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Does buying books second-hand make us bad people?


bookshop secondhand books Does buying books second hand make us bad people?

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The other day I went on a long rambly walk and came home with a $2 glass salt-shaker purely because its lid was stamped made in West Germany. How could I not buy something like that? What a strange little history that saltshaker must have.

I like things that have stories, and things that are found through unconventional means. All of my furniture is antique, and on my wedding day I ignored that bit about something new: my dress and rings were deco-era beauties sourced from an estate on the other side of the world.

Im drawn similarly when it comes to books. I love browsing second-hand bookshops, (Shops, that is, that sell second-hand books, not shops that are themselves second-hand, although of course they might well be.) and I love doing so, although not necessarily'more than a new bookshop, certainly in a different way. A second-hand bookshop is a treasure trove filled with a strange assortment of oddities that will never be duplicated in any other bookshop in the world.

Although I can exercise budgetary restraint in a new bookshop, the same is impossible in a second-hand bookshop, and I invariably come away with a tiny battered paperback, or a proud hardcover with a neatly handwritten dedication to a stranger, or a fifty-year-old slab of nonfiction that remains frozen in time, thinking that its hip and groovy when really its a bit of a codger.

But its the newer books in a second-hand bookshop that give me pause. The ones with sleek covers and crisp pages and unbroken spines. I cant help but feel a little guilty when I buy one of these, as though Im sneakily purchasing my reading material off the back of a truck, thrusting some change in the hand of some hefty bozo whilst glancing around to make sure that the author isnt going to meander by and realise that Im making off with their bookand their royalties.

Because although authors, at least in the Commonwealth, receive compensation for books that are borrowed from libraries, the same isnt true for books that are sold second-hand. Second-hand books have escaped, in the same heart-breaking manner as a painstakingly raised pedigree pooch, from the fiscal leash clutched by the poor author. Every time I buy a second-hand book, to paraphrase an internet meme, God kills a royalty statement.

But is that really true? Am I a terrible person, a wanton thief, a smasher-of-dreams for buying second-hand books? Well, I probably am all of those things, but not necessarily because of my second-hand book habit. If anything, my second-hand book buying occurs beyond the sphere of my new book buying. You see, there are authorsthe obscure, frizzy-haired ones who stare owlishly from the backs of their mandarin-hued, liver-spotted Penguin editionsId never think to buy new, because honestly, Id never come across them in a new bookshop. I shop differently in new and second-hand bookshops: in the former, I tend to look for something in particular, or buy based on a reviewer or friends recommendation.

In a second-hand bookshop Im at the mercy of the browse. Ill spend hours trawling through those fusty shelves glancing over strange titles and unpronounceable author names, and Ill pull out all sorts of things that Id never touch in a new bookshop: the unfamiliar, the unlauded, the ugly, the thin (for who buys a hideous, crumbling, rat piss-stained 120 page novella unless its second-hand, really?).

In a raggedy bookshop in Argentina I found a Margaret Drabble and a Shirley Hazzard, two sad little English-language books that I took pity on for their obvious fish-out-of-waternesswhere else would I have picked those out of the mix? My desk is currently stacked with an M John Harrison I picked up because I wanted to give him a whirl on the cheap before investing further (I did) and a Francesca Duranti that I searched for online for months to no avail, and yet happened across in a basement level bookshop on Flinders Street.

On my floor, however, is a new book: a book by Victoria Glendinning, which I purchased after reading her wonderful'The Adults, which I bought second-hand. I own, in crisp new editions, every single book that Salley Vickers has written after coming across'Mr Golightlys Holiday in a second-hand bookshop and purchasing it purely for its pretty cover alonesomething I would never have the budget to do in a new bookshop. So many of the authors on my shelves Ive purchased new'after happening across them in a second-hand bookshop.

Perhaps in their own strange and circuitous way, second-hand bookshops are a spectacular marketing presence: one that acts as a loss-leader product, rather as a cut-price carton of milk is used to lure people in to a particular supermarket. It may take a little longer for a customer to make their way back to the part of the buying cycle that allows an author to buy a cup of coffee or two at the end of it all, but in an industry so roundabout and glacial as publishing, why not encourage buyers to do it all backwards. Why not add a little more story to that story?


  1. I think books are a lot less affordable in Australia than they are elsewhere a new crisp book may be for sale at the shops for $30 whilst a once read in mint condition for half the price OR $10 brand new overseas! I definitely do not feel guilty buying second hand, especially when I get them from charity shops for $1 or $2 and whole proceeds to go into charity.

    Like you, if I really like the book, I would invest in a brand new collectible edition for my shelf. If I found an author Ive come to love, well, I wouldnt wait but get his / her new release pretty much on the release day!

