Fred A. Bernstein

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Unloading His Books, But Not His Conscience

Amazon is now the place to sell used books -- but with unexpected consequences

Published in The New York Times, April 11, 2002

A few weeks ago a friend carried a pile of dusty volumes to the Strand, the used-book store in Greenwich Village, to trade clutter for cash. "I would never do that," I thought snootily, as I pictured him haggling over the value of a dog-eared copy of "The Internet for Dummies."

And then I logged on to to buy a book and was startled to see: "Fred A. Bernstein, make $436.32. Sell your past purchases at today!" In an audacious gambit to expand its marketplace, Amazon has not only become a broker of used books but has also found a way to prime the pump: encouraging people who bought books on Amazon to resell them.

The $436.32 represented my potential take from the 25 books I had bought on Amazon since last July; Amazon's computer sees every one of those not just as a past sale but also as a future resale. I was intrigued. Perhaps I could do what my friend had done - pick up some extra money, make space on my shelves - without lifting a finger.

But as a book lover, I had misgivings, and it turns out I was not alone. This week, the Authors Guild protested Amazon's recycling program by asking its 8,200 members to remove links to Amazon from their Web sites. Authors, who are generally paid a commission for every book that publishers sell, make no money on resales. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, past president of the guild, said that Amazon's practice was "threatening the industry's ecological balance."

The very day that "China Dawn," a book about the Internet revolution in China, went on sale last month, Amazon was offering used copies (at a substantial discount) almost as prominently as new ones. "Either there are a lot of speed readers out there," said the author, David Sheff, "or people are selling advance copies."

An Amazon spokesman, Bill Curry, countered that the system was a boon for everyone in the book business. "Being able to sell books used is like being able to trade in your used car," he said. "If you couldn't get rid of your used car, what would happen to new-car sales?"

Curious to see how this marketplace functioned, I decided to list a few books on Amazon. But first, I thought, I would take them to the Strand to see the old system at work.

I chose four books. One was a gift that I knew I would never get around to reading, "The Complete Works of Isaac Babel," by the short-story writer executed in the Soviet Union in 1940; it was still shrink-wrapped. Another was "Santiago Calatrava," a photo book about the Spanish architect. There were two paperbacks: Christopher Bollas's "Becoming a Character: Psychoanalysis and Self-Experience," bought for a course I took, and Edward Lazarus's Supreme Court memoir, "Closed Chambers," which I had skimmed. All were in excellent condition; the cover prices totaled $101.95.

It was a sunny Saturday, so I put the four books in my backpack and rode my bike across town to the Strand. There, I was directed to stand under a "Sell Books Here" sign (a primitive version of Amazon's "Sell Your Stuff" button). In front of me several people were unloading books on a counter. One had about 50 volumes, for which the clerk offered him $125. "Are you sure you can't do better?" he asked, in a refrain I would hear over and over again. No, came the answer. He took his $125, in cash.

When it was my turn, the man behind the counter took a few seconds to appraise my books. "Thirty dollars," he told me. I asked for a breakdown. "I'm tired," he replied, but he complied: $15 for the Babel, $10 for the Calatrava and $2.50 each for the softcovers.

I thanked him, told him I would think about it and took my books home. I logged on to Amazon and clicked on "Sell Your Stuff." Listing a book, which Amazon said would take 60 seconds, took even less: for each book, all I had to do was click on an Amazon icon or type in the I.S.B.N. number found in the book. Then I had to choose a condition - new, like new, very good, etc. - from a menu, and finally, set a price.

In each case Amazon made a recommendation based on the price of the book and its condition. It suggested $30 for the Babel, $24 for the Calatrava, $10 for the Lazarus and $7.04 for the Bollas - a total of more than $70. On each book, Amazon would take a commission of 99 cents plus 15 percent of the sale price, bringing my possible take to just over $56 - or about twice what I had been offered by the Strand. I accepted the recommendations (going to $7.05 for the Bollas, just to be sly), clicked a few more times and waited. Soon I had four pieces of e-mail confirming my listings.

But then I got a message with real news: the Babel had been sold, less than four hours after I listed it. Amazon had deposited the money in my online account: the $30 plus a $2.23 shipping allowance paid by the customer, less the commissions of $5.49. Amazon promised to transfer the $26.74 balance to my checking account within 14 days; all I had to do was provide my account number.

And so that Monday I slipped the book into an 85-cent padded envelope and took it to the post office, where I mailed it for $2.03 - less than Amazon had predicted. I had thought of just putting seven stamps on the envelope and dropping it in a mailbox, but I'm glad I didn't. It turns out that the book's buyer - whose address was a military post office box and the ZIP code 09175 - was overseas, and I had to fill out a customs form.

The other three books haven't sold yet. Amazon listings expire after 60 days, so I still have time. (I will, however, be out of the country for part of next month. I can either suspend my listings or hope that my buyers, if there are any buyers, are patient.)

Here's the bottom line: I turned down $30 at the Strand. So far, I've netted about $24, and I still own three of the four books. I did have to read a bunch of e-mail, print out a label, buy a padded envelope and make a trip to the post office. And if the book doesn't arrive at 09175 or is damaged on the way, I'll have a problem - and will probably find myself, unhappily, reading a lot of the Amazon fine print that I avoided.

For its $5.49, Amazon listed my book for sale, sent a few pieces of e-mail and transferred money - all trivial tasks for its computers, no humans or inventory required. Although the company's commission on a new book would have been more - as much as 60 percent of its $45 list price, according to Ms. Pogrebin - it would have had to do much more work for that money.

Amazon did well, and I've got money in my checking account. It's the authors I'm worried about.