The Literary Platform has a fairly long piece looking at the question of ethical consumerism (primarily focused on books and e-books, but also stepping back to look at the larger picture of consumerism in general). This includes the question of buying versus piracy, but also touches on the wider picture of paying full-price at bookstores rather than buying cheap and/or used books from Amazon:

We might now be seeing a better understanding between writers, publishers and agents, but this doesn’t detract from the fact that book prices are being pushed to zero – either through piracy or aggressive pricing strategies. So if we are looking for writers to be paid for the books that they write could one option be to educate the reader into making ethical decisions about their buying habits? Do readers care whether writers are fairly remunerated for their work?

Even leaving aside the question of piracy, the problem, as an included essay from Ewan Morrison points out, is that shopping “ethically” is a lot harder and more costly, and especially in today’s economy we’re more interested in shopping cheaply. And to some extent we often may not be able to know whether what we’re buying is even ethical at all.

Ethical consumption breaks down because it places too much on the shoulders of the individual, who is already pressed for time and resources, and because the consumerist world in itself cares little for ethics.

What does this mean for book and ebooks? Well, books and bookshops will only survive if all of you ethical consumers out there can stop shopping on Amazon and in Tesco and in Walmart, and stop using your smartphones, and if you are willing to pay the full price for books at independent bookstores, and also if you can start teaching your children, right now, that getting all of that great stuff through free downloads on their new platforms has got to stop.

Looking at the current state of affairs on the Internet and in the marketplace, all I can think is “Good luck with that.” If the publishers and bookstores between them can’t figure out how to convince consumers to shop there, they’re going to die out—and perhaps they deserve to. And if they can’t figure out how to turn pirates into paying customers after all the positive examples we’ve already had (such as Valve’s Steam), perhaps they deserve what they get in that respect as well.

(I would also quibble with the idea, expressed in the essay, that it’s somehow unethical for Amazon affiliates to sell used books cheaply when the authors don’t see any money from such sales. People have the right to dispose of their own possessions how they see fit—and even if they didn’t, used book sales are certainly not something that got started with the Internet age! They’ve been around for as long as new books have.)


  1. “Well, books and bookshops will only survive if all of you ethical consumers out there can stop shopping on Amazon…”

    To the contrary, I am more than happy for people to buy my books from Amazon, and I will keep writing books so long as they do so.

    Now, the existing publishing companies or existing bookstores might not survive, but that doesn’t mean that publishing or books or culture won’t survive. It might not even be a bad thing.

  2. There’s also the little problem that even if a local independent bookstore exists nearby and one is willing to pay whatever cover price the publisher demands for a new book there’s absolutely no reason to believe that that would translate into “writers being fairly remunerated for their work” rather than “increased profits for the publishing division of a multinational corporation”.

  3. And, just to clarify, if everyone pirates books, then authors and publishers and bookstores won’t survive. But I’ve found that offering readers e-books that are reasonably priced and DRM-free (and well-edited, etc., etc.) leads to a goodly number of them purchasing those books instead of pirating them. If you give people a good product at a reasonable price, most are willing to pay for it. But if you provide un-proofread OCR scans with restrictive DRM and regional restrictions and delayed by 9 months and blocked text-to-speech for prices higher than printed books … then you’ll be complaining about piracy while the rest of us sell e-books.

  4. Why would you expect to consumers to be concerned about the ethics of consumerism when faced with publishers who collude on pricing and insist on useing DRM to try set up walled markets while claiming ‘piracy’ as the reason?

    I used to buy almost exclusively from “agency publishers” the only books I read from “agency publishers” now, come from the library.

  5. It seems to me that authors suffer in the short term, but at least in terms of used books, I know that I may pick up a book at Half-Price Books, fall in love with the author or the series, and read through everything that the bookstore has. But as soon as I’m caught up, I won’t wait to find the new books on sale. I pick them up as for full price as soon as they are released. As far as pricing for e-books go, it seems to me that maybe the same kind of model might apply? Couldn’t they release an early ebook version for a higher price, then bring the price down? And couldn’t they find a way to reregister “used” ebooks so that we can trade them or resell them? They are possessions, too. Prized possessions, in my case. I’m relying more and more on my e-reader.

