Friday, November 22, 2019

The Ethics of Buying Used Books

I woke up yesterday morning with a headache and a slightly queasy stomach. I thought it might be a lost day, but I ate some porridge, had some coffee, and drank some water, which left me feeling better, if not 'right.' I was able to function well enough, though, so we went to do some errands, stopping in the charity shop while we were out.

The shelves in our local charity shop are groaning under the weight of the books that are stuffed in every available space. They don't have room for more, so are not accepting book donations at this time. We were able to find a few to take home, thus creating a wee bit more space for them. As we were browsing, I was thinking about a booktube video I recently watched on the Spinster's Library channel regarding the ethics of used book buying. In the video, Claudia, who has talked about buying used books before, said that some people had commented to her that perhaps buying used books is unethical. This caused her to consider whether or not she agreed with this idea. I largely agreed with her conclusions in this regard, but there were one or two things that I was thinking about while watching that she didn't talk about.

She talked about an author named Philip Pullman, who I think is fairly popular, but not someone who writes books I'm interested in, so I cannot comment on his work. In the video, she said that he has said that whenever someone buys a book in a charity shop, he is deprived of royalties. I suppose that, on a purely factual level, he is correct--he is not getting any royalties from a book sold in a charity shop. But he did get the royalties when the original owner bought the book and if that person no longer wants the book, it will have to be disposed of somehow. Is it better to put it in a charity shop, where it can find a new home, stay out of a landfill, and provide funds to help people or would he rather have someone toss it in the trash? Either way, he's not getting his royalties and it seems to me that reuse is a more ethical choice.

His argument is overly simplistic. I can only speak to how Bill and I buy books in a charity shop, but it seems to me that if anyone is going into a charity shop looking for a particular author, they will usually come out disappointed. It may be that charity shops in his part of the world (wherever that is) are different than they are here or than the ones I experienced when I was in the US, but when I browse the bookshelves in a charity/thrift shop, I am never looking for a particular thing, I am prepared to be happily surprised, but also prepared to walk out empty-handed. We get a lot of books at charity shops, none of which are books we went in to look for and most of which we had never even heard of before we picked them up. It's not a matter of deciding to buy a particular book and then opting for the charity shop instead of a bookshop, thus depriving an author of her/his royalties. That's not the choice. The choice is, 'Oh, here's this book that I never knew about until this very minute. Do I want to give it a chance or not?'

This leads to another issue. I read 150ish books every year. I would not have room to buy and keep all those books. It is true that a large proportion of that consists of books written by people who are no longer alive, but even setting those aside, I would have a large number of books to attempt to house. And I have no desire to keep every book I read. I almost never re-read fiction, so I have no interest in keeping those books. I either put myself in the queue at the library, or I come across books in wee free libraries or charity shops that I buy knowing that I will pass them on when I'm done. Sometimes I give a book a try, knowing that if I don't like it, I can pass it on and not worry about the money I've spent on it. The books we keep are, with few exceptions, nonfiction. If we know we want to keep a book, we buy it new. We avoid Amazon for ethical reasons and buy from Kenny's in Galway--an indie bookseller which offers free worldwide shipping. Sometimes I do find books in charity shops that I know I will keep, but they are never books I went in looking for and are always books I did not know about, so I would not have been able to go into a bookshop or online to buy one new anyway. And there is a cost factor. I read fairly quickly and depending on the novel, I can be done with a book in a few hours. It does not seem like a good use of resources to buy an object that I am going to use for a few hours and then have to dispose of. Those are the kinds of books that I get from the library and return or a charity shop and pass on. Here again, it's a not a simple choice between acquiring a new copy of the book or getting it elsewhere--if I could not get such books at the library or in charity shops, I wouldn't buy them new. I simply wouldn't buy them.

I am not unsympathetic to authors who feel they are getting ripped off.  Like all artists, I think that they should be paid for their work. But I do think there's a difference between someone distributing a bootleg digital copy of a book, for example, and someone buying a book and then passing it on to a charity shop. In the video, Claudia also makes the distinction, which I thought was a good one, between buying used books at a charity shop and buying them at a for-profit business. There are a lot of ethical considerations here.

In thinking about this, I was reminded of artwork we've had over the last 15 years. We were heavily involved in a local art community in one particular place we lived, both as artists and as people who were collecting life stories to do projects about artists. In appreciation, some of the artists gave us pieces of their work. I bought a painting or two as well. When we moved, I could not take the paintings I bought, so I returned them to the artist without asking for, expecting, or receiving a refund. Some of the other art was such that we could take it with us. But when we were coming to Ireland, we had to pass most of that along, too. We were thousands of miles away from the artists and we'd lost touch with some of them anyway, so returning was not an option. We sold some and donated some. Books are the same. When someone buys a book, it's theirs to do with what they will. People here buy a lot of books, new and used. I was told by a librarian a few years ago that people will do a book clear-out just before or just after Christmas to make room for the new books they're going to get or have gotten. It seems to me to be a good thing to dispose of these objects ethically. If no one takes them from wee free libraries or buys them from charity shops, they'll go into landfill, which is wasteful (thus unethical). Even if this happened, I think it's a stretch to assume that royalties for authors would suddenly increase as a result. Again, I can only go by my own experience, but buying a book in a charity shop does not mean that I would have otherwise bought it new. It just means I likely would never have even known it existed. And it's entirely possible that someone might discover an author in a charity shop, buy a book they're not sure about because it's only a euro, fall in love, and then buy more of that author's work new, thus providing royalties to the author.

