Analysis of the BISG Used Book Study
In March, 2006, the Book Industry Study Group published the first study of the used book market. Somewhat miraculously, BISG got data from the major players in the used book marketplace. Because the study is so detailed and broad, The Idea Logical Company prepared a precis of the high points. That summary follows; it is, of course, much more useful reading if you have the study in hand, which is available from www.Bisg.org. The material below refers to tables which are contained in the original report.
The BISG’s report on “Used-Book Sales” contains a huge amount of information. How helpful it will all be depends somewhat on whether the data gathering and mining efforts continue. The data used in the survey was from 2003 and 2004 and it already feels like some of it might have been overtaken by events.
If the efforts are going to continue, it might make sense to focus them a bit more. This survey looked at used book sales across the spectrum: in new book and used book brick-and-mortar outlets, through online channels, and even in more esoteric settings like yard sales! It also looked at used books universally, including the college textbook market.
But the study makes clear what we all know: that the dynamic growth is online and in the trade book area. The used book market for college textbooks has been organizing and developing for many decades and it benefits from a geographical concentration of used book buyers and sellers that does not exist for trade books. And the online market is where the used book action is growing by leaps and bounds, not in shops of any kind. Focusing on the action for used trade books online will produce a much more useful study and probably would reduce the cost.
If the college textbook piece is removed, it also enables eliminating the distinction between “students” and “non-students” which this report makes (and, with college texts included, needs to make.)
It seems likely that what publishers really want to know is how the burgeoning used book market will affect the market for new books over time. Fortunately, the very last of the 94 tables makes that calculable and the chart is for trade only, which makes it more useful.
The projection of an annual growth rate of 1% for new general trade and 25% for used general trade between 2004 and 2010 works out to a climb in the used book percentage of total sales from 2.9% in 2004 to 10.4% in 2010. And that’s in dollars; clearly the percentage of used units would be even higher. Although other parts of the study make clear that not all those used book sales are of books currently in print and the effect on new book sales is complex, this is a shift in the business that every publisher of new books needs to understand in granular detail. The report was a very good start in that direction; we hope that the snippets of analysis that follow add to that understanding.
First, the “good” news (to the extent that we can believe it).
1. The online specialists currently sell nearly as many units of “collectible” as they do of fiction and non-fiction trade. (Table 16)
2. It is a bit hard to believe, but the report says that 81.5% of the used book units sold were for titles “out of print”. (Table 18) A possible contradiction elsewhere in the report is that only 36% of non-students bought a used book because the new book was not available, so 64% of the time a new book WAS available. And even more of the time, presumably, it wasn’t “available” but it wasn’t “out of print.” Publishers are interested in the size of the total market, but even more interested in the size of the market in books they’re still trying to sell in the marketplace.
3. New books are (still) nearly a “must have” when a book is being bought as a gift. (Table 62)
4. About 70% of online sellers say that used books are neither affecting the unit sales nor the price of a new book of the same title! (Table 26)
5. Only 37% of non-students have NOT purchased a used book in the past 12 months, which suggests that most of the players are already in the game. Of those who haven’t purchased, 65% haven’t considered it. (Tables 41, 78)
But there is much more news that is concerning.
1. Overall used book sales are up 11%; new book sales are down 1.9%. Is this cause and effect? (Table 1)
2. Used book sales are up 33% online, but only 1% in brick-and-mortar. That suggests the used book phenomenon will drive more book purchasing to online in the future; which is not good for publishers. (Table 2)
2a. Online sellers believe customers know what they want and don’t browse. (Table 23) That’s WHY moving customers to online isn’t good for publishers; it will reduce “impulse” sales.
3. The study finds that the “average” price of the used book is 50% of new. It is hard to interpret that figure. Education and antiquarian seem prices seem to be rising. The study says education prices are LOWER online than b-and-m, but online prices for trade and antiquarian are HIGHER than b-and-m. People will pay more when they get exactly what they want. The local markets for textbooks, with the same profs teaching the same classes with the same books, provides that. But in the trade world finding what one wants is much more likely through an online network. (Tables 6, 92)
4. The speed of availability of a used book after publication is directly related to print run; titles with bigger print runs show up as used books faster. (Tables 24, 25) No surprise there, but it useful to see intuitive judgments confirmed. They aren’t always.
5. 91% of online specialists have NO buy-back program in place. (Table 28) That leaves a good deal of room for growth of supply and a big lure to pull people into the game (money for the book they’ve already read!)
5a. More than half of non-students have never SOLD a used book. (Table 74) This is an opportunity for entrepreneurs; the tricky part is to get the seller to do the data entry, which is an important component of the growth of the online market.
6. In the same vein: the study reports small participation so far from consumers creating used book supply. Most books come from libraries, other booksellers (who got them from consumers, perhaps), and estates. (Table 29) This suggests more room for growth in supply.
7. Booksellers are benefiting from used book sales, reporting a bit of growth in units, a larger growth in customer base, and much bigger growth in revenue and profit. (Table 30) This is another driver for growth in the marketplace.
8. Used books are already NOT primarily about the young (and budget-challenged.) About 60% of purchasers are over 35. (Table 32)
9. Many (hard to determine an aggregate number because of the way the answers were collected) of those who haven’t sold used just aren’t familiar with or comfortable with the process. 40% say they want to keep their books, but that can NOT be true for ALL the books all of those people own. (Table 79)
10. Online prices seem to be coming down, for trade books. Basic economics suggest that, at the moment at least, supply is growing faster than demand. (Table 93)
And there is a bit in here that is just confusing. Or incomplete. Or just not believable.
1. Oddly enough, 25% of the non-student non-buyers say the title was not available as “used.” (Table 45) Maybe that’s because the data is from 2004? Or maybe it is because the purchaser looked in brick-and-mortar only and not online.
2. Totally counterintuitive: 25% of students say they are buying more used and less new and 25% say more new and less used! For non-students, 20% say more new and only 15% say more used. (Table 46) Just does not square either with observation or the rest of the data. It is hard to believe that anybody in this era is buying fewer used books, relative to their new book purchases, than they did before.
3. Non-students say that almost 60% of the time they buy a used book, they buy 2 or more new books by the same author. (Table 52) This statistic fails the smell test on a number of levels.
4. The data say that 10% of “national bookstores” and 9% of “general retailers have a used version of a book the consumer was looking for. (Table 55) Since we can’t think of one entity in that category that actually sells used books, it seems likely that the consumers answering this question either have faulty memories or didn’t understand what they were being asked.
The used book marketplace online is clearly growing and will increasingly impinge on new book sales, with adverse consequences for publishers and authors. That is unavoidable. How well each publisher understands what will surely be the very uneven impact of this new force will surely be a key factor determining the publisher’s success in the future. The BISG study definitely constitutes a good start at understanding this nascent phenomenon. But it is just a start.