  6. I really find any discussion of the ethics of ebooks that doesn’t include a discussion of file format and Amazon’s attempt to muscle everybody out by making the Kindle the only reading device and Amazon the only provider of ebooks by using a format that’s not compatible with any other systems while pretty much the rest of the industry has gotten behind ePub. I think that this issue is actually much more critical than the DRM issue, although of course un-DRMed ePub would be the best of both worlds. But until you can get people to support competing platforms like the Kobo or the Sony Reader (or apps like Bluefire on various tablets and phones) and to buy their books in ePub, all the rest of this debate seems pretty academic.

  7. So, is it only used books bought from Amazon/ affiliates that is unethical or used books bought from anywhere, including the local B&M used bookstore ( there’s a rather large on near me that usually has a full parking lot even on weekdays)?

    And is it unethical to get books from a library since I didn’t directly pay for those either?

    Gee, book buying ethics is complicated!

  8. Let’s just simplify the whole issue. If you obtain books from any place except a brick and mortar bookstore, you’re unethical. The publishing industry demands, and believes it deserves, everyone’s total support. Used book stores? Libraries? ebooks? All part of a massive conspiracy to to destroy publishing as we know it.

  9. As a writer and reader, I choose not to buy used and not to buy from Amazon because I know that both hurt writers and publishers.

    And, yes, readers can be educated about the publishing business. I’ve done it myself and so has other readers and authors.

    The biggest point that readers need to understand is that they are hurting themselves when they buy used or from a predatory site like Amazon. Or, God forbid, pirate the book.

    Sure, they save a little money, but money is the fuel that runs publishing, and less money means fewer books. If a reader really likes a certain author, she should buy the books, or she may not see another book from this author.

    If an author doesn’t sell a certain amount of books, then her next book won’t be bought by the publisher. If the publisher doesn’t make enough money, they go out of business. If the self-published author doesn’t make money, unless she is delusional or fueled only by an ego-driven need to be read, she will stop writing or stop spending the money to put her product out at professional venues.

    To Amazon or not Amazon is a harder choice to make or to understand because they are a legitimate venue, and the argument that they are economic bullies only interested in their bottom line whatever the outcome to their “partners,” the authors and publishers, is a bit more complex to explain.

  10. “I really find any discussion of the ethics of ebooks that doesn’t include a discussion of file format and Amazon’s attempt to muscle everybody out by making the Kindle the only reading device and Amazon the only provider of ebooks by using a format that’s not compatible with any other systems while pretty much the rest of the industry has gotten behind ePub”

    Which of the three mutually-incompatible epub formats do you have in mind here?

    If the file’s DRMed, the format is irrelevant, since it’s incompatible with other systems by design; if the file isn’t DRMed, the format is also irrelevant, since you can convert it to your system of choice with one click.

  11. David wrote “To the contrary, I am more than happy for people to buy my books from Amazon, and I will keep writing books so long as they do so.”

    I agree. I am delighted to buy from authors on Amazon where they earn a much higher royalty than from the traditional predatory publishers.

  12. Peter speaks truth.

    If publishers add enough value to the ecosystem (through curation, editing, marketing or any of the other things they claim to bring to the table), then they will survive, because authors will seek out their services, and readers will pay the premium they charge for e-books. (Is a “Big 6” published e-book worth more than most independent books? Probably. Is it worth 3x as much, 5x as much, or 12x as much as my books, or Amanda Hocking’s books? Probably not.)

    And Peter is also right on the DRM vs. format issue. Format really doesn’t matter if there is no DRM applied — one click with free tools (like Calibre) converts to any format. And if there IS DRM, then even being the same format doesn’t help you, since there are multiple incompatible “flavors” of DRM even for ePub books. I wrote more about format and DRM issues here, if anyone is interested:

  13. If there were a good bookstore near where I live, I’d be more than happy to spend a few extra bucks on a book from them. Unfortunately, the only nearby shop is a Barnes & Noble, and they don’t have a deep stock; there are no browsing opportunities, at least for me. On the other hand, I love Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle, but it’s an effort to get there. I can support them a few times per year, but it isn’t going to work for every purchase.

