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When did buying books become an ethical dilemma?

Buying a book used to be a simple pleasure. You would visit a local book shop, browse the shelves, select a book and pay. But now, it is not quite so simple.

Recently, I purchased the latest ‘It’ book Boy Swallows Universe at Target. However, when I told my book loving friend about the purchase, I felt a little shamefaced about having bought it cheaply at a chain store. After all, her stepfather owns a local bookstore and I am aware of the toll that the heavy discounting of chain stores takes on independent booksellers, as well as publishers and authors. It can also have a negative impact on the way readers perceive books and the act of reading.

Last year, bestselling author and president of the Society of Authors Philip Pullman spoke out about the trend of heavily discounting books, criticising the “cut price culture”.

“It’s easy to think that readers gain a great deal by being able to buy books cheaply,” he said. “But if a price is unrealistically cheap, it can damage the author’s reputation and lead to the impression that books are a cheap commodity and reading is an experience that’s not worth very much.”

Australian authors have also railed against the commercialisation of literature, with Tim Winton and Anna Funder both speaking of the importance of a healthy book industry.

“People who work in the book industry are agents of culture rather than just instruments of commerce,” Winton said. “When you take away their role as agents of culture and reduce them to instruments of capitalism, it changes the dynamic.”

And so, it no doubt caused a level of dismay in the industry when, in 2015, The Australian claimed that the head of books at Big W was the most powerful person in the country’s book industry, such was the buying power of the chain.

But, is it up to the individual book buyer to carry the cost of propping up an author’s reputation, the book industry and the wider status of reading? While I adore literature and independent bookstores, and highly value the contribution writers make to the cultural landscape, every time I buy a book, I struggle to put my money where my mouth is and restrict my book buying to full-price books at independent bookstores. After all, it is not uncommon for the same bestseller to be up to twice the price at an independent store, and that is quite a hit when readers buy as many books as I do. (Although, my husband might argue that my book purchases are enough to prop up the entire book industry.)

And as it happened, in the same week as I made my purchase from Target, I was reminded of the importance of supporting local bookstores when I was looking for a copy of the last book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. After finishing the previous instalment, I wanted the book as soon as I could get my hands on it, and so a local bookstore was my only option. There was no way that a chain store would carry this title and it availability alone was evidence of the value of the local bookstore.

To complicate the matter, huge internet retailers are also competing for Australians’ book buying dollar. The international bookselling giant Book Depository charges no shipping fees – an offer which Australia’s Booktopia intermittently makes available to customers. Both have extensive ranges and great discounts, but are they the best choice for readers who value their brick and mortar book stores? And, if we’re choosing between online retailers, are readers willing to pay an extra few dollars for shipping a book that they can get overseas at no shipping charge in order to support an Australian company? Not to mention the spectre of Amazon hanging over both bricks and mortar and other online booksellers.

The ethical dilemma of where to buy books extends to used bookstores, which don’t offer any compensation to writers or publishers when readers buy their books. However, Neil Gaiman offered a refreshing opinion on the matter on the matter on Twitter, writing: “Most authors love books and love second hand books and bookshops, and understand that it’s good that their books are part of that ecosystem. A few authors look at old bookshops or at libraries and see only lost sales. But they may be missing part of their souls.”

The position of book buyers is not unlike that faced by Australian grocery shoppers when they go to buy milk, where heavily discounted options compete with the traditional product. To most consumers, the two products are essentially very similar, so shoppers must struggle with the conscience each time they go to buy it, wondering whether to choose the cheapest option or the one that is fair to farmers, supporting an industry that is important to Australians. The stakes have been raised during the strawberry crisis when customers were urged to continue to buy strawberries, despite the risk of impaling their tongues on a rogue pin.

One cost-effective option for readers is to use libraries, from which authors receive royalties when a reader borrows a book. However, while I love libraries and think they are a wonderful option for readers, and for the wider community, I also love to keep the books that I have read; I like to pass them on to other family members and friends, to remind myself of the books that I have enjoyed and the particular moment in time when I have read them, and simply, to be surrounded by books.

In the UK, writers including Philip Pullman last year called for the government to intervene to protect the book industry, protecting authors’ royalties and the viability of independent booksellers, by introducing a new government agreement like the Net Book Agreement of the past, which prevented booksellers from discounting. It has yet to be seen whether this move would be viable, after the previous agreement was dissolved in 1997. Other European countries that have fixed prices for books include France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, while Australia had its own Fixed Book Pricing scheme until it was abolished in in 1972.

While perhaps it would be nice if the ethical decision of where to buy books was taken out of my hands, in the absence of any higher authority on the matter, I’ll take a leaf out of Gaiman’s book and spread the book love freely – prioritising independent bookstores when I have time, jumping online when I don’t, and occasionally snapping up a bargain I can’t resist in a chain store. I just won’t tell my friend about it.

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