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Why You Shouldn't Buy a "New" Book on Amazon
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Why You Shouldn't Buy a "New" Book on Amazon

Nick Douglas, Gawker Media

Photo by Brittany Stevens

Amazon, a company Jeff Bezos invented to piss off everyone in the book industry simultaneously, likes to make books as cheap as possible. To that end, this spring they moved third-party options up to the top of the page, sometimes even listing third-party sellers as the default buying option. You might see a "new" option that's cheaper than Amazon's actual new option. If you choose that one, here's who misses out.

The Author

Usually, authors get royalties from the sale of new books. If you buy a typical used book, you at least know that the author got their royalty when it was first sold.

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But with a third-party "new" book, the author often gets nothing, or very little. Under most contracts, most or all of an author's royalty is a percentage of the sale price, rather than a flat rate per copy. So the cheaper the book, the lower the royalty.

For multiple reasons, publishers end up with copies that never sold as new books. As novelist and Authors Guild member Douglas Preston explains in the New York Times, this can happen when books are damaged in shipping, or when booksellers send back their unsold books for a refund (more on this weird publishing practice below). After this happens, the publishers can't sell these as new books. They can only get rid of them at a steep discount. So they do, and they hand the author a tiny royalty, or none at all. And the author never sees any more money from that book again.

The Publisher

Publishing is weird. It's an information industry that, until recently, behaved like a physical-things industry, with a few exceptions. One of those exceptions is "remainders."

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In general, if a bookstore fails to sell all the books it bought from a publisher, it can send back the unsold copies and get a refund. It's a weird practice, but publishers keep it up because it lowers the risk for the bookstore, which encourages it to take a chance and buy more copies of an upcoming book. And no one wants to be the first publisher to say "Actually, you have to keep what you buy."

(Even crazier: Those dense, cheap editions of books that you see at airports and drugstores are called "mass market" editions. To get a refund for those, the bookstore doesn't even have to send them back-it just has to rip off the covers and send those back. The publisher has to eat the loss. The bookstore isn't allowed to go and sell the "stripped book." That's why mass-market books have a warning on the copyright page, warning people not to buy them without a cover.)

Like we said, the publisher can't sell a remaindered book as new. They have to draw a mark on the bottom of the book, like so:

Photo via Wikipedia

But sometimes these remaindered books don't get marked. And while Amazon claims they don't allow third-party sellers to sell secondhand books as new (only as "like new" under the used section), Preston, along with the Authors Guild, says there are far too many "new" copies for sale on Amazon to all be legit. Many of them, he says, should be marked "used" under Amazon's rules. And they should definitely not show up as the default way to buy the book.

Not You... for Now

Let's be honest: You'll never tell the difference between most new books and "new" books. Even a remainder mark won't affect your experience. So in the short-term, buying third-party can save you money with no trade-off.

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But in the long term, you're basically supporting book piracy. Publishing is a low-margin industry where the vast majority of authors, editors, and other workers make very little money. Book piracy makes it that much harder for anyone to make a living creating books.

And whenever money leaves the book industry, short-sighted publishers tend to respond by only betting on guaranteed bestsellers, like self-help books and celebrity memoirs. They take fewer risks on interesting niche books, or anything that takes a long time to catch on. This response is stupid and bad, but it affects you as a reader.

If you want to save money on a book, go ahead and buy it used, or borrow it from the library. Most of the time, you're sharing or inheriting a book that once earned money for the publisher and the author. No one can begrudge you that.

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But if you're already that fresh new quality, consider buying it new. Check that Amazon lists the seller as Amazon. Or-and we know this is inconvenient-try buying your books from a company that's not trying to suck the money out of publishing.

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