The Authors Guild's battle against Amazon.com's used-book sales intensified last week, when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos successfully urged several thousand Amazon used-book customers to petition the Guild to reconsider asking its authors to de-link from Amazon's site. Guild executive director Paul Aiken jabbed back, reinvigorating a debate in the bookselling and author community over the dangers and the promise of mixing new and used copies on store shelves.
In his letter, Bezos reiterated his argument that used sales can broaden an author's audience. "Offering customers a lower-priced option causes them to visit our site more frequently, which in turn leads to higher sales of new books while encouraging customers to try authors and genres they may not have otherwise tried. In addition, when a customer sells used books, it gives them a budget to buy more new books."
Aiken responded to Bezos's letter by posting a message on the Guild's site clarifying the group's stance: it does not oppose used-book sales, just used books sold in a certain fashion. "It's Amazon's practice of promoting a used version of a title from the same page on which it sells new copies of the work that we object to. Were Amazon to operate its used book marketplace as a distinct service, at a completely separate area of its Web site, we would have no beef with it." He added, "most galling to authors, many of the books sold through the service aren't used at all, but are review copies for which authors and publishers have never received payment."
Aiken maintained in an interview that the onus remains on Bezos. "Just as it's wrong to say that for every used sale, a new one is displaced, it's wrong to say that for every used sale, no new one was displaced. Clearly, the truth lies somewhere in between. But he [Bezos] hasn't demonstrated that he knows where." Asked to distinguish between Amazon's joint promotion of used and new books and a separate area of a store or a site, Aiken pointed out that in cases where used and new titles are sold separately, "sales don't exceed a certain magnitude."
Not all authors, though, agree with Aiken's position. Tim O'Reilly, a technology author and publisher, stated: "For every sale that might be lost when someone buys a used book, there are many books read and authors discovered who would be otherwise unavailable." And in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Guild board member Sylvia Nasar took a similar tack.
Bookseller Michael Powell, who has been mixing the two formats in his stores for 20 years, also affirmed Amazon's claim. "We would have sold half as many of both new and used books over the last 20 years had we put a new store on one side of the street and a used one on the other," he told PW. More immediately, the high margins of used bookselling help Amazon in an environment "where it's very hard to survive just selling new books," Powell noted. Powell estimated that within a few years, used books could represent 10% of trade book sales. A recent survey conducted by Ipsos-NPD found that 2.2% of units bought in 2001 came from a used-book store.