Once upon a time, before this Internet was in use and communication had therefore not been invented, I wrote a series of articles trying to convince writers everywhere that a book fair was an investment. Now that we have all this technology, writers can publish their works online without worrying about anything so crass as getting paid. But in the bad old days, there were writers’ groups doing their very best to make money.
This involved, among other things, various plans to charge libraries a user’s fee every time they checked out a book: the money would theoretically go to the author whose book sales were impacted by allowing people to read the book from a library. In some countries, the fee was actually charged at photocopy shops: an author whose work was run through the copier would get the money. In both cases, the theory was the same: you were not supposed to have access to the author’s words without paying the author.
You can imagine what these groups thought of used book sales. James Branch Cabell, the fantasy novelist elite critics preferred to Tolkien, was especially upset by the sale of his books on the secondhand market (he was also piqued because they sold at high prices because people collected the illustrator–not the author) and refused to autograph books because he figured they were after a profit he wouldn’t get to share. There have been brief crusades to get book buyers to shred or burn books when they finish reading, so no one can get that sacred text without buying a new copy at full price.
My articles, which ran, if I remember correctly, in a magazine for science fiction and fantasy writers, a magazine for mystery writers, and a magazine for antique collectors (could NOT get anybody in the music industry excited about my article on records) urged the producers of prose to view book fairs as an investment. If I could get a reader hooked on Dinah Deadly mysteries with a fifty cent paperback this year, that reader would be buying a Dinah Deadly paperback brand new at a store a few months later. If the addiction became severe (and that was up to Dinah Deadly) the sufferer might actually start breaking down and buying the NEXT book when it came out in hardcover.
There was no need to add that this works out well for the book fairs, too. The customer who bought the fifty cent Dinah Deadly one year would be scooping up Dinah Deadly in paperback and hardcover at the next year’s book fair. And, with any luck, once they recovered from the swoon of ecstasy, they would be paying for that signed first edition of the rare second Dinah Deadly novel (Dinah Deadly and the Disgusting Doughnut) the year after that.
I believe that in the business world, this is called a “loss leader”: something inexpensive which pays its way by hooking the customer and leading her on to more profitable purchases. The fifty cent paperback (I know, I know: they’re a dollar now. But these articles were written back in the twentieth century, when we mainly swapped beads and trinkets) is the way to introduce a reader to new authors and perhaps even whole new worlds of reading. (Try this vampire romance; they’re not really habit-forming. And, anyway, it’s only a buck.) It’s what we do to create the dedicated fan who rushes into the book fair shouting, “I would KILL for Stephen King in hardcover!”
So long as you’ve had your shots and keep a respectful distance away, these people are a constant source of joy and profit to vendors of books both new and old. And all it took was one paperback with a wrinkled cover, sitting quietly next to a metal bookend on a table.