Bill Smith January 3, 2016 um 1:30 pm

Ms. Lamb is kind of right (authors do need to be compensated).

But Mr. Gaiman is a very wise man indeed.

I discovered my love for Bradbury, Heinlein, Gaiman and so many others not by picking a random book off the shelf of my local bookstore, but by borrowing from libraries, borrowing from friends, or (in more recent years) by reading stories and samples online. Then I have gone out and bought substantial libraries of their books.

Chris Meadows, Editor of Teleread January 3, 2016 um 2:22 pm

My own post (the "TeleRead" link in the article) has quotes from other authors, Steve Miller and Eric Flint, who both also acknowledge the importance of used-book stores. Second-hand book stores are important because they are the foundation for publishers to be able to charge such high prices for their paper books. A lot of authors don’t seem to notice that.

Nate Hoffelder January 3, 2016 um 2:33 pm

Yep. You argued it on the point that the used market enables higher prices in the new market, which is true.

Kristen Lamb January 3, 2016 um 3:02 pm

I have no problem with discovery. But discovery WITHOUT a sale is useless. I have NO PROBLEM with used bookstores at all. I love them! I spend WAY TOO MUCH money there. I seriously need a 12 Step Program, a sponsor AND an intervention. But we live in this world that tosses around words like "discovery" and "exposure" but if there is NO follow up with a sale? That is WORTHLESS.

I run into this same argument with media people. "Oh, I can get your content to a MILLION PEOPLE!" Fine. But if a million people don’t buy my book. Who cares? The launch was a failure.

And I respect Mr. Gaiman. Bur frankly, Gaiman wouldn’t BE Gaiman if people (readers) hadn’t at some point invested in him and his writing with cold hard CASH.

I followed up my rant with an exploration of HOW publishing WORKS.

What too many people don’t understand is that used bookstores mainly stock traditional authors. Frankly, used bookstores aren’t costing me a dime because I am not a traditional author and likely never will be so they won’t have my books anyway.

But traditional authors have to sell out print runs or they don’t get another contract. If that author fails to sell enough NEW books? GAME OVER. That author’s career is finished.

So again, and I did try to make this clear in the article. I love used bookstores. They take a lot of my money. As a nonfiction author I have to cite pages and so I buy a lot of reference books in paper there but I love to read digital copies because I LOVE GIANT OLD LADY FONT. But…I also want to support the authors. So I do both. I buy the paper from the used store and digital from Amazon lest I go broke.

But writers? We work a job that is 100% commission. Us promoting blogs that glorify used bookstores and demonize digital and Amazon is like a realtor promoting blogs that glorify For Sale By Owner and trash using realtors because they are scum-sucking leeches out to get your money. That is just DUMB business.

If a regular person shared posts like those okay. But if a REALTOR did it? Really? Just…really.

And we can act like wanting to make money is all "dirty" but if Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Anne Rice and George R.R. Martin had been forced to subsist off good thoughts? We would not all be enjoying how they changed our worlds.

Thanks for the shout out and trackback!

Kristen Lamb January 3, 2016 um 3:04 pm


LOVE IT when I see a typo AFTER the fact. *hangs head*

Nate Hoffelder January 3, 2016 um 3:10 pm

@ Kristen Fixed it.

poiboy January 3, 2016 um 4:40 pm

this.. this is why i love neil gaiman! a true writer.

Nate Hoffelder January 3, 2016 um 5:42 pm

Konrath has weighed in on the topic. The tl;dr version is that he disagrees with most of it because "no one owes me a living".

Mackay Bell January 3, 2016 um 9:19 pm

Writers aren’t the only ones who don’t get paid. As a computer consultant, I’ve had plenty of people ask for free training, free assistance, etc. Plumbers end up doing a lot of free work for friends. I’ve had lawyers give me free advice and even write contracts for me for free. Mothers end up donating their time at the PTA. Doctors do work for free, etc., etc., etc.

Sometimes the person doing the free work is hoping for some future opportunity, sometimes just to be nice, or sometimes they are guilted into doing it. The notion that writers are the only people in this world that are expected to work for free is wrong.

We live in a capitalistic society were everyone has to prove their worth in one way or another. Writers, like everyone else, have to make judgements about where to devote their energies if making money is the primary goal.

Shawn Spjut January 4, 2016 um 4:59 am

I don’t think it’s a case of either or, but of both. Yes, a great many authors depend upon the sale of their books to make a living and yet, without the kind of exposure used bookstores and libraries give them, many of authors and their works would go undiscovered. It’s because of those used book sites and my local library, that I discovered the authors whose books (new and used) line my bookshelves today. Granted, I won’t pay $15-$30 for a book by an author I don’t know – on the other hand I won’t hesitate to spend that amount on a book by one I do.

