Friday, 23 May 2008

On The Morality of Book Buying

I've been having a bit of a moral crisis of late, caused by something I read in the paper. Someone had written in with an ethical dilemma about secondhand books. I forget the exact story, but it was something along these lines: they had tried to sell some books to a secondhand bookshop; the shop had refused to buy them because they didn't reckon they could sell them on, but offered to take them for free to stop them going to the charity shop next door, which they claimed is destroying their trade. So the person had some kind of moral dilemma about what they should do, or something.

Anyway. Various people had responded, and one of the responses was from some outraged person who said that the only morally right thing to do was to recycle the unwanted books, since no one has a right to buy books secondhand as that does not earn the author any money (they excluded out-of-print books from this, obviously).

WhyNotSmile (having too much time on her hands and being quite easily swayed) was promptly thrown into moral crisis, as she buys a lot of secondhand books and was rather distraught at having so unwittingly been party to (albeit unintentional) evil. This was further enhanced when she dug about in her memory and recalled that something similar was said somewhere along the line by some author (Janette Winterson, maybe? - would go online and check, but I'm currently Not Friends with my Vista internet connection).

Their point is this: books are written by authors. Authors have to earn a living. If you buy a new book, the auther gets a cut of what you pay. If you buy a secondhand book, only the shop you bought it from benefits, and the author gets nothing. This is therefore stealing, and you should be Ashamed Of Yourself.

The aforementioned-possibly-Janette-Winterson author compared secondhand book trading to music and film piracy, and suggested that it should be made illegal.

Now, in a sense, they have a point. If authors cannot make money by writing books, then clearly they're going to stop writing books. This is bad for them (as they'll have to go and get a real job), bad for publishing houses (who won't have anything to sell), and bad for literature in general (since Mills and Boon will always be the last to die). Now, I like reading, and I want to continue to be able to go to a bookshop and find books in it: new books, which I have not read before, and which are worth reading. For this reason, I do buy new books some of the time.

However, I do not agree that I am Morally Wrong (as opposed to Simply Unwise In View Of The Effect On The Future of Literature) to buy secondhand books some of the time as well. The only valid reason I can see for it being morally wrong is the one about authors' rights; the other two reasons mentioned above fall under the 'simply unwise' category.

My reasoning is this: just because someone wants to write books, doesn't mean that the rest of us have to make sure it's economically viable. You can't always get what you want; it's what everyone's parents call 'Tough'. I mean, I would like to be a wife and mother, but, since I have so far failed to attract a member of the opposite sex, I have to be a computer programmer instead. And I don't go around haranguing widows who remarry and accusing them of moral bankruptcy for using more than their fair quota of men. I would further argue that if you're a good author, the system will not fail you, but I don't like the implications for the analogy, so I won't.

Additionally, this argument could surely apply to any secondhand stuff you could name; when you buy it, the person who designed and made it in the first place doesn't benefit. But when stuff is made and a price is set, the price has to take into account the lifespan of the stuff, and how likely it is that people will buy the stuff new in the first place, and so on; this is how economics works (actually, I made that last bit up; I've no idea how economics works).

And thirdly, this also assumes that when I buy a book secondhand, the alternative would be to buy it new; in practice I can't afford to do that, so I might just buy one new book rather than 10 secondhand ones. But if I have bought a particular author's book secondhand and enjoyed it, then when I go to buy my one new book, it might just be that I decide to buy one by the author I liked. If I hadn't bought any secondhand books, I wouldn't know which new book to buy, and would simply collapse in a sobbing heap in the book shop, which does nothing much to improve anyone's economic prospects.

And finally, if trading in secondhand books is morally wrong, wouldn't that make libraries absolute dens of iniquity? This cannot possibly be true, so, using Proof by Absurd Converse, my argument stands.


smooth stones in my hand said...

As a book addict I found this post v interesting. I'm not sure I really care enough to have an opinion on the ethics of buying second hand books (is that bad?)

I have donated more than my fair share to charity shops (along with clothes) and your musings pretty much fit what I would think if I could be bothered to think about it properly.

As for libraries, I think there might be some special licensing thing for them - not really sure.

whynotsmile said...

Hi Smooth Stones (by the way, do I know you? Judging by the combination of blogs you read, I think I must do, but I've not worked it out yet!).

Libraries pay a small licence fee every year - but it's a few thousand pounds or something, so it doesn't really contribute much to the authors. I don't know whether they also monitor which books the library lends most so they decide who gets the money, or whether it all goes into some kind of central pot and gets doled out.

I would like to be a librarian though, so if I ever achieve that, I will find out and let you know.

Anonymous said...

intersting indeed...

also applies to 2nd hand CDs and the like. I wonder what the moral would be if i bought a load of CDs, copied them to my MP3 player then sold the CDs on. Maybe a bit different in retrospect.

I think though... once you buy something, its yours to do with what you want. I sold a TV on ebay... was i robbing from samsung by not forcing the buyer to buy a new one.

I suppose the problem is that the TV is 10 years old and will probably break soon... so its value has decreased... as long as the words on a page are readable and the songs on a CD play.. then in theory its just as good as new.

interesting though.

neuro-praxis said...

I thought the whole point of being an author was to write and have others read what you've written; not to be a money-grubbing capitalist pig.

I'm off to buy hundreds of second-hand books.

whynotsmile said...

Well said neuro. And stylishly, too.

QMonkey, I have been pondering the same question... about whether once you buy something you can do what you want with it. I think basically you can. But you don't buy the copyright, so you can't copy it or replicate it. Hence the MP3/CD thing. Hence also why you can't photocopy a book and sell on the original. Also it'd be pointless cos it'd cost you a fortune to photocopy. Unless it was a short book.

Anonymous said...

Libaries do pay an amount of money to authors whose books are registed, it is based on their popularity (a bit like top of the pops is supposed to be based on record sales... so not so much...)

I hope this helps you become a librarian

Anon ;o)