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Used books start to shake off their second-class image

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When John Buettner of Chestertown, Md., wants to buy books, he heads to a used bookstore. The price is right, he says, and "there is a certain 'hunting' appeal to the whole process."

George Simpson of New York takes a different approach: He goes to his computer and shops for used books online. A few clicks of the mouse, a few taps of the keys, and his order is complete.

Both men represent enthusiastic customers in one of the fastest-growing segments of the book industry: used books. Last year, US consumers spent more than $2.2 billion to buy 111 million used books. That's up 11 percent from 2003, according to a landmark study by the Book Industry Study Group. Most significantly, the growth is happening on the Internet. Online sales of used trade books - those aimed at a general audience - jumped 33 percent last year. By contrast, trade-book sales at traditional bookstores rose 4.6 percent.

"Used trade books have been growing 25 percent a year," says Jeff Hayes, group director of InfoTrends/CAP Ventures, a research firm in Weymouth, Mass. "New trade books are growing only a couple percent a year."

As these "pre-owned" volumes become an increasingly popular choice for millions of readers, they are shaking off their once-dusty image. They are also beginning to shake up an industry that until now has paid little attention to them. Publishers and authors worry that they will siphon off sales from new books. Others see their rising allure as part of an emerging shift in how Americans view ownership.

"The used-book market is just beginning to burgeon," says Dan Nissanoff, author of the forthcoming book "Futureshop." "Culturally, buying used books as a way to acquire a book is becoming mainstream and acceptable." He traces the shift to an "auction culture" that "promotes temporary ownership as an efficient way to live a better life.


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