DavidW January 4, 2016 um 7:53 am

She does have a point. The people quoted in the WP article act as if they are good people for supporting these booksellers. But these sellers did not write the books, they did not edit them, did not market them, did not publish them, nor did they distribute them. Nor are they sending any money back to the people that were responsible for creating and distributing these books.

Used books are cool, but if people could be more honest with themselves they could admit that buying from a used bookstore is not a social mission to support booksellers, it is a selfish mission to save their own wallets. There is nothing wrong with buying a used book, but don’t act like you’re some patron of the arts when doing so.

Steve Vernon January 4, 2016 um 8:23 am

I love used bookstores. A lot of them have closed here in Halifax. I miss them greatly.

I have always understood that a sale in a used bookstore does nothing for my pocketbook. But I also know that I have discovered writers in used bookstores and have gone on to hunt up their books in other bookstores – just because I wasn’t willing to sit around and wait to see if the rest of a certain author’s line-up showed up at one of the used bookstores that I frequent.

So – in the long of it I would say that used bookstores CAN sometimes benefit an author. I have quite a few friends whom I realize will NEVER buy one of my books – because they are too broke, or they don’t like booga-booga horror or they just aren’t big on reading. I don’t figure I should "unfriend" them just because they aren’t buying my books. So I stay friendly with used bookstores for that very same reason.

The fact is, I am NOT a business person. I would be if I were smarter at this gig of mine – but I am better at making shit up than I am at making a profit at it. I figure that doesn’t make me a lesser writer – just a less than rich one.

Anyways – I ought to be writing right now.

I need to make a little bit more money so that I can go and spend it at my local used bookstore.

On Used Bookstores | YOURS IN STORYTELLING… January 4, 2016 um 8:57 am

[…] A lot of folks have been talking about used bookstores over the last day or two. Some of them have been talking about how used bookstores are detrimental to us working authors. Other folks have been speaking up in favor of used bookstores. […]

As “Paying The Writer” Gets Easier, Whither Bookstores? | TechCrunch January 4, 2016 um 10:24 am

[…] the other hand we have the “exposure is important” writers who feel that getting the word out is more important than obscurity. Neil Gaiman. for […]

Shawn Spjut January 4, 2016 um 10:29 am

Though buying second hand books or using a lending library may not contributed to the cost of editing, publishing or distribution of a book (just as buying a used vehicle doesn’t contribute to a factory workers wages) all the money and promotional hoopla in the world won’t get your book sold or recommended unless someone reads it. As a writer, I’d be more concerned about the quality of the book and its reviews, then where or how it found its way into a readers hands.

Becky January 5, 2016 um 12:46 pm

I live in a rural location (only an hour away from a major city) where there are NO bookstores. The only used bookstores are in corners of consignment shops. The local library system only started offering eBooks this year. Many people do not have tablets, eReaders, or reliable high-speed Internet. Buying new books online is out of reach for many people due to income.

It would be a major boon if a good used bookstore opened up in my town (I’ve daydreamed about opening one myself).

Syn January 5, 2016 um 3:34 pm

The lady wants to get paid. I hear that!

There was a time I was poor and struggling and used book stores was how I got my fix. It was also the place I picked up some of my favorite authors. Now, I buy them all on Kindle or Audible. Sorry authors for my lean years, but I buy you new now, within…(*coughs* agency) reason.

???????????????????????? | TechCrunch ?? January 5, 2016 um 8:01 pm

[…] ????? ”?????????????????????????? […]

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[…] No Used is Good Used (3) […]

Lynn Thorn January 7, 2016 um 6:02 am

(Public libraries in the UK use a system whereby the authors/illustrators/etc of the books they lend get a small payment if they’ve registered – )

A different view of used books | Laurie Stewart: January 7, 2016 um 10:35 am

[…] From The Digital Reader. […]

Danny Adams January 7, 2016 um 4:02 pm

Used bookstores have been a great outlet for me for finding new authors. There have been countless times where I’ll risk paying a dollar or two on an unknown author when I likely wouldn’t have initally spent even the cost of a new paperback. But those used book sales did turn into new book sales plenty of times.

E. January 8, 2016 um 6:47 pm

[…] Source […]

Michael Patrick Hicks January 9, 2016 um 7:50 pm

[…] Source […]

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Charleigh November 28, 2020 um 2:35 am

I’m a barely known author — small press published and have only started my writing career a couple years ago. What I really recommend to people is if they buy used, and they liked the book, make a point to leave a good review on a website like Goodreads or Amazon. Reviews can be incredibly important in getting other people to try out new books by new authors.

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