The Ethics of Book Selling

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.

Suzie Eisfelder
Suz’s Space
Your online home for pre-loved books and part-work magazines

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  • I’m a little confused about who wrote this post. Bruce or someone else?

    Well, some things (tax structures, for instance) are different from one country to another, and I’m far from Australia, but other things are the same the world ’round, and while I’m sure there are some unscrupulous individuals selling online, I think many of the problems come because there are so many rank amateurs in the online bookselling field. Whether a book is new or not should be easy to tell. Other matters are not so simple, especially for the completely uninitiated, and there are a lot of people selling books online who have no experience with bookselling and not much experience with books. Say a relative passed away, and one of the family members is assigned to get rid of a vast book collection. The person assigned to be bookseller is clueless but looks around online a little, then looks again at the books. Ah, see here where it says “First Edition” or else there’s just one date and no later dates listed. We, the booksellers, know that those two words “First Edition” can also appear in a book club edition. We know that a former library copy doesn’t make the grade as a first edition. We know the difference between a first and “first thus,” and we know that the appearance of a single date doesn’t guarantee a first, but the inexperienced beginning seller knows none of these things.

    How and where does ethics enter in? How about direct communication, if that’s possible? An e-mail explaining a couple of points, including a link to identifying first editions and grading books by condition, might start the rank amateur down the path to knowledge. The unscrupulous seller, on the other hand, will learn nothing and not change his or her ways.

    As a philosopher and sometime instructor of ethics, I’m glad to have the issue of ethics in bookselling raised. Yes, there ARE ethics in bookselling! Those of us who practice the profession ethically may never become millionaires but can be proud of how we make a living. Thanks for this post.

    • Hi P.J.
      The post has now been updated to show the proper author. It was submitted by Suzie Eisfelder of Suz’s Space. I omitted changing the author’s name when I scheduled the post last week. Thanks for pointing out the error.

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    • You’ve got some good thoughts there and normally I’d be the first person to give them the benefit of the doubt, but in this case their books are quite obviously used and they’re listing them as new so I have no doubt they know all about first editions and are just lying through their teeth. If it wasn’t for the new/used point I’d be taking your advice and emailing them in the hopes they pick up their game.

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    • I would welcome some shared thoughts on a quandary I face:

      When hand selling books, a bookseller who has read the book is more likely to be successful at making the sale than one who has not. Also, shelf-talkers are best written by those who’ve read the book. I recently opened a small bookstore (new books) and have one part-time staff who is an avid reader. Since I wanted my assistant to be able to hand sell books well, I have allowed her to read books in the store when she has free time. My quandary is this – am I ethically/ legally right in permitting this, since the books read by the assistant are put back on shelf and sold at new-book prices?
      What is accepted practice re “Staff Recommendations”, “Shelf-talkers” and hand-selling – can the booksellers be allowed to read new books which are then sold to customers?

      • New books are only a small part of my business so take my comment with a pinch of salt
        Once a book is read I don’t consider it new and would only sell online as ‘as new read once’ and ditto in store but then I sell new and used so pretty easy
        however when you think about people in a new book store browsing, reading a few pages or a chapter, most of your books will be handled by more than one person before they are purchased.
        Someone else with a new book store said they would have several copies of a book and read a few pages of each so as not to damage a single book and I guess to preserve it as a new book.
        you might be able to to get publishers to send you books advance reading copies/review copies etc that you can use for the purpose of creating shelf talkers etc and then limit your staffer to those -I would certainly ask
        Another option is noting on that particular copy that it has been read by your staff member including the review and a little discount -a $1 on that copy only
        personally I wouldn’t simply reshelve them
        On the legal side I don’t know and I wonder what the big stores do as they often have staff recommendations etc -I am guessing they might get review copies
        not sure if I am any help!

        • Thanks so much Therese, your comments were certainly helpful. Since we are a really tiny store, publishers/ distributors don’t extend us the courtesy of advance/review copies. So, I’m thinking I could follow some of the other suggestions you made:
          (i) Read few pages of different copies (so it’ll be similar to customers browsing books)
          (ii) When we have only one copy and its been read for preparing shelf-talkers, then i’ll consider marking a discount with reason mentioned.

          If anyone has more info/ ideas on this, please share them.

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  • Sue you make some good points about ethics.
    just wanted to point out that my business McLeods Books some years ago acquired the stock of a defunct new book store called The Thinker’s Bookshop. I don’t now how but they had a lot of children’s book stock that dated back to the late 1950s and early 1960s that had never been sold. Although it is new in a sense I prefer to sell it as ‘as new’ as despite best intentions the books are a little shelfworn. The previous owner also priceclipped all their stock probably to advoid confusion between UK pounds and Australian pounds (pre 1966). They also affixed their little bookstore stamp to the front pastedown. Still a certain something about these nice English children’s hardbacks that have managed to survive 50 years languishing in a book sellers storeroom and shelf without being sold.
    I also have a box full of unsold late 1960s ‘erotic’ fiction that have never been taken out of the box and again ‘as new’ works better for me. They might end up languishing in my storage for a few more years

    • You’ve mentioned this stock to me before and that’s what I was referring to so I’m glad you came on to clarify and give more details.

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    • Get that erotica out of storage and online, ASAP. That’s a treasure trove. We generally sell all our erotic material within a month or two of listing… even when it’s a $200 book. There’s a big market for vintage erotica because so much of it was destroyed or fell apart from reading. “as new” vintage copies of even unknown authors may go for a nice price.

      If it’s anything other than straight male-female erotica make sure to clearly list that. Fetish material or gay and lesbian erotica goes for a LOT more generally and often climbs into the high 3 figures, sometimes 4 figures.

      That box may contain a couple grand worth of books. Dust ’em off and price them out for sale online. You may be in for a big surprise!

      • Thanks Nora
        I read your piece on erotic fiction-I thought I had a couple online but should check one of them is definitely a lesbian one
        If only I could rediscover something like the cache of still- in-the-box Dawn dolls I found once. About 30 of them that were quite rare.
        aah those were the days!


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  • You mentioned the Independent Online Booksellers Association in your article. I am actually a member of this group and though there aren’t many Australian sellers, I have found it to be useful. There is a strict approval process to become a member and you must meet their guidelines, many of which have an ethical bent. The group has predominantly American members and membership allows you to sell books through their site. I don’t get an extraordinary amount of sales through their site, but the contact with fellow booksellers is worthwhile and I have learnt much through my membership. It’s definitely worthwhile checking out.

    Ambire Secondhand Books

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  • I’ve actually got a related question on ethics in bookselling, so I hope people are still reading this post.

    Do you think it’s acceptable for an independent bookseller to buy stock from one of the big chain stores such as Big W, K-Mart or Target. I’m thinking of cases such as a new blockbuster when these chain stores often sell the book for less than an indepdendent bookseller can buy from the distributor/publisher.

    Is it ethical? Is it legal?

    On a similar line, what about buying from an online bookseller such as Amazon? I would think there might be issues regarding importing books in cases where stock comes from overseas. I think there may also be issues about bringing in books from overseas when they are available here in Australia.

    Has anyone had experience with this?

    I’m not a bookseller, but hope to open a shop in the next couple of years.

    • I don’t have a problem with book stores buying from chains -it is not illegal and I don’t see any morality issues either. Truth is some chainstore prices are cheaper than the independant book store gets from the distributor.

      There are parallel import laws and some GST paperwork with importing books but seeing as Amazon is unlikely to work out cheaper if you are reselling (taking into consideration the shipping charge) I don’t know why you would.

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