How to be ecological, economical and promote fiction!

Amazon has spawned a flourishing ‘nearly new’ book market. It’s different from remainders, antiquarian and charity markets in that the volume of transactions is skewed in favour of relatively new product. From an ecological perspective, why only sell each book once for it to go yellow on some bookcase? Maybe the first buyer will never even finish it…

Here’s the kernel of an idea:

  • Suppose one title retails for £8 and the bookshop buys copies at £4.80, making the retailer 3.20 per copy gross.
  • Suppose then he can buy back the book for a credit note of £2. He then sells it second hand at £5 (close to wholesale new price, and equivalent to £2.25 + P&P on Amazon Marketplace).
  • Then he buys it back third-hand at £1.25 and sells that copy for £3.75.

In this way the shop makes a total markup of £3.20 + £3 + £2.50 = £8.70 (more than the RRP of the book). In addition he has issued vouchers for £3.25 which must be spent on merchandise, so these will bring in say 40% of £3.25 or £1.50 (even more if they buy second-hand!).

Clearly, this second-hand market is not marvelous news for publishers who can see their own books on Amazon offered way below new, sometimes only days after publication.

One likely problem is that customers may mostly sell back the books they like less, so booksellers won’t want to take back just any book. Which is where fiction comes in. Many secular bookshops have found that reading circles can give customers an opportunity to get more out of reading: to have attention drawn to what other people see in the writing, as well as forcing themselves to put their thoughts into words.

But how to create the demand? Launch and enroll TWO book circles: the first circle chooses a title of the month, and all the members buy it new. The second circle studies the same book two months later, and hopefully buys the copies off the first circle. Then the bookshop re-sells the book through bricks or clicks.

Fiction and biography is more likely to work than other more earnest genres, because these are rightly the preserve of churches. Running Bible studies is not the future for retailers. The other advantage business-wise is that fiction aims at a broad market and is potentially addictive, while there is a limit to the number of parenting books or how-to books a person can usefully read. Finally a modest plug for our list: no need to start with fiction written for the American Midwest!

The future of the book production surely involves more print-on-demand product, which are inherently more expensive than mass-produced runs. Think back to the 1960s model where literary publishers launched with hardbacks, and the more successful titles were then licensed to mass-market merchandisers like Penguin.

In the 1990s it became easier for smaller publishers to treat midlist books as mass market, no doubt helped by the net book agreement. But now the invasion of the book market by nonspecialist discounters makes the mass-market narrower – only a few titles deserve the mass-market treatment – and winner-take-all.

The difference between midlist and niche is being squeezed and this new regime is making ‘first editions’ p-o-d i.e. more expensive. Expensive opens the way for a second-hand market and the figures given above become even more relevant for a future where books start out with an RRP of £15+.

Sophisticated digital rights management could also allow a serial number to be printed, so that the book would say that it is number 1007 printed on such a date and become more collectible than facsimiles produced later with high serials.

This is not confined to fiction, but I do predict that old novels will be more worth collecting than say old parenting books. As for commentaries and scripture versions, I find that these work very well as e-books (but that’s another issue).