    So why should I not do most of my shopping at Amazon? Does that make me unethical?

  14. David Derricho is right: The biggest issue is DRM, not format.

    If there is no DRM, readers can format shift easily and so format doesn’t matter much at all.

    The illusion of “open Epub” is a falsehood because of the competing DRM-schemes that cripple the utility of the format.

    Epub as a standard may make life for ebook producers easier, but DRM is a true burden for customers.

  15. This whole argument is ridiculous to me. Why is nobody complaining about how all the ‘in this economy…’ articles that teach people how to cook at home instead of spend their money supporting the restaurant industry? Why is nobody complaining about the ‘how to do X with your iPod’ articles on Lifehacker so that people can deprive the Geek Squad of the revenue to support that business model? Why is nobody calling for a ban on email to prop up the taxpayer-funded snail mail postal service? The reality is that for ANY product on the market, the customer is faced with a tier of choices, ranging from DIY to thrift store, to specialty resale store to bargain retail to high-end full price product. And in every single industry, there will be a tier of customers that will choose the second-hand or Walmart or DIY, and there will be a tier of people that will go up a level and up a level and so on. People have a finite amount of money to spend. They make these choices all the time. It has nothing at all to do with ‘ethics’ and people are not bad people for choosing tier 1 instead of tier 3. Books are not special snowflakes; they are products. It’s business. People will not be persuaded to pay a higher price just to be ‘ethical’ when they know that for this product, like countless others, there is a range of choices and it is their legal right as a customer to choose among that range.

  16. Joanna, I guess you haven’t really noticed campaigns like “Buy American” and the national weekend devoted to shopping in small local businesses. Both have nothing to do with price, but everything to do with doing the right thing for local economies and workers.

    You can call these campaigns ethical or economic issues in the same way as some choose not to buy used books or shop at Amazon.

  17. The fallacy about the the so-called goodness of buying local, in the bookstore etc vs buying at Amazon, Wal Mart etc is the one that assumes unlimited budgets; nope the budgets are limited and buying books at Amazon means buying more books for the same money which ultimately means that more authors are rewarded.

    Somehow despite the “sky is falling” cries that have been going around about how Amazon destroys the publishing and we will have no more books, there are more books published than ever.

    Actually I think this is just normal as low prices and low barriers of entry have always been the consumer’s friend while monopoly and rent seekers hate them with a passion.

    And for the cries that, oh, just wait and see Amazon jack up prices, change terms etc, same low barrier of entry will prevent it more than anything.

  18. Marilynn, do you really mean to say you have never shopped at a discount store, bought something from a thrift store, taken a hand-me-down gift from a relative and so on? If you really are saying that, I don’t believe you. Look, people have finite amounts of money here. I just got two couches from my sister-in-law who didn’t want them, and I didn’t feel bad at all for not giving money to a high-end store. I felt grateful because she has more money than I do and so the couches were nicer than I could afford to buy myself and so I could provide something of this quality to my household. So, what would have been the most ‘ethical’ choice? To not take them and see them go to a landfill? To go to a thrift store and benefit a charity—but still not provide money to a retail store? To go to Ikea because that’s all I can afford, get lesser quality and see my dollars go to a chain and not an independent? Or to only have the option of a boutique specialty store and have to do without?

    Books are NOT a special snowflake. They are a PRODUCT, just like any other product, and these same choices apply. Is it more ethical to pollute the environment and use gas and a car to drive way out of town where the specialty boutiques are? Or to go to my local chain bricks and mortar store? To order online from a specialty chain—or Amazon? To buy cheaper books from Amazon but distribute the money I plan to spend amongst more books and more authors? Where do you draw the line? This whole ‘ethics’ idea is muddying up a very simple goal, which is to get people spending money—any money—on books!

