The Bane of the Online Book World: Mega-Listers


Readers of this journal have probably seen it happen again and again: while hunting the internet for a particular used book, you find a number of reasonably priced copies offered from various dealers, then two or three priced at ridiculously high amounts. Sometimes, if the book is fairly common, you find dozens of copies with prices unbelievably out of whack.

You may ask yourself, What is going on here? You take a closer look. Here’s a copy priced three times higher than every other. Here’s another copy from the same dealer, four times higher. You read the descriptions, looking for something special about these books, but there’s nothing to recommend them—they’re not limited editions, collectible firsts, signed, or in fine bindings. Is this dealer insane?

The high standards for which used bookdealers have been known and respected for centuries did not disappear with the advent of the World Wide Web; they moved out onto the internet. In the late 1990s, purchasing a used book online was a joy. Problems or complaints, though rare, were handled with integrity by dealers who took pride in their reputation for honesty.

But those innocent days are over. It took only a few years from the time the web became the hot new place for commerce until the first book mega-lister set up shop online. That was somewhere around 2001. In the past two years these despicable con artists have mushroomed out of all control.

Every legitimate bookseller that sells online is negatively impacted by mega-listers. Every time a customer is duped by a mega-lister it throws suspicion on every honest dealer. Victims of these con artists become wary of internet commerce. They stop shopping at the site where they got duped and may even give up purchasing antiquarian books online altogether.

There are a lot of names for these opportunistic frauds: fake listers, hollow listers, cabbage sellers, data pilferers. The most common term is mega-lister, which encompasses all their various shady operating methods under one easy label.

How does a mega-lister operate? Let’s take a look at the original mega-lister, a notorious character whom we shall call Justin.

Sometime around the year 2000, this bright but misguided Californian teen came up with a clever business scheme to rake in thousands of bucks with almost no work. Representing himself as a wholly owned subsidiary of a Dunn and Bradstreet credit rated company, he telephoned small used book stores around the country and offered them what he thought would be an easy sell: ship us your books and we will sell them online for you, at a commission of seventy percent, plus storage. Despite taking that huge cut his fledgling business failed rapidly. His new scheme was even more insidious.

In 2001, our intrepid youth came back to the internet as a used bookdealer with a seemingly massive inventory. With prices out of all proportion to the market, Justin set up shop on Amazon.com and began taking orders for used and rare books. The trouble was that he had no physical inventory; or if he did, it was nowhere near the hundreds of thousands of books he claimed.

Justin had apparently devised a software program to scrape the internet for listings of used and rare books. His program captured all the information including the price. When he had compiled a list of several thousand books, he relisted them under his own name but jacked up the prices by a factor of two, three, four or more. When an order came in, he would contact the dealer whose catalog entry he had stolen and, without revealing the true situation to the dealer, purchase the book and have it drop-shipped to his own customer. The dealer who had done the original job of finding and listing the item—whose dedicated research and delicate prose caused it to sell—was invisible to the buyer, for drop-shipping requires that the customer see only Justin’s name on the package and that nothing revealing the original dealer or the real price be enclosed.

Some might insist that Justin has done nothing wrong. This is just a new type of book-search service, some argue. The dealer whose catalog entry was stolen is getting free advertising and selling a book in the bargain. But mega-listers are not the same as legitimate book-search services, which communicate openly that they do not have the book in hand. Mega-listers commit copyright violation, deception, and fraud on a massive scale. They are selling things they don’t own and don’t have a right to sell.

Legitimate book-search services tell you they will try to locate your book and, when found, will quote to you a price. At that point you can turn it down or say yes. When you engage a search service you agree in advance to pay a small fee which will be added to the price at the close of the transaction. Search services do not charge you for the book before they have found it (although they may require a small, refundable deposit). They do not pretend to have a warehouse of books. They do not provide catalog descriptions without acknowledging that the words are from another dealer who has the book in hand. Legitimate search services work from want-lists; they do not scrape the net for descriptions and then wait for an interested buyer to stumble along. Mega-listers do all these things and more.

What mega-listers and their defenders might not know is that on top of the fraud and piracy they are committing, data scraping itself has been prohibited by law in 1998 under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which “criminalizes production and dissemination of technology that can circumvent measures taken to protect copyright.” (Source: Wikipedia.org.)

Another trick in the mega-lister’s arsenal is to copy the catalog of Books-in-Print (BIP) and use it as their fake inventory. Any bookdealer with experience in new books knows how quickly a book “in print” might become permanently unavailable. There are always a large number of titles in the BIP already out of print. But mega-listers, in their ignorance, will greedily upload the entire BIP under their own name. Orders fly in but many they are unable to fill. Hapless customers find their credit cards charged, their orders cancelled, and refunds a sometimes iffy pursuit.

For every customer pleased with their purchase from a mega-lister there are others who are angry at having been ripped off. Some of these victims receive wildly misdescribed books, as mega-listers steal the data but never see or touch the book. They may copy the description of a Very Good or Fine listing and then fill the order with a specimen that is in reality barely above Poor. Some would-be buyers find their orders cancelled days or even weeks later: the mega-lister can’t fulfill the order but rather than reveal the scam simply cancels it and moves on.

How do the major portals—ABE, Alibris, Amazon—handle these unethical firms? As far as this writer can tell, they encourage them.

