Mystery writers who maintain contact with the community of mystery lovers—readers, booksellers, and librarians as well as fellow writers—know that excessive BSP, Blatant Self-Promotion, is a cardinal sin. We go to great lengths not to commit it. We mention our books, but we don’t tout them every time we post on DorothyL or CrimeSpace. We hand out bookmarks, but we don’t press them on people in the middle of a conversation. We don’t harvest address lists and send unsolicited material to everyone on them. While we benefit the most when readers make their purchases in mystery bookstores, we understand that some need the convenience of online ordering and the discount the big chains offer. We develop our readership by speaking at libraries and assuring our friends and acquaintances that it means a lot to see them at our signings, whether or not they buy the book. We mean it, too.
Because networking at launches and mystery conventions and writers’ conferences is so essential to getting and remaining published in the 21st century, we all know so many writers that we can’t possibly afford to buy all their books themselves. Those of us, especially, whose books are available only in hardcover—the publisher’s decision, not ours—understand that not everyone who wishes us well can afford to spend the price of our work. We don’t want to offend anyone who might some day buy our books or mention them to another potential or take them out of the library, thus sending librarians the message that our books are a good investment. Writers who want to succeed must be goodwill ambassadors for themselves and their work. One of my mantras—which I apply even to motorists who cut me off and cellphonistas who assault my ears in the bus—is “No enemies!” You never know when one of them might walk into a mystery bookstore, be intrigued by my title, and get ready to buy—only to change his or her mind on seeing my picture on the dust jacket.
But I felt impelled to speak up, in the nicest way I could, when a MySpace Friend with whom I’ve had a pleasant correspondence for some time wrote that she had failed to win an eBay auction for my book, but would keep trying. I know her intention was to show support for me and my work. And indeed, I am pleased that she’s making a determined effort to read the book, which of course is my primary goal in being a writer. I know that, like most people outside the publishing world, she had no idea that her buying the book on eBay meant that not only would I not get paid a royalty for my work, but the purchase would not count as a sale in my publisher’s computers, which determine whether they are willing to give me the next contract so I can go on being a published author. A book that’s offered for auction on eBay is a secondhand book. The “new and used” books offered on Amazon for sale from third party booksellers—often from Day 1 of publication, when new books become available directly from Amazon—are also secondhand books. The author gets nothing. The publisher gets nothing. The sale doesn’t get counted.
If enough people search for secondhand books instead of buying them new (even at an online discount), the consequences can be as dire for the authors as if the readers hadn’t bought them at all: no next contract, and thus the end of a series that readers have been enjoying; a one-book contract rather than two or three, so the author’s career is always on the line; no paperback edition, so the author never gets a crack at the wider readership that won’t pay for a more expensive hardcover. Buying books secondhand was one of the tips for economizing on the AOL home page a few months ago. The teaser was something like, “Never pay full price for a book again!” Penny wise and pound foolish? I think so. The majority of fiction writers in particular have trouble making a living writing fiction. If readers defect completely to secondhand books, eventually there will be no more stories.