Unintended Consequences

17 02 2009

I’m a self confessed bargain hunter. I use a website called Betterworld.com to buy all my books. In most cases they are the cheapest. I say cheapest because they sell a lot of 2nd hand books and charge $4 (Free in the USA) to ship internationally as opposed to $12.50 from Amazon.   The site sells itself as environmentally friendly, saving books from landfills and buying carbon credits for every book sold. It also raises money for literacy in the third world. But yesterday I read an article that really made me think twice about it. You can read it here.

I buy a lot of 2nd hand books online. My father in law’s main source of income is his 2nd hand book business that he runs online. I rarely spring for a brand new book and for good reasons. New books are expensive and money doesn’t grow on tree’s. Take my most recent purchase. I got Eugene Peterson’s “Christ plays in 10,000 places” hardcover, Bono is Conversation with Mika Assayas hardcover, and “Heaven is a place on earth” by Michael Wittmer all for $US19 which is around $NZ35. That included shipping. One of the books had some minor underlining, but the two hardcovers were in mint condition (one was a first edition). Had I bought all three new from Amazon I would have spent around $80 (US) to get them to NZ. Thats around $NZ150. From a numbers perspective 2nd hand books are unbeatable.

The spin off effect is bigger than we realise. Everytime a 2nd hand book sells, the author and publisher receive nothing. It takes one buyer out the new books market. Publishers and authors make less money and as a result fewer new books are produced. The cycle repeats until publishers and book stores have to close their doors. Multiply one book by 20,000 2nd hand online sellers and we have a growing industry epidemic.

There are always two sides to any story. While some major bookstores around the world are closing their stores and laying off staff, businesses like Betterworld are providing employment. Their business has revitalised a a dead packaging plant, providing employment for hundreds of people. They have raised $5.2 million for literacy  programmes, and stopped 8,000 tonnes of books going to landfills.  While some are making fortunes others are losing their jobs as more traditional forms of selling become obsolete. Welcome to the wonderful world of progress and consumerism.

My point today is not to rag on the world of 2nd hand books. The book industry is not the only one feeling the pinch. CD sales are down since the advent of digital music. Newspapers are hurting too inspite of huge traffic on their websites. Every bit of good we do in the name of progress can have unintended consequences. An AIDS vaccine in Africa may save a child, but give rise to a generation of orphans dependant on overseas health care. Who will look after those children, and prevent them from becoming the next child soldiers? To quote the Reformers, “the good we do is weak in its premise and faulty in its implimentation“.

At times it can feel like we’re fighting a losing battle. Why bother if nothing ever changes? At the most basic level we recognise that this world is not how its supposed to be. The ravages of Genesis 3 are felt in every area of life. There is no part of this world unaffected by sin. We can never put it back together ourselves, and are forced to trust that God will one day. When Jesus returns one day he will make all things new. Heaven will come to earth, and there will be no more sin, suffering or death. But if we as the Church are already a redeemed people, then would it not make sense to live redemptively in the world now? It means that we bring eternity into the present. We proclaim Jesus as Lord to the world and then give them a taste of the kingdom that is to come.   

Unfortunately today we drift between two extremes. We’re either left empty by the old escapism theologies where this world is left to rot while we wait for heaven or left depressed by the sheer scale of work to do to make this world a better place. I’m avoiding simple conclusions on purpose. I want to mull over these issues a little more. I trust that God is sovereign and in control. The heart of the Gospel is that God has not given up on us and the wider world. He is working to set the world to rights. What are your thoughts?

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4 responses

18 02 2009
Mason

I’ve struggled with that as well when it comes to buying books. I like to get a good deal, but at the same time if I care about the author and publisher I want to ‘vote with my money’ as it were and support them. For used online, I’ve bought a dozen or so books on Ebay, but have a thing about the aesthetics of my books so that probably disuades me from doing that more often.
Even buying on Amazon makes me uncomfortable sometimes because I feel like I’m contributing to the demise of the physical bookstores which serve as one of my absolute favorite places to spend my free time.

One way I have been able to combine my desire to support authors and bookstores while still getting a deal is by frequenting a couple specialty bookstores in the area.
Both Baker and Eerdmans are based in my city (as are Zondervan and Kregal) and the first two have their own bookstores. They’re like paradise to me. Not like the normal ‘Christian bookstores’, much better selection and a lot more of a focus on theology/biblical studies etc.
They’ll sell books from all over, but you can get pretty much anything that the respective publisher puts out for 60% off, and you are still supporting the author and a real bookstore. The only downside is that it’s way to easy to spend money when everything is such a great deal.

I like that Betterworld books uses the proceeds for literacy, that might make me a little more prone to shop 2nd hand more often. It’s always complex as you pointed out, but at this point I’m most comfortable buying local and a real bookstore while trying to get the best price I can at the same time.

18 02 2009
aworthydiscussion

Yeah its a tough one. On the one hand I don’t want to set up physical stores as the authority on how sales should be done. As consumers we should be able to choose where and how we want to buy goods. But on the other hand I don’t want to support something that may cause a lot of people to lose their jobs.
How do we balance our rights and responsibilities here? I wish I had an easy answer.

Unfortunately I can’t afford to be as asthetically fussy as you. New books here cost the earth, and its difficult to get them. To put it in perspective, I recently bought N.T. Wrights RSG which cost me $63 NZ, the same book sells for $100 NZ in a Christian store on the other side of town. For the $37 I’ve saved I could buy 3 more books on betterworld. The biggest book chain we have is borders who only stock quasi-Christian stuff. Having an eerdmans or baker store would certainly be heaven to me.

18 02 2009
Mason

I agree, physical stores aren’t perfect, but they provide local jobs, and they are honestly a lot more fun to be in than browsing a website. I can’t sit in an in-house cafe on Ebay sipping a latte like I can in Barnes and Nobel.

We have Borders as well, it’s not bad, Barnes and Nobel is the other super-chain book store, and I actually like it quite a bit. They have a pretty good selection of Christian books (more theology than the local Family Christian book stores ironically) and I get most of my fiction there. I just picked up Crime and Punishment for example.

Not sure on how to convert the cost to US money, but I spent a fair amount on the Christian Origins series as well. As a student I got 20% off anything at Baker (not just Baker Published), so I think they were like $35-40 US each after tax. Worth every cent though.

18 02 2009
aworthydiscussion

LOL betterworld wins again – $28 + shipping (free if you’re in america) LOL !!
Normally work on a 1.8 to 1 ratio to convert to NZ $ but that fluctuates depending on our economy or some other economic factors I don’t understand.

I really enjoy sitting in a bookstore with a coffee. The company that invented that should be given some award or something.

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