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A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

The Great Debate--New or Used

Carolyn Rags On (and Praises) the Used Book Conundrum

I feel compelled to tell you a little used book story. If you are an author you may hate that used books are passed around or bought and sold on a second market.

If you are a reader, you may see this as one of the great advantages of books over pay TV.

I have one foot in each category and I believe there is a little truth in both views.

No matter what camp you sleep (or read) in, you will find something to love or hate in the story I am about to tell. But before I do, the Small Publishers of North America*s (SPAN) newsletter, "Connections," reports that a Book Industry Study Group, Inc. released a study that says secondhand book sales are here to stay. Most used books sold are textbooks but access to the Web is helping to increase numbers across the board where the online market grew by 33% in 2004 and accounted for 37% of sales. That will make some of you happy, and make writers wonder if you have a career ahead of you after all.

I am not telling you this little story (or giving you these figures) to convince you that used book sales are second only to the devil*s work or vice versa. You think what you think and I'll think this: You can rant against them, hate the stores (both online and the ones on main street) that sell used books; it will do no good.

For authors: Books have always been passed around (which means readers don't even pay for them secondhand!). Libraries do it. Children do it. Mothers do it. I occasionally do it. In fact I recently bought a used book on Amazon --one of my own -- because I was short on time and Amazon gets them to me much faster than my publisher and thereon hinges that story I promised you.

Readers, you can assuage authors and keep them around if you will only promise to continue to buy a few good books a year -- new! And to try to buy a book by one author you've never read before -- just to broaden your horizons and keep hungry young authors eating -- and if not eating, well, then...hopeful.

So here's the story about that used book I ordered:

Almost two years ago -- when I was cleaning out my aunt's condo after she died -- I ran across all my books sitting in her nightstand in a perfectly aligned pile -- a tower of family memories -- all crisp and new. Aunt Hazel was blind but she wanted to have my books anyway and when I visited -- which wasn't often because she lived nearly a thousand miles from me -- I read to her from them. That wasn't often enough to curl the pages or tatter the covers.

One of my aunt's relatives on the other side of her family -- dreadful beasts that these people can be -- asked for those books. I had stacked them near the front door so I wouldn't forget them when I locked up for the night.

"Hazel said that she was a character in one of these books," one of them said.

"We'd love to have them," another said, running her hand over the cover. I wondered why, if they were so curious, they hadn't bought one -- used or otherwise. I only wondered. I kept my mouth shut for I was sure they would not understand why an author who had been working all day cleaning stains out of porcelain bowls of every size, shape and function would be so grumpy.

I wanted to keep the books, of course. I had signed each one with an inscription very near poetry. I could feel her soul -- and mine -- in them. But I gave them up anyway. That's a true gift of love, if not love for the recipients then passing on the love my aunt had for these others or for the books themselves.

You guessed it. When I ordered this book from the "new and used" section of Amazon, it was touted as "pristine condition, autographed." I figured it would be a bookstore autograph -- something I could reuse for a review copy.

Nope. It read, "To my loving Aunt Hazel…" I'll spare you the rest of the sentimental inscription.

Now, the question is, am I more ticked off at her relatives who conned me out that book or grateful to the online bookstore that sold it? Do I love or hate the processes now available for passing books on rather than letting them grow mold sitting on some basement shelf? Is it the money these others sold memories for that bothers me or that they may have needed the money.

I prefer to concentrate on the fact that I am touched at how the universe sometimes conspires to do the right thing, that sometimes two wrongs do make a right.

Tips and Tidbits

Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a writing or promotion tidbit that will help authors and a tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.

Writers' Tidbits: I'm writing a section for a book called The Complete Writer Publishes (second in a series of books in The Complete Writer series published by Red Engine Press). The subject? Nitty gritty ways you can keep gremlins from infiltrating your book -- no matter how you publish. Two books I've run across in the process that I highly recommend are: Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun & Spite by June Casagrande and Reading: Lapsing into a Coma: A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print -- and How to Avoid Them by Bill Walsh. I doubt there is one subscriber who wouldn't benefit from reading these books.

Readers' Tip: The book of creative nonfiction that Aunt Hazel appears in is called Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered. You will recognize her -- name changed to protect her while she lived (from what I do not know) -- in the prologue and then several other places as the story of this family progresses with their travels out of Michigan, through a now-defunct town in New Mexico, on into Utah and then California -- all in search of place where they would find acceptance. Here is the Amazon URL:

2006 Past Columns

Carolyn Rags On (and Praises) the Used Book Conundrum
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