    Good to know about Commonwealth libraries! Maybe we should borrow more and buy second hand less, ha ha ha

    • Stephanie /

      They are very expensive here, but I guess its part and parcel of living in a country thats both isolated and very low in terms of population density. Living costs in general are very high. Funny you should mention thatI know someone in England who has an ongoing book/chocolate exchange with her Australian friend. She sends her friend books in exchange for Cadbury Topdeck!

      I definitely try to put my money where my mouth is when it comes to booksin fact, other than rent, food and tango, books are pretty much the only thing I spend money on! :)

      Good point about the borrowing. Perhaps we can set up a little pledge where people loan out a load of local authors books every time they visit a library. ;)

      • Do you mean a pledge where people borrow a load of local authors books?

        I was very confused or maybe, its just that late for me, as I can feel sparks in my brain but they just aint connecting! LOL

        Love that idea though! How would you go to set that up? Would that be like a mix between the Aussie Author (or maybe expand that to Commonwealth authors) & Support Your Library Challenges, do you think?

        Love the book/choccie exchange! Although, I really dont know if its worth it as, Ha!, even overseas post is exorbitant! But the idea itself is tempting :)

        • Stephanie /

          Ha, yes, the pledge would be something like that. Although given the relatively low lending rights fees received by authors, I think it might have to be an awareness-raising thing rather than an actual money-making thing!

          Overseas postage is utterly crippling: I once sent a manuscript to the US and it cost me $75. I almost cried. Even interstate postage is sillyI remember trying to post a book to NSW and realising that it would have been cheaper for me to buy that book new from Book Depository and have it shipped to my friend.

          • Ouch! You cant even claim that $75 as business expense, can you? Originally, I loved bookmooch (a swap site) but it wasnt long before I realised that its probably cheaper if I buy books myself and just hand over my read ones to friends & family ;p

            Is the compensation per lending? Say if I borrow the same book twice, do they get compensated twice? Does it actually get to the author or stops at the publishers? Hhhmm maybe its time to google on how our libraries actually work.

            On another note, went to St Vinnies yesterday, paid $6 and went home with mint copies of A Fine Balance (Mistry), Saving Francisca (Marchetta), The Summer Garden (Simons), and Twilight (this last one is for a friend and Im not just making up an excuse, lol).

          • Stephanie /

            Thankfully I could claim the money as an expense, but still! An email would have been far more cost-effective. :)

            I think it is per lending, although its pretty tinyI think like 8c or something.

            Wow, what an excellent bookish haul (although I think you protesteth too much about the Twilight volume ;) )

  2. Interesting question. Ive been thinking about this a lot this year as I raid (well, honestly it is the only word for it) my local secondhand stores here in the UK but newly bought books are few and far between which I do feel slightly guilty about. Im just going to have to challenge myself to buy more new books next year as Id hate to have no indie firsthand book stores available to me.

    • Stephanie /

      Its interesting, but Ive never actually heard an author complain about second-hand bookshops the way that they might complain about piracy and so on. I suppose that used bookshops are a way of capturing the long tail of sales in that they allow consumers to find obscure or unusual things beyond the selection usually found in a new bookshop. But beyond this I do think that they provide a service to authors more widely: they encourage reading, they encourage buyers to take a chance on an author, and perhaps those readers will be more inclined to share their used books without fear of their being damaged, meaning that there may be a word-of-mouth element here as well.

  3. MT @readinasitting: Wld love authors thoughts on 2nd-hand bookshops. Great things? Income killers? Necessary evil?

  4. Great post. I love second-hand shops. Some of my favorite authors I have discovered on a browse in such places. I then went on to buy their new works brand new. I think second hand shops provide free advertising for the obscure, dead, or simply new-to-me authors.

    I also like to shop at the tiny one attached to my library, which supports the library, which supports authors.

    • Stephanie /

      I feel exactly the same way, and could name dozens of authors Ive discovered/uncovered in a second-hand shop, but likely wouldnt have otherwise. Great quote about the free advertising notion!

      I love the idea of the tiny shop attached to your library. What an excellent idea. Does it sell older books from the librarys collection, or is it a second-hand shop in its own right?

  5. I dont think theres anything wrong with buying used books despite the fact that the authors wont receive royalties for them. Like you, Im much more adventurous with my used book shopping; when books only cost a few dollars, Im much more willing to try a book or author that isnt high on my list or that Im unfamiliar with, and theres a good chance that if I really enjoy the cheaply purchased used book, Ill purchase more of the authors books new.

    Also, I live in the US, where authors dont receive royalties per library check-out of their books. They receive a royalty payment for the sale of the book to the library, but they arent paid additional royalties when people check out their books. I rarely buy hardcovers because of the expense and the amount of space they take up, so I usually get new releases from the library. I dont think theres anything wrong with that; yes, the author doesnt receive royalties from my reading the book, but the library system is set in place so that I have access to books without bankrupting myself. Still, having read the library books for free, I can recommend them to my friends and review them on my blog, hopefully resulting in more sales of the book.