  19. The problem here is that the traditionalists are fighting the wrong war and running out of strategies and excuses. They keep trying to fight and destroy Amazon and failing because the war isn’t between businesses but between business models.
    They are trying to stem the tide and facing a challenge Sisyphus himself would’ve given up on. At some point it’ll get through that you can’t push water.
    Every move the traditionalists make now is simply too little, too late:
    Windowing didn’t take.
    Agency pricing simply made Amazon stronger.
    Bringing in Apple fractured the annointed standard.
    Appealing to government bureaucrats has fallen on deaf ears and instead the feds and euros are looking to sue for conspiracy.
    And they still don’t get that even if they could wave a magic wand and wish Amazon away, somebody else would instantly step up and replace them using the exact same business model. Because (one.more.time) we live in a consumerist era. Money talks and consumers have the money. They are *not* going to be led like sheep to shearing anymore; that ended 50 years ago.
    Consumers will do what they see as best for them.
    If it means buying used pbooks, trolling for free ebooks wherever they can find them, buying from the low cost bidder (Amazon), or hitting up libraries, then that is exactly what they will do. And they will do it *proudly*.
    Consumers have the upper hand and they are done getting sheared.
    They can recognize self-serving drivel a mile away and they understand that the power of the wallet outranks the power of the prinnting press.
    So this latest attempt, hiding behind “ethics” to shame consumers into buying pbooks at list price is going to achieve exactly the same thing as all other disingenuous mugging attempts achieve.

  20. Joanna, I am talking about issues that are similar to the ethics of buying books, not about my choices, but here goes. Yes, I buy locally if I can. I buy American if I can. I donate to charity thrift shops and have bought a few things but rarely.

    I am not rich, far from it, having lived on a very limited income while taking care of my elderly mother for many years. I tend to do without if I can’t afford it.

    I consider the cost of things in a larger sense than what the price tag is, and that’s one of the things that ethical book buying, buying American, and buying local is about. The money spent in my town remains in my town building jobs and paying taxes. It gives my friends jobs.

    Ethical book buying keeps the publishing industry, which has a very small profit margin, alive. Beyond the ethics of the matter, I love books, I have many friends who are authors, and I one day hope to get back to writing and have a small income from it so it makes sense for me to do it.

  21. Actually, books aren’t a PRODUCT and treating them like a product as Amazon does is slowly killing publishing.

    Amazon is all about the lowest price. How did you get the lowest price if you create a product to sell at Amazon? You cut the creation costs to a minimum by using cheap material and cheap labor.

    Publishers have cut costs dramatically on production of paper books. Just look at the average massmarket paperback with their flimsy paper and construction that barely holds together. They have cut their staffs to the point of the ridiculous. They have cut their costs with authors by offering such poor contracts that the wise ones are walking away to self publish or stop writing. They have cut as much of the cost in ebooks as they can with the exception of their own profit margin.

    Still, their “product” is still too high a cost, according to Amazon and some folks here, but what can they do? At this point, most product producers would move their manufacture/authors overseas, but publishers can’t do this because who would want to read a novel written by the same folks who write the gibberish-filled manuals that come with many of the products we buy?

    And, frankly, being a competent author is a lot harder than many believe. From all the comments I read here about the self-published novels coming out, it’s obvious that sitting down and writing a competent novel is neither easy or likely.

    The average professional novelist is like a pro athlete. Many, many hours of practice. Classes and coaches. In the case of the novelist, she pays for these. Time spent away from friends and family. Etc., etc. The main difference is that novelists seem to get no respect and little income for what they do.

    So, no, a book isn’t a product.

  22. Sure it is a product. How is it not? My job involves creativity. It involves training I pay for that takes me away from my friends and family. Doing it well takes a lot more work than many of my ‘clients’ give me credit for. And some may even argue with you that MY job (teaching) is somehow a special category. But the bottom line is, it is a service and if I don’t deliver it well, people will go elsewhere for it. If I fail to understand this, I’ll lose students.

    I think many authors are hurt as much by their failure to understand that they are selling a product as by anything else. At the end of the day, when you strip aside all the moralizing and justifying and complaining, what you have on one end is a maker with a product to sell, and on the other hand, you have a customer with money to spend. If you understand this, you have a lot higher likelihood of negotiating a successful transaction.

