A Moral Guide to Online Book Buying

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Buying books online is easy, right? Just point and click and get and read. Right? Wrong.

Like everything else in the world, online book buying is fraught with staggering ethical and moral consequences. Okay, it’s no abortion, but when you buy a book online, there is a teeny, tiny moral choice involved. But unlike euthanasia, it’s kind of fun to think about.

The sticky question is this: when you buy a book online, you must ask yourself, “Who needs the money more — the author or the bookstore?”

Authors deserve to be paid for their work, but America’s independent bookstores are dying. When you buy a NEW book on Amazon, a royalty is paid to the author, and the rest of the money goes to the publisher and Amazon. When you buy a USED copy from a network of independent book sellers, like Alibris or AbeBooks or even Amazon Marketplace, the store gets (almost) all the money — and the author gets nothing.

Who needs the money more, the the dusty old store or the dusty old writer? Here’s some examples from books I’ve just read:

EXAMPLE 1) Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin. No, Steve Martin does not need money. As detailed in Born Standing Up, Steve Martin made millions as a comedian performing stadium tours in the 1970s, not even taking into account the money brought in later by his many hit film roles (and, it is possible some of these were taken only for the money).

Buy Born Standing Up from Alibris. The independent bookstore needs the money more than Steve Martin.

EXAMPLE 2) The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perotta. Tom Perotta is a successful writer, several of whose books (Election, Little Children) have been made into movies. But in these illiterate times, working name fiction writers need all the money they can get.

Buy The Abstinence Teacher from Amazon.

EXAMPLE 3) The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. Who knows? Dick is dead. His heirs, if they are the ones who own his publishing rights, would get his money. But how well do his books sell? Maybe the Long Tail is making them super-rich. But it’s doubtful.

Better be to safe and buy The Man in the High Castle from Amazon.

EXAMPLE 4) Candide by Voltaire. This book is in the pubic domain, (from what I can tell from Wikipedia-ing “public domain.”) Anyone can publish it, and Voltaire gets zero.

Give your Candide dollars to AbeBooks. They need it.

Sometimes, neither side wins. A writer I know, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum (Ms. Hempel Chronicles), was at a reading when a fan handed her a copy of her book to sign that was STOLEN FROM THE LIBRARY. In that case, the author, the small bookstore, the online sales monolith and the America’s library system all got royally (and royalty) screwed.

So, do you think a writer is rich enough to take away his (or his estate’s) well-deserved royalties in order to support America’s worthy-but-beleaguered independent bookstores instead? Really, you can’t know the answer to that question. Maybe Steve Martin lives in a cabin and gives every penny to Meals on Wheels, and maybe Tom Perotta lives in a gold castle on a hill of diamonds eating ruby cereal.

But who are we to judge how they spend their money anyway? The little guy with a buck to spend who wants to feel just a tiny taste of power — that’s who. Come on, isn’t it a little fun to dick Michael Crichton out of 35 cents?

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