Anyway, it was an interesting thought experiment, listening to the video and thinking about how the topic relates to my own life. And now, I'm off to read. 😀


Brenda said...

I use the library, review books for Amazon and Net Galley- read on kindle-iPad! I do not buy new books anymore and have donated most of mine!!! My classics-except for a few have gone to my kids and grands!!! I do buy used books occasionally-don't like ordering them as often they smell like cigarettes. However, when the Library sold a bag for five dollars as donations, I bought several! I love the idea of donating and buying used!! Good for you!! Love lve your blog!!!

Laurie Graves said...

Really good points you brought up. There is no getting around the fact that artists of all kinds rely on people buying their books, paintings, music, movies, etc. Indie artists, in particular, really benefit from these sales, and we use the money for everyday things such as paying the gas bill or buying groceries or pumping the septic system. In other words, living. But, money and space are issues for most of us, and we cannot always buy as much as we would like to support other artists. That is most certainly the case with us. We have a budget as big as a minute and have very little discretionary money. My blogging friend Cynthia is in a similar situation, and she has made it a habit to only buy books from friends who do not write best sellers. She figures that the best-selling writers are getting all the support they need. Philip Pullman is certainly in this position as a best-selling writer, and it seems a little disingenuous for him to be complaining about people buying used books, which, as you pointed out, would go in the landfill if people didn't buy them. Because we have so little money, we take things one step further: Most of the books we read come from the library, and I save my money to buy books that friends have written. It's a wonder Pullman didn't complain about libraries. ;) We do what we can to support other artists and crafters, and with every show we go to with our books, we always buy something, usually gifts for friends and family.

Shari Burke said...

I was thinking the same thing, Laurie, about Pullman and libraries! I know exactly where you're coming from when you talk about indie artists using the money to live. We've been there, done that. During the time I mentioned at the end of the post, we were doing a lot of indie stuff as our only source of income. I sold work in shows and in a museum gift shop, took commissions, wrote and edited for people. Bill sold photos, digitised audio, and showed people how to make websites. Together we did life story projects for people. Whenever we sold something, it meant that we could buy groceries or have some cash towards the electric bill. I get it. We could only dream of a budget as big as a minute--LOL--and our budget is probably not even up to the minute mark now. But even while I was doing all that, i the hopes of getting a bit of cash, there was a realisation that just because I decide I want to make something doesn't mean anyone is obligated to buy it or interested in it. Obviously, in the case of commissions this is not true and that may be why I have always been more comfortable with that than with making something and selling it. With commissions, I felt like I was filling a need and I felt good about that. I think I always come back to the idea of stuff, which is how I approached the video that inspired the post. We also buy small items at craft/art shows when we can, and some of the books we buy new are small press local history books but stuff is an issue, both personally and when looking at the larger picture, so we're very selective--similar to what you described, but from a different angle. I try to use stuff that already exists, like used books (from the library or charity shops) or yarn, or beads from jewellery that would be tossed, or whatever. I could not even feel comfortable working in a yarn shop when people would come in and joke about buying too much yarn and stuff like that. If I cannot even get into consumerism in a yarn shop, there's no hope for me ;-) I take stuff other people do not want and try to find a way to keep it from being wasted--that seems to describe the way things go with me. Whether it was food at MCHPP, clothes, yarn, books, broken jewellery to take apart or whatever else, somehow through many years I ended up being someone who attracted these things from people. Now it's a way of life and how I feel most comfortable and ethical, which causes issues for me in some ways, but there it is.

Shari Burke said...

I hear you, Brenda, about the smoke smell--yuck! Library book sales--love them! I have all my classics on my kindle (which was a gift from a friend). I got them from Project Gutenberg. That's a great site for many things. When I read or hear about an author from a century or more ago that sounds interesting, I pop over there and usually find what I'm looking for. Now to actually find time to read them all. I have a pin that says, 'So any books, so little time.' I think many of us can relate! :-)

Laurie Graves said...

I hear you, Shari! No one is ever obligated to buy, but what a good feeling when they do. Even better when they come looking for the second book. ;) Yes, using what is already around is such a good thing to do.

Shari Burke said...

I agree, Laurie--it's a good feeling when someone appreciates our work :-)