Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Ethics of Used Books

In discussing his favorite bookstores, Ryan David Jahn mentions that he only buys used books if the author is deceased. I take his point immediately, and I, too find the question of buying used books written by living, potentially royalty-earning authors to be a question that deserves some thought.

Of course, in some cases the damn books are out of print, so there's no ethical problem at all.

In other cases, I may stumble across a hardback copy of a book I prize, but own only in paperback. There again I'm not troubled; I shoveled out the cash once, and usually the hardback is out of print.

The tricky bit comes with books I don't own in any form, that are still readily for sale as new books. Do I, like Ryan, always hold out for a new, royalty-paying copy?

Well, sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. One of the joys to me of a used book shop is stumbling across something I might not have seen otherwise, and might not be altogether certain I really want to read. But, what the hell, if the cost is low...

The only way I can make up my mind about the ethics of this is to consider the "do unto others" aspect of the whole thing. Would I prefer that somebody buy my own books new? Sure.

On the other hand, if someone stumbles across a book of mine used and says, "Hmmm...looks interesting...maybe..." then do I have a problem with them buying it used? Not at all.

Do I mind if someone goes on Amazon intending to purchase my book new, and then sees all the used copies and decides to buy one of those instead?

Not really. I'd naturally prefer that they bought the book new. Hell, I'd prefer that they bought two new copies, one to read and another to be kept in mint conditions behind a glass-doored bookcase, but I'm glad that they're buying the book at all.

I don't object to libraries lending out my book. And I don't object to people passing a copy of my book on to friends.

Back when Thomas Harris' Red Dragon first appeared in paperback, I bought a copy, read it, passed it to a friend, who read it, and passed it on...if I recall, by the time it got back to me, something like 27 people read that poor, broken-backed, tattered copy. So Harris missed out on some royalties there. On the other hand, though, by the time Silence of the Lambs came out, we'd all finished graduate school, and I bet he sold 27 extra copies of that one.

I find this too be a gray area, not only ethically, but in terms of my own preferences. To put it simply, more money is good...but more readers is even better, and I'm not sure where the trade-off lies.

More money and more readers would be excellent, in whatever proportions.

13 comments:

Ryan David Jahn said...

Indeed: what makes the issue murky -- at least for me -- is the fact that a reader is almost always a net positive.

I check out library books all the time, discovering authors whose books I later buy.

I first discovered many an author on the remainder shelves or in a used book store -- and then bought several of their books new and at full price.

And ignoring the economics -- people write because they want to be read.

David Isaak said...

I agree. Or at any rate, writers of the type we know want to be read, in the same way a composer wants his music to be performed.

But I always wonder if there aren't some writers who just write for the hell of it, and have no thought of being read or published. I don't think I've met any...but, in the nature of things, you probably wouldn't, would you?

Tim Stretton said...

My habits were formed as a penniless student (well, I had pennies, but most of them went over the student bar). So for many years I bought second-hand whenever I could, particularly as I'd rather read a hardback than a paperback.

If I'm reading someone for the first time I may well buy a used copy, but if I like that book I'll probably buy their subsequent work new.

Meanwhile I try to buy up every used copy of The Dog of the North on the planet (there really aren't that many...) so that everyone else has to buy new...

S. Boyd Taylor said...

The "freebies" -- loaned books, used books, free electronic samples given out by the writer or publisher -- don't bother me.

They used to, but there is coming to be significant evidence that, for e-books, if someone likes the electronic copy they tend to buy a hard copy. I bet it's the same way for loaned books as well -- if I like a book someone loans me every once in a while I buy it when I would never have bought it otherwise.

There may come a turning point on this equation -- where no one is willing to pay for words anymore -- but right now freebies only seem to increase your audience size, which, eventualy, increases your income.

Frances said...

I think a mix is good. Second-hand books, library books, new books, borrowed books - if there's a good mix, we can't go far wrong, either as readers or as writers (and by the way, I accept your ticking off about the Da Vinci Code, David, but only up to a point. Something for further discussion when we next meet??)

Janet said...

I don't see it as being any less ethical than buying a used car.

If I were fabulously rich, or any kind of rich, I'd buy all my books new. But I'm not, so if it's an author I don't know and trust, I prefer libraries or used. If the author hooks me, I'll be buying new in the future, and often buying gifts for others.

And in the case of libraries, they had to buy the copy and will likely buy more if it's popular. It's like they're paying to do publicity for the author. Not bad.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Tim--

I was never completely penniless, but we were all literally impecunious (not one of us owned a cow).

Keeping copies of your own first hardback when you find them is probably a good move. It's a small printing in any case, and if you ever become even moderately renowned...

David Isaak said...

Hi, SBT--

You're right. Cory Doctorow's giveaways seem to have improved his hard-copy sales.

I still haven't figured out where the Kindle fits into my vision of the future, though.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Frances--

A healthy mix is best. But I have the devil of a time returning library books. (Probably a subconscious deisre to add them to my library permanently.)

On Da Vinci Code, all I meant was that my expectations were pretty low to begin with. I was amazed to find that my low expectations were too high.

I'm a nice fellow, really. I may occssionally wince at clumsy writin, but it's pretty hard to write so badly that I can't get through a book. With Da Vinci Code, I was groaning by the middle of the first page (when "...the curator froze, turning his head slowly."

But it'd still be fun to talk about it with you some time. Or about anything else, for that matter!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Yeah, I've been thrilled a few times when I've stumbled across libraries who keep their lending records on line, and there was a waiting list for my novel. (It was especially popular in Upper Hutt, New Zealand, as well as some places in England I'd didn't know existed).

That said, I'd certainly buy YOUR book new rather than checking it out.

Janet said...

That is so sweet of you.

In your case, dear David, I asked the library to buy your book. They bought two. :o) Our library has a request program. You request a book that wasn't already on their radar screen, they consider it, and if they buy it, it's reserved for you to read first. How cool is that? And they say yes a lot, at least to my requests. I figure I'm doing those authors more good than if I bought it myself.

David Isaak said...

Wow, that's wonderful. (Thank you!)

And, yes, I don't think there's anything better for any writer than to be in libraries.

Aliya made the sly suggestion that I donate a dozen copies to the central military library, which then ships them all over the place. I thought that was amazingly crafty. It's like a free, self-renewing airport book rack, right in front of the noses of people with the need for a little diversion.

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