Now here's a question: When is it ethical to buy books second hand?
Possibly when the author is already dead, and I'd have to admit that most of my current reading matter falls into that category. Hard-hearted as I am, I don't feel the same pity for the affairs of late authors' estates as I might for the living. Nonetheless, I may be an outlier among readers in my dustier literary interests at the moment, and it's an accepted wisdom of publishing that if readers buy books second hand, they are denying proceeds to the (living) author and thus undermining publishing. In a forum on the ethics of book buying on the writing site WriteWords, I came across one particular comment that encapsulated this view, and a little more:
"I would never buy a book second hand if it's available new, as I'd be depriving the author of a sale they'd otherwise have had - and that'll be me soon. That's the realisation on which PLR was founded, after all. Just as I never use pirated software. "
Put like that, it seems clear - new writing must be directly impeded if it is no longer possible to make a good living from it. This does seem to ignore the fact that most aspiring writers are educated enough about the state of publishing to know that very few published writers do make a living from it; and the motivations of writers may have more to do with art or status than financial reward. It could be argued that to reduce the proceeds of writing might even encourage those who are writing for higher reasons than profit.
The piracy claim is a new one to me though. I'd always assumed that if a book is sold second hand that this might inherently be a comment on the (perhaps disappointing) quality of the book, and that it might be expecting a bit much for the author to be expect to be paid again on account of their book being less worth holding onto. Certainly there are many goods that we do buy second hand without scruple. Is there reason to suppose that the trade in second hand cars is piracy, for example? Was I tearing bread from the mouths of assembly line workers when I bought my chav-white Renault Clio second hand? Well, yes, I suppose I was.
Perhaps I have learned something today. It may even encourage me to buy new books a little more often, when I can find it within me to trust an author sufficiently. One of the reasons I've always been prepared to experiment with an author I might not like is that if I buy their book second hand, I'm not risking rewarding bad writing, which in my (admittedly disproportionate) mind is a crime comparable to funding terrorism.
So I admit I may have done my part to keep other writers penniless/honest. Shoot me now. Before I die though, allow me these parting words - I feel for fellow writers, and I feel for publishing. But it turns out I really hate William Gaddis. If he were alive, I'd hate him too.
Everything Will Not Be Better Tomorrow -
3 days ago