Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Second-Hand Sales

Another Topic I Get Lots of Questions About…

And again, this topic is so full of myths about sales and publishing, it will be impossible for me to do this justice here. But we are going to do a Pop-Up on this topic soon that will go into why this isn’t a problem and how to use second-hand sales to help your own sales.

Yeah, I know, crazy, but true.

So for this topic, I’m going to use second-hand sales to mean sales out of used bookstores or garage sales or other places where the writer or publisher makes no money from that exact sale.

To do a second-hand sale, of course the book must be in paper. That is the only place the copyright law allows for such sales under the First Sale Doctrine. It does not apply to electronic books or streaming audio. It does apply to audio books on a disk of some sort.

So a person buys a paper book. The author or publisher gets paid. Super. That person (buyer) then owns the artifact of that book, not the content. (The author still owns the content unless they sold their book to a traditional publisher, then the publisher owns the content.)

Under First Sale Doctrine, that person (buyer) can take that book and resell it, thus a second-hand sale.

First to deal with a myth. Selling a book second hand hurts the author and their book sales. This is a myth I hear all the time and is total and complete hogwash.

It does exactly the opposite, actually.

If a reader finds a book in a used bookstore or garage sale or library sale and reads it and likes it, in this new world the next thing a reader does is go to a computer or phone and look up the author to see if there are more books. And then the reader usually buys those books, thus making the author money.

A bunch of studies over decades show that a standard paperback book in its life will have between six and ten different readers on average. (A hardback between four and six.) That is why I have shouted right from the start of the indie movement for authors to get books into print.

You sell an electronic book, you have one reader. You sell a paper book, you could have ten different readers who will buy more of your work.

In other words, you want to encourage second-hand sales to build more audience and fans for your work.

Again, this will be much more explained in the Pop-Up, but let me tell you what Kris and I have done over the years. First, we have actively (at different times) sold signed books on ABE or eBay and places like that. We wanted the paper books into circulation inside of second-hand markets, which both of those are.

Where did we get the books? Often from our publishers who would send us cases of 40 or more copies in our contract. A ton of those are still in our warehouse. Thousands and thousands of them, actually. (We published a lot of books over the years.)

We also donate books to libraries. (Some young writers think libraries are bad. Same silliness. Libraries bring your fans.) Often the books we donate just go into the library sale which is great, because again it finds a reader who will buy more of our work if we did our jobs and told a good story.

I have gone on driving trips with many bags of our books in the trunk and traded them into used bookstores along the way. I never tell them I am the author. And with the credit I find other authors I want to read. Or collectable books to make even more money on.

When I go to a hotel, I leave books in the lobby. I leave books of mine on airlines. And so on.

I am after one reader at a time.

Again, remember, every paperback in circulation will have between 6 and 10 readers in its life.

So this is just a scratch along the surface of this large topic. Just wanted to take a stab at the myth of second-hand sales can be bad for you. In fact, it is the other way around.

Another way of looking at it, this is called advertising. But that is yet another topic, how little indie writers really understand about true advertising.

But enough fun for one night.


  • Harvey Stanbrough

    Seems to me this applies to ebooks as well, albeit to a lesser extent, when those books are “pirated” or loaned from reader to reader. In fact, Neil Gaiman wrote a post on pirated ebooks recently that said much the same thing about increasing readership.

    • dwsmith

      Yup, I loved Neil’s post on pirated books. Just a silly thing to even worry about and yet it is always the writers with almost no books or one book that worry about it the most. My thought (but I never say it out loud) is why would someone want to pirate your book when you hardly sell any in the first place?

  • Philip

    The funny thing is, the same indies who believe that secondhand sales and library reads are BAD are also the SAME authors who give away their ebooks at 99 cents a piece or in KU. LOL.

    Great post, Dean. Just this week I bought a used copy of a book by Mary Kubica and one by Blake Crouch. I went on Amazon and ordered copies of each of their other stuff.

    • dwsmith

      And that’s how most readers do it as well when they like a book they have read. Used bookstores, libraries, garage sales, eBay, and places like that are where we find readers.