  23. Books are products just like anything else. Suggesting they are some kind of elite item is an insult to the people who create and design and invent and build the millions of other products in our lives. Writers are not something unique or special.
    The Publishing industry has earned easy profits and has been bloated and inefficient for decades while screwing writers over along the way. There is no evidence of any change in this. In fact they are now earning super-profits on their agency prices eBook despite not incurring any additional costs.
    Encouraging these publishers or being unnecessarily loyal to them when they refuse to adapt to the new world, and when they continue to charge exorbitant prices does not benefit writers or the local economy. It only perpetuates their indulgent inefficient business model.
    Amazon brings readers low prices. That allows them to read more and to read books in situations where they could not otherwise afford them. This benefits writers who sell more books as a result. In the case of eBooks on Amazon it pours enormous amounts of extra royalties into the pockets of self published writers. It is unfortunate that so many writers continue to live in a fantasy land and do not grasp this. They are too busy being mesmerised by their name on a dust jacket and the price label on their book to see past that, it seems.

  24. I agree to disagree that books are or are not a product. To me, they will never be a product although I run what little remains of my writing career as a business.

    As to books being overpriced, I beg to differ, as well. I can’t think of a cheaper form of entertainment with the exception of TV, and even then, you need to pay for more than the network channels to actually have something worth watching most of the time.

    I guess no one here has paid for a ticket to a pro sporting event, concert, movie, play, etc., if they think spending ten buck, more or less, is too expensive for a novel that will take the same amount of time, or more, to enjoy.

    Or, perhaps, most here think that books and authors are so unworthy that they don’t deserve to have anything remotely resembling a fair price.

    Well, I guess you get what you pay for.

    If you think the big publishers books are too expensive, by all means, buy books from the smaller publishers or self-publishers and let your money do your talking. That will cause more change than all this nonsense.

  25. Marilynn, you are conflating a whole bunch of different issues here. It’s not that I wouldn’t pay $5 or $10 or whatever. It’s that I won’t pay $10 when someone else has the exact same book for half that. Look, there are all sorts of tiers for *any* product or service. That is not ethics, that is commerce. My boyfriend loves baseball and will pay a premium for nicer seats. I’m happy in the cheap ones and frankly am mostly there for the ice cream that comes in the little hats. That does *not* make me a less ethical person than he is. Similarly, there are some authors I know and love and will pay more for. There are others I won’t buy at all but may read at the library. It’s my choice. And I am not a bad person for choosing an option that is available to me.

  26. People pay money for products, performances, or services.
    Books are not a service as services are actions and processes, not objects–physical or digital.
    Books are not a performance as the Author’s guild has made clear that running an ebook through text-to-speech *creates* a performance that must be separately authorized from the text version.
    What remains that people pay for?
    A product, no?
    Are we to debate dancing angels next?

    Yes, writing books is hard and not everybody can do it well.
    So is serving fast food or selling shoes or doing brain surgery.
    Work is hard. *Everybody’s* work is hard. Pretending that one’s work is uniquely special is either naive or conceited.

  27. Surely the ethical thing to do is for all of us to only read old books by dead authors purchased from second-hand shops or via sites like Project Gutenberg. This will shut down the huge and extremely wasteful publishing industry, and free up hundreds of publishers, editors and writers to do useful work instead, rather than duplicating a product of which we already have far more than we can use. Nobody would suggest that we ought to go on making refrigerators if there were first-rate free refrigerators to be had on every street corner: so why should we go on making books?

  28. Nobody is advocating the end of publishing, just pointing out that the times have changed and the one-time overlords are no longer in control. The sooner the traditionalists accept this, the quicker they can start adjusting to the new reality. Books are useful products but they are not immune to the laws of economics. All the time and effort being spent bemoaning the changes, conspiring to raise prices, or looking for a silver bullet to kill oh-so-eeevile Amazon is effort that would best be directed to market research, prioritizing which of their inactive backlist titles will bring the biggest return from an ebook release and cooking up price elasticity models to determine the best price to draw in consumers and minimize piracy.

    And if we *must* bring up ethics and sacrificing for the common good, how about we start by discussing the ethics of “standard” royalty rates that leave the creators of the content the publishers depend on with maybe 12-15% of the revenue while showering 30% on retailers?
    Seems to me that it is the publishers who are deprecating the value of the books by saying that running a retail web site adds twice the value as the creator of the work.
    And these are the people who pretend to lecture consumers on ethics?
    Cry me a river.

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