What “ethical requirements” do retailers and resellers have when it comes to what they sell?
That’s the question a reader I’m calling Nell asked me recently for a particularly personal reason.
Nell is a longtime bookseller. At her bookstore job, she tells me she has no trouble stocking and selling books like Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler. Or, she writes, “carrying books that sincerely claim the Earth is flat.” She figures that there are any number of reasons a person might want to read this kind of book.
But as a side hustle, with the full knowledge of her bookstore’s owner, she sells used books online. Recently, at a thrift store, she found a used copy of an autobiography by a racist military man who, among other things, “bragged about his military death count.” She paid $1 for the book. Nell discovered that the author died decades ago, his book is now out of print, and it often commands about $100 when it appears.
“I wouldn’t have a huge problem selling his autobiography for the $100 it sells for used,” she write, “because…there could be any number of reasons someone would buy it.”
But Nell notes that the copy she found was signed by the author. She figures that signature would more than double the price it might sell for.
“Is it ethical for me to profit from the resale of this book?” she asks. She points out that she didn’t publish it and just “found a copy in the wild.” The website she uses allows her to send a portion of the sale price to a charity. If she were to sell this book she indicates she would give a percentage of the sales price to a local food bank.
“But I find myself uneasy about this distasteful book and wonder if it would be more ethical to destroy it, since any buyer who would pay double would likely be buying the book largely for the prestige of the author’s signature.”
Whenever questions like this arrive, I am reminded of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies, a Love Story where a Polish peasant who survived the Holocaust is shocked to discover there are books being written about Hitler and asks: “They write books about such swine?”
They do and still do and Nell has already worked through the pros and cons of selling such items both at the bookstore where she works and in her online store. She is correct that there could be many reasons someone would want to buy such a book. Nell doesn’t screen her customers to find out what reason they have for buying books from her. That the book she found at the thrift store happens to be signed and might garner more money than an unsigned book doesn’t change her calculation that she has no idea why someone would want to buy any particular book.
The right thing is to decide if she is indeed as fine as she says she is about selling any book to any person who might want to buy it. If she determines that she isn’t, then that would require her to rethink what she’s willing to sell. If she holds to her belief that she has no problem selling such books, she should go ahead and sell it.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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