The Literary Platform has a fairly long piece looking at the question of ethical consumerism (primarily focused on books and e-books, but also stepping back to look at the larger picture of consumerism in general). This includes the question of buying versus piracy, but also touches on the wider picture of paying full-price at bookstores rather than buying cheap and/or used books from Amazon:
We might now be seeing a better understanding between writers, publishers and agents, but this doesn’t detract from the fact that book prices are being pushed to zero – either through piracy or aggressive pricing strategies. So if we are looking for writers to be paid for the books that they write could one option be to educate the reader into making ethical decisions about their buying habits? Do readers care whether writers are fairly remunerated for their work?
Even leaving aside the question of piracy, the problem, as an included essay from Ewan Morrison points out, is that shopping “ethically” is a lot harder and more costly, and especially in today’s economy we’re more interested in shopping cheaply. And to some extent we often may not be able to know whether what we’re buying is even ethical at all.
Ethical consumption breaks down because it places too much on the shoulders of the individual, who is already pressed for time and resources, and because the consumerist world in itself cares little for ethics.
What does this mean for book and ebooks? Well, books and bookshops will only survive if all of you ethical consumers out there can stop shopping on Amazon and in Tesco and in Walmart, and stop using your smartphones, and if you are willing to pay the full price for books at independent bookstores, and also if you can start teaching your children, right now, that getting all of that great stuff through free downloads on their new platforms has got to stop.
Looking at the current state of affairs on the Internet and in the marketplace, all I can think is “Good luck with that.” If the publishers and bookstores between them can’t figure out how to convince consumers to shop there, they’re going to die out—and perhaps they deserve to. And if they can’t figure out how to turn pirates into paying customers after all the positive examples we’ve already had (such as Valve’s Steam), perhaps they deserve what they get in that respect as well.
(I would also quibble with the idea, expressed in the essay, that it’s somehow unethical for Amazon affiliates to sell used books cheaply when the authors don’t see any money from such sales. People have the right to dispose of their own possessions how they see fit—and even if they didn’t, used book sales are certainly not something that got started with the Internet age! They’ve been around for as long as new books have.)