Each of the “Big A” portals gains a commission on every sale. There is no incentive for them to boot mega-listers. Operators of these portals may even believe that the number of customers and legitimate dealers they lose by hosting these con artists is negligible.

On the other hand, eBay has strict rules against these nefarious practices. The site specifically prohibits a seller from copying “a substantial amount of another member’s description and pasting it into a listing.” Copying someone else’s images is also prohibited. Penalties range from cancellation of the listing to suspension of the seller’s account. When mega-listers are revealed, eBay seems to police them well.

But on the “Big A’s,” mega-listers are running wild and causing havoc. These giant used-book portals are clogged with millions of fake listings from dozens of mega-listers. It is increasingly difficult on these sites to find legitimate dealers with real books in stock.

Justin alone set up more than thirty seller names on Amazon, multiplying his fake inventory into more than nine million listings, and while it appears he’s no longer in the market, many other unscrupulous outfits are aggressively following his business plan. This exponential expansion of fake listings not only overloads the host site but pushes aside the listings of legitimate dealers who list only what they have in stock. Since 2004, I and others have identified over fifty mega-listers selling under more than 110 names on the “Big A’s.”

Yet another issue involves the status of truly rare books. Let’s say Justin’s fake inventory includes a particularly rare title. By listing it thirty times it appears that there are many, many copies available where there is actually only one—or perhaps none. This wildly distorts the perceived availability of that title and may even cause the price for that title to plummet. This form of fraud runs akin to maliciously causing another person’s property to drop in value.

Used books are like snowflakes: no two specimens are exactly the same. A highly valuable, extremely rare book may require hours of research on the part of the dealer in order to write a description that honestly represents the item’s physical features and flaws as well as its historical or literary significance. A mega-lister who copies that description is not only committing fraud but plagiarism as well.

How can one identify a mega-lister? It takes a little savvy and a little time but there are many ways.

  1. Feedback. On sites where there is a feedback or reliability rating system (Amazon, Alibris, eBay), look for a measurable amount of negative feedback. Mega-listers tend to generate complaints from 5 to 10 percent of their customers, and sometimes their negative feedback is as high as 50 percent.
  2. Boilerplate descriptions. Click on the link to view the seller’s inventory. If you see the same bland, uninformative description on every item, be wary of a mega-lister. Examples from actual mega-listers: “May have some underlining, highlighting, and/or margin notes.” “My copy of this item is in typical used, acceptable condition or better.” “Average condition for its age.” “Books are brand new and shipped directly from the publisher’s warehouse.”
  3. No condition grades. Where the item’s condition would be described, there is instead a stream of inane marketing verbiage. Some actual examples: “All of our items ship within 24 hours!” “Over 2 million customers served!” “These are very good books from talented authors and would make a great books [sic] to read on those chilly winter days or as an addition to anyone’s littery [sic] collection.”
  4. Every book under the sun. Start at a portal’s homepage and run a search for a few common terms, such as author: Jones, title: cooking. When you have a page of results, run your eye over the bookstore names that show up. When you see the same bookstore name over and over again, it is very likely you have found a mega-lister who has uploaded the BIP as their “inventory.”
  5. Whacky prices. Set up a search as above and order the results by highest price first. The mega-listers tend to be the ones listing $3 paperbacks for $75 or $100. They will show up at the top of the list. Sometimes their insane prices are an artifact of how their software is programmed. I found one mega-lister with over 100,000 titles with prices all over the map but nothing between $40 and $180. Another had an apparent minimum price. I stopped looking after the first 300 items—they were all exactly $6.27.
  6. Huge inventories. Imagine the space needed to store 100,000 books. When you see a seller with numbers that high, be wary. But please note that not every dealer with a huge inventory is a mega-lister. Zubal Books of Cleveland has over 150,000 items; Powell’s of Portland, Oregon has over 1,100,000; these are major operations that do indeed have large amounts of inventory.
  7. Ask questions. One clever method is to contact the suspected mega-lister and ask a question that can’t be answered unless the book is in hand. “Does the book have any writing or underlining in it?” you might ask. Or make up a non-sequitur question to see if they lie. “Is this the edition with a preface by Sir Walter Scott?” If they cannot answer your question, or their answer is obviously phony, or you get no reply at all, be wary.

What can one do about mega-listers?

  1. Keep track of them. When you spot a mega-lister, jot down their name(s) and keep the list where you won’t lose it.
  2. Don’t sell to them. Don Gallagher of The Gallagher Collection, Denver, recently reported, “I had an order for one of our books that, alas, could not be found. Told the customer and he wrote back: ‘You’ve got to have it. I’ve already sold it on eBay.’ I went from miserable to ecstatic, and put the jackass on my ‘Don’t Sell To’ list.”
  3. Report them. Your complaint to the host website might not get them booted right away, but it will be added to other complaints and at some point the sheer number of registered complaints will perhaps get them removed and may even encourage them to get out of the business.
  4. Warn others. When you find a mega-lister, let your fellow bookdealers know. Customers too will appreciate being informed which dealers are, shall we say, a little shady.
  5. Support sites that prohibit mega-listers. As much as possible, shop at the “small” multi-dealer sites which, in most cases, show a much greater willingness to police mega-listers and boot them when necessary.

Gwen Foss operates Alan’s Used Books out of Farmington, MI and can be contacted at http://www.tomfolio.com/shop/AlansUsedBooks.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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