The Economics of Reading

I have to admit I’m addicted to second-hand bookstores.  I’m a bookaholic, and they tell me that acknowledging the problem is the first step…except that I don’t want to recover.  The second-hand bookstores allow me to read and re-read, then go back and find more at a fraction of the price of a new book.

But there’s a problem with this, one which I fully acknowledge (and I also acknowledge that I’d fix it in my own life if I had more money to spend on books).

Over the years I’ve watched various authors rise and fall, and some few of them rise again.  Those that do “rise again” usually go through an interesting cycle.

Take this quote, from the author’s note to one of my favorite books:

“…having committed those stories—and seen them published, back in the late 80’s—we were told by our publisher that the numbers weren’t there.  No one had read our books, that means in publish-speak.  And, since no one had read the first three, the outlined fourth—and the proposed fifth—would not be needed.”

I read their books for the first time in the late 80’s, and I am still reading them.  The first I got from the library, but when I went to the bookstores, even the used bookstores I couldn’t find it again.  I finally found a copy about 10 years later, used (as in totally trashed) and I read it until it fell apart.  I also have the other books in the series, although on several I have multiple copies because the only copies on some that I’ve been able to find were in compilations that contained books I already had.

According to the publishers their books hadn’t been read and yet when I first searched on the internet the only copy I could find (a used paperback) was being sold for $40.  Whether the books were popular or not, all the evidence points to something that I have seen with other books.

If a book is really good, but not touted as such by the media, many times the book is passed from person to person, read and re-read until it falls apart simply because other copies are not available.  Fifty people may read one copy, and all of them enjoy it, but the book was only purchased once so the publisher really has no idea just how many people are reading it or interested.  Those same copies (those that survive the original purchase) then go to used book sellers, who sell the book and the whole process begins again.  But the publishers won’t take the chance of printing more copies because “the numbers aren’t there.”  i.e., no one is buying the book new, off the shelf.  If I’d been able to get my hands on a new copy, I would have purchased it.

Many, many people, for whatever reason, choose to go to used book sellers or libraries.  I have to admit I’m one of them.  But if I like a book enough to purchase it (meaning it’s good enough to read multiple times without getting tired of it) then I should really purchase a copy of my own and support the authors I like.

Otherwise, the market will just get saturated with authors I don’t like.

Hm.  Is that what happened?

Disclaimer 🙂  :  This is not an advertisement.  I have no financial interest in Steve Miller and Sharon Lee (the above mentioned authors) except for having purchased many of their books (mostly the Liaden Universe).

In chronological order:

Scouts Progress

Mouse and Dragon

(Generational gap, here)


(another gap, but only a few years)

Agent of Change

Carpe Diem

Plan B

I Dare

More, please!

-By Lauren Ritz


About Jocelyn Nash Carlin, Writer

Jocelyn Nash Carlin writes speculative fiction for children and adults. She also co-hosts the Writing Snippets podcast and blog at View all posts by Jocelyn Nash Carlin, Writer

4 responses to “The Economics of Reading

  • Writing Snippets

    Very interesting thoughts. I do think a lot of a book’s success has to do with the marketing, but it still has to be a good book, but there are many good books out there that aren’t as well known or that don’t sell as well because they aren’t marketed as well.

  • K. Bill Albrecht

    I’m also a secondhand book addict. I’ve never really thought about how that market affects the authors before, and now I feel a little guilty.

    But secondhand stores are the only places to find a lot of those old books.
    And I love science fiction from decades past. It’s so weird! They were so experimental back then, whereas our stuff is so formulaic. Plus, I love seeing what they thought the future would be, and comparing it to my 21st century reality. It’s a good exercise for any writer of speculative fiction.

  • T. L. A.

    Wow, that’s soo sad! Publishers don’t print more books because “the numbers aren’t there”? *speechless*

  • Alice

    Do you think books are more formulaic now because people are trying to write for the market and write what sells and please editors and agents?

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