  • Andrew Hickey

    It honestly astonishes me that so many authors seem to think that *people buying and reading your books* is somehow going to lose you money. What’s really surprising is that so many of them seem to be the same people who are all in on KDP Select/Kindle Unlimited and insistent that giving away free copies of your books is the path to riches.
    If someone buys a book in a second-hand shop, that means *you’ve made a sale of your book to someone who is accustomed to spending actual money on books*. People who spend money on books are precisely the audience we all want, surely? But these people seem to think that going after the audience who *don’t* spend money on books will be better for them…

  • Leah Cutter

    I completely agree! We do the same sort of thing. Because we live in a city, there are free little libraries everywhere. We always stock those with the proofs we get.

  • Kate Pavelle

    More of those little lending libraries have been popping up (Like a Baba Yaga house on one leg, except it’s a glassed-in book-case), and should make a list of locatins and do my rounds twice a year or so. About airlines, I took your advice and left a few for the plane crew. They were happy! I also place a select gay romance on top of every Bible in hotel rooms.

  • Edmund de Wight

    I know I’ve found many authors via garage sales, give away tables at conventions etc. I’ve jokingly considered guerrilla marketing through putting my book into places where people hang out or shop … nice to see someone else has tried that method, maybe now I can actually see if it would work for me.
    I’ve started selling e-books through my own site recently and encourage readers to loan it out to a friend although I insist on no resales (not that I could actually stop them). We’ll see how that goes.

  • Danielle Williams

    Since my first attempt at making a print book went well, I thought this year I’d try to get all my current work into print (mostly shorts).
    This post is just another sign from the universe that I’m on the right track! Thank you again!

  • Teri Babcock

    It seems to me that the core of the issue is understanding that long term success depends on readers and fans, not sales.
    It makes me curious: what would happen if writers who are pouring money into AMS to get sales put the same money into alternate promotion like donating books to libraries and other places they could be sold (hospitals, thrift stores). Those places will work even if the second-hand bookstores don’t want your titles. It costs to print, but so what? There’s people paying over half their net income to AMS ads, and once the ad is down, its done. Books cycle a lot longer. Psychologically, most people probably can’t take having to wait a couple of years to see if their investment is paying off.

  • Emilia

    I read the Death Gate cycle by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weiss when I was a child. Fastforward 10 years and I see first book, used, for sale at a con. I read it, still love it and buy the rest of the series new.

    I also find new authors at used book stalls, such as The Black Company by Glen Cook. I wasn’t active at reader forums so I’d never heard of the series or author and picked it because the cover looked interesting and it was maybe 4 euros. Damn the book is good, I would’ve bought the rest but at the time they weren’t available in paper in my country or I was looking in the wrong stores.

  • Kari Kilgore

    I was chatting with another writer at a local event, and they said they won’t put their book out in ebook at all because piracy is so bad. This is someone who has a bunch of stories in low/no pay markets and a couple of novels.

    I just stared for a second, then changed the subject. I didn’t even know where to begin.

    What I AM going to do is teach a workshop this summer for the local writer group, where I will start with a Word document and a cover, run it through Vellum, and upload for print and several ebook distributors. That will, of course, include an explanation of why all of these things are good and what to do with the printed copies. Who knows? One or two of them might even listen! 🙂

  • Michèle Laframboise

    Case in point:
    how I found *you, Dean,* through a garage sale!
    Around 2012: I cycle to one garage/yard sale to the next, and pick up a fun suspense , Agnes and the Hitman, by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer.
    Loved the story!
    Went to Bob Mayer’s old website and learned more about the couple and their books. (Hi Bob, cool new website by the way!)
    Around 2012-13, in one of Bob’s blog posts, he mentioned Dean Wesley Smith and his magic bakery.
    So I hopped to DWS website, and devoured the bakery. Then various “sacred cows”. And the first Smith Monthly. And that I could write more…
    And of course, I found Kris’ own fiction.

    I discovered many wonderful writers by picking up a book from a carboard box. And I would later buy their other paper/electronic books. Or talk about them.
    So the second-hand book store or garage sale or library is one link in a friendly chain of readers and writers!

  • E.D. Martin

    I love the idea of seeding your books everywhere to get new readers. I do this when I travel; pretty much every campground, and some hotels, have a shelf of books for guests to read. Who knows who’ll pick up your book, like it, and buy the rest of your stuff? I’ve never tried used bookstores, but I’ll add them to my list of places to hit up when traveling.