I’ve been part of a discussion about the ethics of online selling recently. We’ve been following the antics of one seller on an online auction site and have been quite horrified by the outright lies they’ve been telling. It’s got me thinking about the ethics of this business and I can’t help wondering out loud (actually, in print, but never spoil a good narrative with facts) about the ethics we’re following and how it’s possible to communicate these to someone else. Let me tell you a little about this seller without telling you their identity. They talk about their books as if they’re new and they even have photos, unfortunately for them these photos show the books are anything but new. They talk about wanting to sell off their vast collection of books which have not been read; except the photos show they have reading creases. They mention some books are first editions; a little research show they’re not. One thing they don’t talk about is them being in business but the vastness of their listings and the broad number of categories they list in indicate they’re doing this for a living.
Let’s look at the issue of new versus secondhand. A new book indicates unread and I have a number of books which look unread, some of them I know have been read as I was very careful when I read and reviewed them. Therese of McLeod’s books has mentioned she has boxes of books which are new despite being 30 years old, I’m presuming they’re unread but I know her and trust her when she tells me they’re new. The books being sold by this other seller have obvious reading creases and other wear indicating they are not new. So far they’ve been very lucky with their buyers, very few have complained about receiving secondhand books when they were expecting new books. Why is this wrong? It’s misrepesentation. If they say something is new then it should be quite obviously new and unmarked. First editions are something that really riles me. They have a number of books which they state are first editions, but these are books that were originally published many years prior. One book they stated was a first edition when in reality the first edition was published two years prior. Why is this wrong? As we’re the seller we’re meant to be the expert and should know whether a book is a first edition or not, sometimes buyers will know if the seller is correct on this and sometimes they’ll be too new to the collecting game to know how to find out.
I can’t tell you what they’re doing with their business with regard to the government, but I will just mention the tax problems that could occur. Apparently this sort of selling behaviour is only considered a business and not a hobby if the intention is to make a profit. There is no need to get an ABN (Australian Business Number) or register a business name if that is the case. If, however, you’re making more than $75,000 turnover you need to register to pay the Goods & Services Tax (GST) and at that point would also need an ABN. This is where the Australian Tax Office (ATO) would look at your activities and definitely call it a business, they might consider it a business long before that, but I’m not an accountant. I took a snapshot of their sales from the 17th June to 1st July and they had 42 listings finish in that time, their takings were about $700 and only 15 listings finished unsold. If they continue with that rate of sales then they’ll reach the $75,000 limit in about four months. But that’s only part of it as there’s still the income tax threshold which is far, far lower than that and they should be paying income tax on the amount they’ve made this year. One of our writers here will be able to correct me on the details as I’m not an accountant. Why is this wrong? That’s not my problem.
Coming back to the issue of ethics and how we communicate that to people. Ethics is important and we can only let people know they’re doing the wrong thing if they’re talking to us and receptive to what we’re saying. Bruce is doing a very important job here on the blog and helping us by giving us a forum to air our views and help others understand. I’m also part of forums which are closed to the public and therefore we’re able to discuss these things openly and learn appropriate behaviour. The people here and on my other forums are receptive to hearing these things, I don’t know about this other seller. I do keep coming back to the idea of a Secondhand Online Booksellers User Group or a Secondhand Online Booksellers Association which was floated on one forum not that long ago. It was in my mind for a few weeks prior to that but I wasn’t game to mention it, I know, easy to say now. If we had some sort of official group or association it would make things like this much easier as we could just send them an application form with the rules of the organisation. Without such an organisation it is much too challenging to do, so I won’t I’ll just rant about it here. I will be contacting the Independent Online Booksellers Association first to see what their organisation does.