Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Textbooks on Amazon 

Courtesy Lew Rockwell, the New York Times is reporting that the selling of used books by places like eBay and Amazon is threatening the publishing industry.
"We think it's not good for the industry and it has an effect, but we can't measure it," said Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, a trade group. "There has always been used-book sales, but it's always been a background noise sort of thing. Now it's right there next to the new book on Amazon."

Lorraine Shanley, a principal at Market Partners International, a publishing consultant, said that the industry was just starting to appreciate the dimensions of the problem.

"Used books are to consumer books as Napster was to the music industry," she said. "The question becomes, 'How does the book industry address its used-book problem?' There aren't any easy answers, especially as no one is breaking any laws here."
You can see where this could lead on college campuses. Many professors will tell students that Amazon or BN are options to get their books, though the university here has an exclusive contract for an on-campus bookstore that supposedly has exclusive rights to sell on campus. If a student goes to the bookstore it finds the new textbook for, say, Greg Mankiw's Principles of Macroeconomics for $93.25 retail price. The bookstore has used books for sale as well, books bought largely from students in the previous term for less than twenty cents on the dollar. The bookstore then sells these at a profit likely higher than that earned on the new book (which is marked up at a rate set by agreement with the publisher, likely around 25%). Now suppose a student can go to Amazon, see the retail price for Mankiw (and the discounted price from Amazon), and experience a range of other sellers with new and used books? Would the university be in violation of its contract with the bookstore if students were doing this from computers on campus? If shipped to their dorm rooms?

Textbook publishers have fought this both by publishing new editions quickly with sufficient changes to obsolesce the old books, and then by creating a set of ISBNs for each book each with a slightly different set of ancilliaries to strap to the book (for Mankiw's book that could be anything from a study guide to a subscription to WSJ or Business Week.) Question: Is it the requirement to buy the book for a course that protects the textbook publishers profit in a way that can't be done with trade books? Or is it something else?

And, dependably, Democrats want to control these prices as well.

UPDATE: Which reminds me: I am stuck in West Nowhere, so I only listen to Hugh Hewitt online via his streaming service. He did something interesting the other day -- flogging his new book to listeners to purchase via Amazon. He wanted it there because he could drive up its ranking on the site. I thought it a bit unseemly at first but he explained it thus: If the book is high on Amazon, the brick-and-mortar storefronts will have to give him space alongside all the other election books (which are largely anti-Bush.) Sure enough, it's sitting at #12 as I type this. That leads to an interesting hypothesis: Do online book sales lead to greater orders from "off-line" bookstores? If I had data to test this, one of my senior seminar students could have the thesis of the year.

BTW, buy Hugh's book. I did, and I had his "In But Not Of" thrown in as well. I'm going to have him autograph these next time he's in town. And I bought new!