a bookish life · books

The Ethics of Charity Book Shopping

Six months ago, I’d never even been in a charity shop, and now I can’t walk past one without going in and searching through the books. The presence of charity shopping has increased on social media recently – at least for me – as the focus on ethical consumerism and fast fashion developed. However, it was only when I started a bookstagram that I saw that I could buy books secondhand for a much cheaper price, and often in a great condition.

I started slowly, just venturing into one or two on my own and taking a quick look. As I gained in confidence, and started to recognise more books that I’d seen on bookstagram, I started to go into charity shops more frequently, and was happy to spend several minutes scanning every title multiple times, just in case. And often, hidden amongst the many copies of 50 Shades, Twilight, Jeffery Archer and a lot of biographies, there would be a great bargain in the form of a book I’d really wanted, a hardback in pristine condition or, on occasion, a signed or exclusive edition. I now almost never pass a charity shop without going in, and over the past couple of months I have discovered new authors, new series, bestsellers from several years ago and 2019, added to my collection and accidentally bought multiple copies of the same book in multiple charity shops (just once!).

Before the summer of 2019, I probably had less than 10 books in my room. By the summer of 2020, I estimate I’ll have at least 150. I could never afford 140 new books. Given that I have been fortunate enough to receive some proofs from publishers, won some giveaways and received several books as presents, I have probably bought about 100 of the books on my shelf. If the average paperback is £7 or £8, that’s £800 spent on books. I do not have that kind of money. The vast majority of my books are secondhand, and I will admit that the ethics of shopping for books in charity shops did not even cross my mind until posts about it started to surface on book Twitter. Since then, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the different arguments for and against secondhand book shopping. I tried googling the ethics behind it, but I couldn’t find a lot. I decided to make a post about my thoughts on the ethics behind charity book shopping, and I hope that it is useful, at least in explaining my take on it.

Pros of Charity Book Shopping

Giving Money to Charity

A rather obvious one to start with, but still. All proceeds from any books that I buy from charity shops go straight to, well, charity. This is an obvious benefit to charity, and over the past few months I have definitely increased the amount I give to charity. If I am going to shop for books secondhand, I would rather give my money to charities than an independent secondhand bookstores that sell for profit – if the books they are selling are ‘new’ titles anyway, as opposed to secondhand bookstores focusing on rare and old titles.

Benefitting the Environment

Similarly, companies such as World of Books are wonderful in preventing unwanted books from entering landfill or being otherwise disposed of. It would be a shame if all books were read once and then thrown away, so if you happen to buy a book and not love it, or don’t have the space to keep it on your shelves, then this – in my opinion – is a better option than tossing it in the rubbish. Again, in my opinion, I would rather a book found a new home and was read again and again than being bought new by every reader, only for it to then be thrown away. Companies like World of Books help to recycle, reduce waste, and ensure that good books find book lovers.

Allowing Reading on a Budget

Not everyone can afford to buy lots of books new. I definitely couldn’t afford all the books on my shelves if they were all new, but I am still very fortunate to have spare income that I can use on books. If you’re reading several books a month, reading can become very expensive, and buying secondhand allows you to pick up books for £1 or £2 each. Some people argue that you should support your local library instead, and you absolutely should, but again, this is not something everyone has access to. As a university student, I can’t use my local library during term time, as I wouldn’t be able to return books halfway across the country every other week. If you can, you should definitely support your library, but that can be as well as shopping secondhand.

Discovering New Authors

Buying secondhand and shopping in charity shops means you might pick up books you’ve never heard of, or titles you would never have picked up in Waterstones. The lower price tag might lead to discoveries of new favourite authors or favourite genres, simply because you were happy to risk £1.50 on a different type of book. This though, is where the main controversy lies.

The Main Controversy

Finding and Buying New Titles Secondhand

This is obviously the main controversy. I have picked up several brand new titles in the last few months. Unwanted Christmas presents? Previous buyers DNFs? Donated by people who don’t have a lot of physical space for books? I don’t know, but for whatever reason, I have been able to pick up several titles that I otherwise would have had to pay full price for. Many I have loved. Some I haven’t. Admittedly, a great deal more are still waiting to be read.

But, I think it is the newer titles that most people have an ethical issue with. Is it wrong to pay £2 for a title released in 2019 that is currently £8.99 in WHSmiths? I, personally, don’t think it is, for several reasons.

They are going to be rare finds. Most people won’t immediately donate brand new books. It is highly unlikely that hundreds or thousands of people are going to pick up a book, pay full price, and then give it to their local Cancer Research shop, where thousands more pick it up for £1 rather than paying full price. So, for the few copies that are actually donated, the revenue lost by not buying it new is probably not that great.