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Leah. I think many of us see second-hand bookshops as a sort of treasure trove! Its great to be able to find an authors back catalogue easily, and to hunt down that strange or obscure titlenot to mention being able to indulge by buying something based entirely on its cover!

      I think that for many, second-hand shops are a sort of stepping stone towards new purchases, and the same is probably true of libraries.

      I thought that might have been the case with US librariesits a bit of a shame for the authors, but I think that they might still be eligible for fees from books borrowed in libraries elsewhere (Ill have to confirm this, though). Even if authors dont make money from those borrowings, however, theyre hugely important for word-of-mouth, and may also result in future purchases. Libraries are just such a huge part of our culture that I hope that most authors will be happy to effectively donate their books to the cause. :)

  6. For me second-hand bookshops and libraries function in something like the same way. Someone has already BOUGHT the books once, so I dont feel too guilty if I buy something in great condition second-hand (besides, Im helping keep the bookseller afloat, or giving to charity, as well as getting a book to read). And Im much, much more likely to browse and take a chance on something in a library or a bookshop. If Im investing ?8 I want to have a pretty good idea that its going to be worth it. If Im investing ?2 or none, at a library then Ill give it a go, and if I like it, Ill hit the new bookstore and buy more!

    Maybe Im biased because I RUN a second-hand bookshop, but Ive seen so many unwanted gifts and read-but-pristine books (as well as old volumes and tatty paperbacks, of course) going into eager hands that really WANT them Lets just say it makes this job worthwhile!

    • Stephanie /

      Great points, EllieI completely agree about second-hand bookshops being a good way to trial a new author, as Ive discovered so many authors that way.

      I hadnt even thought about your point about unwanted/unread books getting a second chance in a used bookshop, but thats so very true! One thing that publishing really struggles with is getting the right books into the right readers hands, so its great that second-hand bookshops can help do that.

  7. Great post and I couldnt agree more with many of your points. I have found many authors via 2nd hand shops that I may not have risked initially purchasing at full price.

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks for stopping by, Melissa! Glad to hear that youve made some great second-hand discoveries!

  8. I love to discover great books ~ often they are second hand. This is an awesome article.

    Thanks to for the link.

    Heather ~ My Blog

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks for visiting, Heather, and glad to hear another vote in favour of second-hand bookshops!

  9. Nanee mcgee /

    I only by used books when it goes to a good cause like shelters, keeping local libraries running. Local food share. We have these local used books sales that support our communities so I buy them and make donations to them as well There are also local charities that take used books and give them to people who cannot afford books. But other than that I buy new to help support these authors, being a soon to e author I hope youll support me as well.

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nanee! The used book sales in your community sound like a great ideawhat an excellent way to encourage people not only to read, but also to support the community around them. We have a few similar community book donation drives, and I ensure that I donate all of my review copies to these other other similar local initiatives.

      I think most passionate readers do all they can to support authorsin general, the reading community tends to be a pretty close-knit and supportive one. :)

  10. Funnily enough, I have hardly been in a second hand bookshop since moving away from Tasmania; I couldnt even tell you the location of a single one in Melbourne. This hasnt been a conscious choice, its that Melbourne is, to some degree, still a foreign country in which Im afraid of getting lost. Also reading the blurb, even on a hardcover (they usually have larger print than trade or MMP) has become too difficult without a magnifying glass. Not wishing to be a travelling freak show, and not having friends with which to browse (I feel safer running in a pack in new and strange locations) I tend to stick to the areas I know. Sadly this means that Ive missed out on a lot.

    Hopefully soon life will start to become less stressful overall, then Ill spread my wings and start to expand my horizons once more. Once upon a time I was EXCITED at the thought of flying to the strange city of Melbourne, I had the courage to walk around the streets of the city, relying on the kindness of strangers to help me find my way every time I got lost, before I caught a bus to Perth WA for a conference. I want to be that woman again. Maybe soon, and maybe then I can share stories of finding gems in second-hand bookshops.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences regarding Melbournes secondhand bookshops. Accessibility is definitely an issue, particularly given that many such shops tend to be located in awkward little nooks, are messily laid out, and tend to stock older books with very small print and close line spacing. I think public libraries often stock large print texts, and ereaders tend to have accessibility options built into them, so maybe those are better options in the interim.

      I do hope that you get a chance to begin exploring Melbournes bookshops. :)

  11. I get the guilty feeling, and from the positon of someone who used to work in a bookstore, its always nicer when you buy from the bookstore. But its not like the book is stolen someone has already paid for the book and its royalties, but they obviously either didnt like it or just didnt want to keep it. So now that book has found a new home, with you, and doubled the circulation of that book that would otherwise not have happened.

    Authors may like getting paid, cos money is delightful, but they also like their books to be read and enjoyed, and if youre the person to do that, then thats great. Also, if you think about it, and you bought that book second hand from a charity op shop, then that money goes to good things that help plenty of people too.