Friday, March 25, 2016

Ethical questions

Is morality a factor in the buying and selling of books? I speak not about dirty books or books about building bombs, but ordinary books. The question seems to be not what is bought or sold but how or where it is bought or sold.

Two books I read recently hint at such ethical questions. First there was My Bookstore, a collection of essays by American writers about their favorite bookstores. These are independent bookstores, a seemingly disappearing species. Such stores usually offer better, more personal service than other sources for book purchases, although their prices tend to be higher and their selections smaller than Amazon or Barnes & Noble, for example.Yet some of the authors suggest this is more than just a matter of buyer preference. To them, buying from independent stores is the right thing to do, making purchases elsewhere wrong.

Then in The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Wendy Welch begins to question whether the used book store she runs with her husband is fair to writers. After all, authors get no royalties from the sale of used books. Publishers pay them only when new copies of their books are sold. So when you buy a used copy of Welch's book, rather than a new copy, you may not be taking money out of her pocket, but you are not putting any money into it.

Some things, like murder, are always wrong, but other actions (or non-actions) can be viewed differently by different people. These book commerce questions fit in the second category. Some people may feel strongly about them, especially authors and independent booksellers, while others may not. I am somewhere in between. I recognize the concerns, but I also feel no guilt about either shopping at Barnes & Noble or purchasing used copies of books still in print.

First question first. Should we try to keep independent booksellers in business by buying our books from them exclusively? Business is all about competition. Whatever business you are in, you must continually make adjustments and innovations to stay competitive. Independent bookstores have certain advantages, as mentioned above. Stores that stress these advantages and are well-managed will survive and prosper, just like many of those stores mentioned in My Bookstore. Other stores will fail. Customers may want a business to succeed, and so make their purchases accordingly, but I don't think they have a moral obligation to do so.

As for selling used books, Welch and her husband are still in business in Big Stone Gap, Va., as far as I know, so I guess we know how they resolved this issue. I'm with them. People sell used clothing, used cars, used furniture, used toys and so forth, so why not used books? General Motors doesn't make any profit if you sell your Buick online or through a classified ad. They made their money the first time the car was sold. Imagine the waste if someone decided we should buy only new products for the benefit of workers and retailers.

Just as some people cannot afford to purchase new cars, so some cannot afford to buy new books. Books bought at used bookstores or garage sales, or borrowed from a public library, provide affordable reading for millions of people, and readers, even readers who never buy new books, benefit those who write them. They talk about the books they've read, they pass their love of reading down to their children, they give new books as gifts that they would never buy for themselves, etc.

Recycling is a good thing, a moral thing, and not just in the sense of putting things out by the curb. The more people who can read a single book, the better for the world, ever if the author may miss out on some royalties.

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