Secondhand Books - what are they really worth? Katherine Roberts

Interesting article in The Author magazine (Autumn 2021) about the secondhand books market, which I've suspected for a while might be competing in a significant way with the new books market from which authors and their publishers traditionally get paid for their work. According to the article, the estimated size of the secondhand book market in the UK is likely to be worth as much as £500,000,000 (a cool half billion), which is apparently around 20% of the market for new books. Looking at my personal book purchases this year, I'm actually surprised is it isn't more. Granted we have had a remarkable year, with both bookshops and libraries closed to the public during lockdowns... but would this really make much of a difference to the proportion of secondhand book sales compared to new book sales? After all, both types are readily available online from Amazon and other retailers.

Any estimate of market share no doubt depends if you count ebooks as books, and - perhaps more importantly - if you count independently published books via Amazon's KDP (which does not require an ISBN for ebooks, making it difficult to estimate the true size of this so-called 'dark matter of publishing' market). But even if we just look at printed copies (since ebooks are, by definition, always 'new'), you only have to think of all your local outlets that sell secondhand books, and compare those to shops selling new copies in your area.

Our town alone has 18 charity shops, all of them carrying a good range of used paperbacks for the price of a cup of coffee, often much less. This is compared to a single new book outlet in town - WH Smith - which stocks a very limited amount of what is actually being published. You might also find a few discounted children's titles in your local pound shop, but again a very limited range compared to the rich and varied children's market. Sadly, our only independent bookshop could no longer make ends meet and closed its doors two years ago, even before the first lockdown hit the high street and knocked out many others.

I thought it would be interesting to compare my own book buying habits to the market estimates in The Author article, to see if there is any truth behind the numbers in real life. Before we start, you should probably know that the books I purchase are mostly just for myself, since I do not have any children living at home to buy for. Also, bear in mind also that we were still in lockdown earlier in the year, which reduced my secondhand book purchases from charity shops etc... although I seemed to acquire just as many secondhand books by other means!

Here are my figures:

New books bought in a physical shop: 1 (purchased at our local garden centre, the first retail outlet to open after lockdown).

New books bought online at Amazon: 6 paperbacks by other authors + 2 x The Horse Who Would be Emperor (proof copies, my own).

The Horse Who Would be Emperor

Secondhand marketplace books bought via Amazon : 1 x I am the Great Horse (hardback first edition, my own).

I am the Great Horse

Secondhand books bought from a physical shop: approx. 20 (from charity shops and National Trust book barns)... the fact I can't remember exactly how many secondhand books I bought in this way just goes to show how difficult it is to estimate the true size of this market, since I have no record of their purchase, and their barcodes were not scanned at point of sale.

Borrowed books: approx. 10 from the owner of a secondhand bookshop who lives in my road and used her stock during lockdown to set up a mini-library for the neighbourhood.

ebooks: 1 free download on promotion (which doesn't count!)

Of my new purchases, two books were bought as gifts, and two others were later passed on as secondhand to friends (no money involved). Another bag of good quality secondhand copies from my shelf found their way to the local bookshop owner by way of thanks for her shop when it opened.

During lockdown, unable to face anything too threatening or new, I also re-read several old favourites from my own extensive bookshelves as comfort reading.

I borrowed zero books from a public library this year.

And that's it, since January.

If I've done the maths right, that's 40 books entering my home in total, only 9 of which count as new. Discounting the two proof copies I wrote myself, that leaves just 7 new purchases. This compares to 21 secondhand purchases (one of which I wrote myself), and the rest were borrowed. So my book buying experience this year would suggest a greater market for secondhand than for new, which rather goes against what The Author article estimates, although I suspect if I had children to buy for that might bump up my 'new' total. Also, the relative cost of new and secondhand books should probably be taken into account, with new books typically three or four times the price of secondhand.

My go-to place for paperback fiction these days is a charity shop, closely followed by secondhand bookshops and market bookstalls. I enjoy the browsing experience in these places, since you can find older titles alongside newer ones. It sometimes takes me years to catch up with an author who writes the kind of books I enjoy, by which time their work has (sadly) long disappeared from the shelves of traditional bookshops. So I'm hardly keeping the publishing industry afloat... I wonder sometimes who is?

But it is not all doom and gloom. Like the secondhand art market, which rewards artists for resale of their work, there is a new scheme to which secondhand book retailers can sign up - AuthorShare - by which authors are rewarded for their work from a voluntary fund paid for by the retailers themselves. Even if your secondhand book is sold in an outlet that is not part of this scheme, or is given away, there is the discoverability effect. I take more chances with my reading material secondhand, often discovering excellent authors I might not otherwise have considered reading at all... and a book by one of those authors might well find its way on to my 'new purchase' list later on!

Where do you buy/acquire most of your secondhand books? And do you think authors should benefit from the secondhand market?


Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young readers.

All her books are available new in digital format as ebooks and print-on-demand paperbacks, as well as secondhand in their original editions.

Whether you buy your books new, secondhand, borrow them, or receive one as a gift, it is always helpful in this digital age if you can find time to leave a short review at either Amazon or Goodreads.

Thank you 💖


Peter Leyland said…
This is a favourite topic of mine Katherine. My Oxfam shop in Buckingham is absolutely brilliant and I have just bought a Damon Galgut novel there for £1.99. My town of choice, however, is Hay-on-Wye where second-hand bookshops abound. So popular is it that a town in Norway called Fjaerland copied the idea. I bought a rare copy of Jim Morrison's poems there and if AuthorShare became popular, I wonder whether his estate would get a cut of the 30 kroner I paid for it. Thanks for a great post.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks for casting light in the cobwebbed secondhand corners of the book market. I've often wondered about the tradeoffs for authors. I see more of my older titles available in the secondhand offerings online, as can be expected. I used to live near a secondhand charity bookstore with I traded a lot -- especially in audiobooks in the days when they were on cassette and I consumed them by the gross during long commutes. I buy maybe 5-10 per cent of my print titles second hand, but that's dwindling as my consumption of ebooks (reasonably priced) increases. Major corporate publishers continue to overcharge outrageously for their offerings assuming, I suppose, advantaging their monopoly on a best-selling echelon of authors they wish to keep from self-publishing, and to harm indie publishing, of course. so I don't feel guilty about going to secondary markets to find affordable offerings in this category -- especially vintage titles they continue overprice. I'm flattered to see my titles offered secondhand. it's a sign that demand for them persists and that means increased sales for new editions too.
LyzzyBee said…
Interesting post. I don't keep a rolling record though I could go and reconstruct it, but I know I can divide the 166 books I've read so far I can divide into ...

Bought new (online retailer, from publisher, from author, independent bookshop, subscribed) - 44
Bought secondhand (all charity shops) - 8
Not paid for (gifts, review copies, loans, BookCrossing) - 94
Plus I read 20 of my already owned books

I normally buy more books from charity shops but these were all acquired from March ish 2020 onwards so they weren't open much. I'm shocked at how many free books I get!

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