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Jeff Bezos' open letter on used book sales

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Tim O'Reilly
Apr. 15, 2002 11:17 AM
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Jeff Bezos' sent out a letter yesterday to all Amazon used book resellers, a response to recent attacks by the Author's Guild for Amazon's policy of selling used books prominently on its site. Here's Jeff's letter, reprinted by permission, followed by my response. (I agree with him, by the way.
Sunday, April 14, 2002, 10:21:23 PM,
Jeff Bezos (jeffb@amazon.com) wrote:

I'm writing on behalf of Amazon.com to request your help with something I think is important to the used book industry.

As you may have read in the newspapers over the past few days, we've been criticized by the leadership of a small, but vocal organization because we sell used books on our website. This group (which, by the way, is the same organization that from time to time has advocated charging public libraries royalties on books they loan out) claims that we're damaging the book industry and authors by offering used books to our customers. They would have us stop offering used books, or at least put them in a separate section of our store instead of on our high traffic detail pages.

First, their assertion that used books hurt the book industry and authors is not correct. We've found that our used books business does not take business away from the sale of new books. In fact, the opposite has happened. Offering customers a lower-priced option causes them to visit our site more frequently, which in turn leads to higher sales of new books while encouraging customers to try authors and genres they may not have otherwise tried. In addition, when a customer sells used books, it gives them a budget to buy more new books.

Second, and perhaps more disturbing, is the implication that used booksellers don't care about authors. I'm sure this bothers you as well, but let me be super-clear-- Amazon.com is now, and has always been, supportive of and good for authors. We do care about authors, and the way we have operated our business demonstrates it. From the start, we've carried a broader selection of titles and authors than anyone else, and we've expanded that selection through the years via Amazon.com Advantage, a program that's introduced customers to thousands of independent publishers and authors. We've also helped authors by discounting hundreds of thousands of titles by 30% (rather than only discounting a select handful of New York Times Bestsellers).

Third, when someone buys a book, they are also buying the right to resell that book, to loan it out, or to even give it away if they want. Everyone understands this.

Finally, and most importantly, offering used books is simply good for customers. It makes out-of-print books available and other books more affordable. Making books affordable is a fundamental good (as are libraries). This is why we've worked so hard (with used booksellers like you) to offer customers a huge selection of used books-- and our customers have voted with their wallets that they find this service valuable. Why would any company that cares about customers bury or hide a service that customers find valuable?

Here's where you can help. Please write an email to the Executive Director of the Authors Guild (the leadership of which orchestrated this campaign) explaining how the sale of used books actually helps the entire book industry. Of course, a polite and civil tone is appropriate-- these are good people who haven't had input on all sides of this issue. You may agree with the points above, or you may have your own reasons, but please share them with the Authors Guild. If you make a living from selling used books, please mention that too. You can email the Authors Guild's Executive Director, Paul Aiken, at:

staff@authorsguild.org

(Please "cc" us at defend-used-books@amazon.com.)

Thanks for all your support and we look forward to continuing to work with you to bring lower prices and better selection to our customers.

Sincerely

Jeff Bezos
Founder and CEO
Amazon.com

And here's the email I sent to the Author's Guild in response:
To whom it may concern over at the Author's Guild:

I am an author and a publisher, and I want to be clear that you guys are way off base in taking Amazon to task over selling used books on their site.

Jeff Bezos' open letter on the subject is right in every respect, except when he says, "when someone buys a book, they are also buying the right to resell that book, to loan it out, or to even give it away if they want. Everyone understands this." Everyone apparently doesn't understand this. Congress is chipping away at this right with its ill-intentioned schemes for making resale impossible for eBooks, and now you guys are attacking Amazon for following a time-honored practice.

Publishers and authors have always complained about used books. But given the inefficiency of the book distribution system, and the rapidity with which books become unavailable, used books are one of the only ways that many authors have a chance of being discovered. And having read an author in a used edition, I am far more likely to look for their newest work.

Authors are extraordinarily ill-served by publishers and bookstores for the most part. Amazon has done authors a tremendous service in making virtually any book in print easily available in one location, and now they are extending that to out of print books as well. For every sale that might be lost when someone buys a used book, there are many books read and authors discovered who would be otherwise unavailable.

Just the other day, I was telling one of my friends about a long-unavailable book that I love. She promptly went out and bought it on Amazon.

Anyone who cares about books and authors should be applauding Amazon's expansion into the used book market, which is a real boon for consumers, and frankly, even for authors. As a publisher, I'm willing to take the chance that I'll lose a sale to a used book if that means that books that are otherwise unvailable can be easily found by someone who wants them.


O'Reilly Emerging Technologies Conference

Lawrence Lessig will be joined by Carl Malamud, Tim O'Reilly, and Dr. David P. Reed for the keynote presentation, The Future of Ideas at the O'Reilly Emerging Technologies Conference on Thursday, May 16, 2002.


I'll add here the thought that used books are an important part of the intellectual commons, which Larry Lessig so ably defends in his wonderful book, The Future of Ideas. The idea that reselling used books is somehow bad continues down a slippery slope that our lawmakers, prodded by copyright interests, have already traveled so far.

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media Inc. Considered by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world, O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, Strata: The Business of Data, the Velocity Conference on Web Performance and Operations, and many others. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim is also a partner at O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, O'Reilly's early stage venture firm, and is on the board of Safari Books Online, PeerJ, Code for America, and Maker Media, which was recently spun out from O'Reilly Media. Maker Media's Maker Faire has been compared to the West Coast Computer Faire, which launched the personal computer revolution.

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