Similarly, most of the newer releases that I have picked up I would not have bought if they weren’t in a charity shop. I would never have paid £20 for Stephen King’s The Institute, but I will pay £1 for it. There is no lost revenue because I would never have bought it otherwise. Books I am truly excited for and I can’t wait to be released are the ones that I will be spending my £8 on.

And, if I read that Stephen King book and absolutely love it and become obsessed with his writing (at the moment it’s looking very unlikely but go with it), I am then far more likely to pay full price for some of his other books. The initial charity shop price tag is what draws me to an author’s work and then, if I end up loving it, I will buy their books full price in the future. If I hadn’t started charity shopping, I would never have discovered many of my current favourite authors.

For example, I am now obsessed with Matt Haig. But, my first introduction to him was when I found How to Stop Time for £1 in a charity shop. I ADORED it; it was one of my favourite reads of 2019 and possibly ever. And now I have purchased every single book that Matt Haig has ever written (except I think a couple of his kids book) new. I have spent a lot more money on his books than I would have had I never known how much I loved his writing style. I am eagerly awaiting his latest release, The Midnight Library, which I will definitely be buying, new, as soon as it comes out.

So, because of charity shops, I have been introduced to many new authors and will be on the lookout for their new releases. Instead of decreasing the revenue given to authors for their work, charity shopping has probably increased how much money I have or am willing to spend on many different authors.

Supporting Authors in Other Ways

No, I don’t buy all of my books new. But, I also know that authors often don’t get paid enough for their work, and I want to support them in whatever way I can.

The Wonderful World of Bookstagram

This will not apply to everyone, though I’m pretty sure anyone reading this is quite likely to be someone on bookstagram. As someone with a bookstagram account, I have a wonderful platform to talk about all of the books that I find and love with a lot of other amazing book lovers. If I see a book that someone has been raving about on Instagram, I am more likely to find myself picking it up in Waterstones. Even if they bought it secondhand, they are contributing to its revenue. And, similarly, I like to think that sometimes titles I have found in charity shops and I have posted about, or read and loved and talked about constantly, may have tempted other people to buy them new. To me, we are then supporting the author by raving about their books to a community full of people who love books.

If you’re not a bookstagrammer or book blogger, you might recommend a book to a friend or a family member, and they might then buy it new. The author is still indirectly benefitting, even if not from your secondhand purchase.

Reviews

Another way that authors can benefit indirectly, albeit not financially, from charity book shopping is through reviews. You leave an amazing review on Goodreads, or Amazon, and someone else might just buy it new. In that way, you are also still supporting authors.

Wow That Was Long

I had a lot more thoughts on this than I originally thought. To me, it all comes back to the joy of reading. Reading, for me, is about storytelling. It is about imagination. It is about being so consumed with an idea that you cannot help but create it so that it can be shared with others. And it doesn’t matter how it is read, or where it is bought. There are a multitude of ways to support authors. Buying their books new is incredibly important, particularly in an industry that is not the most prolific with wages, but people should not be made to feel bad or immoral for shopping secondhand. Read their books. Share them with your family and your friends. Talk about them on bookstagram, or book twitter. Buy an author’s next release or their previous books new, if you love them. If you can. Buy them as gifts or birthday presents. Go to book events and book signings, and take your secondhand copy along. Tell the author how much you loved their book. Write reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. Leave a 5 star review. Take a copy out at the library. Do what you can, and that’s enough.

What are your thoughts on this one? I have really found myself quite invested in this debate, and welcome all contributions to it. These are purely my own thoughts; I just wanted to share them.

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll probably like my post on My Best Charity Shop Finds.

5 thoughts on “The Ethics of Charity Book Shopping

  1. I agree with this post.In normal times i go into charity shops to sort through the books as much as possible. I like giving money to the charity, and I do discover authors that I may not have found otherwise. As a wheelchair user I cannot access many secondhand bookshops, and we do not really have a local independent. It is also the possibility of finding something different – amongst all the standard secondhand fodder there can be found some real gems and thereby set off on a new track.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really love sorting through all the books and finding the hidden gems!! And it’s ridiculous there isn’t more wheelchair access. My stepdad usually has to wait outside if there isn’t any access and I’m out with my family.

      Like

  2. You’ve basically summed up all of my thoughts about second hand books! I’ve definitely gone off and told people to read a book that I picked up second-hand, and like you, I’ve gotten the rest of an author’s books because I bought a used copy.

    Liked by 1 person

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