eBay Bookselling

Spring 2004 (Vol V, No. 1) Table of Contents

When any business changes, and the used/rare/antiquarian book market has changed dramatically over the last decade, everybody seems to be pointing fingers at everyone else. The terms “fraud”, “forgery” and “fake” get tossed around in wild abandon. “Playing fields” are described as “tilted”, “honest information” is hidden and “the buying public” routinely cheated. This is, of course, hogwash. There has, in fact, been a revolution in used and rare bookselling, occasioned by the internet, and a lot of the old ways are disappearing. Tuesday was once dedicated to quoting books on postcards, now, we put books into databases to put them into our sites, on a database site or in an auction. Of course, with anything new, there are glitches, and how the internet gets over these will probably determine the future course of the business.

The internet did several things that changed the nature of the book business. First, it opened it up to a new and larger audience, which is vastly different from that of seven or eight years ago. Second, it put information at the tips of their fingers. Third, it opened up trunks in attics, garages and storage sheds, so that rare, isn’t so rare anymore. There are a lot more booksellers in the world now than there were before the internet came along. Some very good ones have grown up on the net, with its wealth of information, and then, of course, there are always the ones who cut corners.

Booksellers did not create the internet. The database and auction sites were created by people with vastly different ideas, goals and expertise than a bookseller. eBay, for example, began life as a sort of internet flea market. It is evolving in two directions at once, as if deciding to be a flea market, or an antique mall, while trying to hold onto both markets. There are inherent differences between the two, thus leading to all manner of problems and becoming a “target of opportunity” for those who want to cut corners a bit.

Not so very long ago, a “flat-signed” book without any verification of the signature, would not have been worth much more than the same book sans signature. In a flea market atmosphere, it is worth more, in an antique mall atmosphere, it is not. eBay’s taxonomy puts all signed books in the “First Edition” category. There is no separate category for verified signatures, or signatures on later printings. Thus, with a signed book, and a light box, one can begin a cottage industry. Hence, the oft-leveled charge of forgery. Not that forgeries don’t sit in catalogues, on database sites, or in brick and mortar stores, they do in gay profusion. eBay, after all, did not invent the light box. It is the seeming aid and comfort eBay is giving to forgers that draws fire. Does this mean that all signatures on eBay are forgeries? Of course not. On the net, I have little doubt that the hidden forgeries on ABE outnumber eBay’s by several times. On eBay, there is often a picture that can belie a forgery, unless it is very good.

And, of course, the “First Edition” category is a big “Welcome” mat for those bent on deception. First Edition is really a pretty meaningless term. And to create a category that is just this catch-all mishmash of a thing creates the confusion that con-men can feed on. If it were put in the Genres, as “Modern First Edition” and defined, it would cut down on a lot of the confusion. Every single book there is had a first edition. “First Editions” are neither especially rare nor particularly valuable. Because eBay is neither designed nor run by booksellers, it is understandable that eBay should fall for this superstition, giving the modern later printing of a best seller this status. So the charge of fraud gets levied. In point of fact, many publishers label later printings “First Edition”, and, indeed, they are; the printing plates are the same. The collector, by and large, is looking for the first appearance of the work and therefore the first print run, and often, if a change was made during that run, the first state. Again, the taxonomy of eBay can be seen to be aiding and abetting the bogus bookseller, and indeed, it does. Once again, the flea market mentality comes into play. The first assumption, and an undoubtedly true one, is that a great many eBay sellers do not know how to distinguish a first edition, first printing, first state. Those who do are, thus, according to some, placed at a disadvantage. In the short run, quite probably this is true. In the long run, however, the honest, knowledgeable and frequent eBay bookseller gains a reputation that not only outweighs the disadvantage, but actually allows for a higher opening bid and final price on better books.

The internet has opened new vistas of information. As a bookseller for more than 30 years, I have a room full of reference books. Yet the internet eclipses my poor little library to the point of making it almost a nonentity. Never, outside of major cities, with large libraries holding extensive collections, has so much information been available to the average collector. Again, eBay doesn’t help, doesn’t recommend sites, or even point out that such references are a google search away. So we get the charge that eBay is hiding information. Indeed, they are. The flea market mentality puts the onus on the buyer, “caveat emptor”. In a brick and mortar store, the onus is likewise, on the buyer, but the atmosphere makes the knowledge available seem greater. While, in many cases this is an illusion, in many cases it is not. Knowledgeable booksellers often take the time to explain, and verify what they have. Many such booksellers have reputations that draw people into their stores, and allow a buyer to trust “First Edition” when they pencil it on the free end paper. This is only beginning to be available on the internet, as some booksellers build an online reputation. Should eBay do more to point out information? Perhaps. Should they do more in the way of providing information, if only links? Probably. However, not being booksellers, not even focusing on bookselling, can they be accused of hiding information? Hardly.

The schizophrenic nature of eBay is open to numerous charges of all types. I don’t think there has been anyone who has been more vocal on the eBay booksellers’ board than I have been about these deficiencies in better books. I am sure that flea marketers, on the other end of things, have their woes as well. Eventually, either eBay or outside entrepreneurs will change this. There will eventually be an auction site and a database site for better books on the internet. That is the future, and we can look forward to it. Time never moves backward, except in Science Fiction novels. Until then, if you are honest and are working on becoming more knowledgeable, you are a part of that future. For now, it doesn’t get better than eBay. But, it will.

Rick Russell, Bookseller
Selling as rickrussell on eBay

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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