Competitive Altruism in Book Selling (CABS)


Timothy Doyle

Timothy Doyle


The Summer 2016 issue of The Standard features several pieces on the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (CABS), including an essay on the IOBA scholarship program, and accounts from three IOBA Scholarship attendees of the 2016 seminar. Rounding out the issue is a piece on book fairs by Jonathan Smalter, and a fluff piece (literally!) profiling Blake, shop cat at Philadelphia Rare Books & Manuscripts Company.

Paul Shelley of Churchill Book Collector attended the seminar as an IOBA scholarship recipient, and describes it as an annual event where “successful professionals volunteer their time to share most of the secrets of their commercial success with their up and coming competition”. I have had similar conversations with people outside of the trade, about the articles I’ve written that share some of the bookselling knowledge I’ve picked up over the years. And we all see and participate in this behavior every day on the various book boards and exchange lists, where booksellers freely share the benefit of their hard-won experience with anyone who asks.

So why do we do this? How does it make sense to give away any advantage to our competition, with no immediate obvious return?

An approach to one answer can be found in a remark from another of this year’s IOBA CABS scholars. Mike Brenner, of Brenner’s Books, refers to the bookselling trade as a “vibrant, vital ecosystem”. This certainly resonates with some of the ecological terms one encounters in discussions of the trade and how it has changed – evolved – in recent decades. Some sellers can be referred to as big fish while others are guppies; still other sellers – and we all know who they are – are described as bottom feeders; and big-spending customers are sometimes called whales (borrowing a slang term from gambling). This led me to think about a topic in behavioral and evolutionary theory referred to as “competitive altruism”. This theory attempts to explain why individuals make choices that would seem to involve some form of sacrifice – of time or money, for example – for no obvious material return. Some have used it in an attempt – one that some call cynical – to explain why people choose to do things that benefit others. The crux of the theory is that there is actually a return on the so-called altruistic behavior: the act produces an increase in prestige or reputation or social rank, something that is akin to currency in our human primate culture. Or as the Syrian-born Latin writer Publilius Syrus said over two thousand years ago: “A good reputation is more valuable than money.”

But I think this reductionist approach to explaining human behavior as the sum of some sequence of transaction-based interactions will never capture the full breadth and depth of the human experience. Two philanthropists fund new wings at two hospitals; does the one only think about how everyone knows his wing is bigger?  Another example that is often used in discussing altruistic behavior in humans is early adopters of hybrid technology automobiles. The early models of hybrid cars were more expensive than their equivalent conventional models. There was a real possibility that they would be more expensive to maintain – repair and maintenance would mostly need to be done at the dealer, since none of the independent mechanics had any experience working with the new technology. Plus no one knew what problems unique to hybrids would crop up in five or ten or fifteen years. And while there were economic advantages to owning a hybrid vehicle in the form of tax credits (that have since lapsed) and reduced gas consumption, most economic analyses published at the time showed the hybrid vehicles ultimately still being slightly more expensive over the course of their lifetime. But there were also very clear reasons, some might say altruistic reasons, for buying a hybrid car, in the form of reduced or eliminated harmful emissions.

Competitive Altruism in Book SellingI bought a Honda Civic Hybrid back in its first year of production in the United States, in 2002. The Honda dealer I bought it from said that mine was one of the first sold in my state of Maryland. I chose the Honda over the Toyota Prius, the only other sedan hybrid available at the time, for specific reasons involving performance and technology, but also because I liked its more conventional styling, appearance, and dashboard layout.

The competitive altruism camp would say that I chose to buy a hybrid because I placed value on the prestige that would accrue from owning the vehicle. The “HYBRID” displayed very prominently on the rear of the car would be a very visible symbol that the owner was a “good” person, a “responsible” person, and a person with enough cash that he could afford to pay more for a car that in most other ways was identical to one priced several thousand dollars less. But if I really wanted people to recognize I was driving a hybrid and so influence what they thought of me, wouldn’t I have picked the much more distinctive-looking Prius? Since I know what my decision-making process was – and setting aside the possibility that this is self-delusional retro-justification – I can tell you that I bought the car because I believed it was something good for the environment and because I was in a position to be able to afford it after factoring in the tax credits and fuel cost savings. Buying the first generation of new technology was definitely a risk – conventional wisdom is never buy the first production year of a new or redesigned model – but I felt that any major problems would be addressed by Honda because they wanted their hybrid line to succeed.

And guess what, fourteen years and 225,000 miles later, I still own that car and it is going great.

But look, the competitive altruists whisper, you are using this as an opportunity to tell people about how smart you were to buy the hybrid, in an attempt to increase your status and reputation within the social order of the group.

Well, OK. We’re human. Humans are a highly social, hierarchically-organized primate species. EVERYTHING we do is probably in some way tied to a consideration of how others see us, from the things we choose to make public to the things we most zealously guard as private. Of course most of us do things that would have others respect us, or like us, or want to buy stuff from us, or whatever.

I think that people do things for a whole hodge-podge of reasons. Some of the reasons are altruistic, and some are self-interested; some are both at the same time. Some decisions are deliberate and fully thought out, while some are based on little more than an unreasoned feeling.

So here is what I choose to believe. The organizers and instructors of CABS are smart, experienced book selling professionals who understand they are part of a larger community, one that spans the globe and is the product of centuries of history and tradition. They understand that this profession has undergone a series of rapid shifts in the last twenty years or so, due to cultural and technological changes beyond our control. And they understand the importance to our profession – to our ecosystem – of balancing tradition and change. The instructors know that when a class of attendees leave Colorado that they are better book sellers, and that this is good for the profession as a whole and for all of us individually. Of course there is some personal advantage that accrues to the instructors – my parents were both school teachers, and they always told me the best way to really learn something is to teach it to someone else. And perhaps there is some personal gratification in having others look to you for guidance and direction – who doesn’t want the respect and acknowledgement of one’s accomplishments? But I doubt any of that balances out the time and effort they put forth, including time away from running their own businesses. More importantly, I doubt that any of the instructors or organizers engage in these kinds of “balancing out” calculations. The people involved with CABS do it because it is the good and right thing to do, and because it benefits the profession as a whole.

CABS teaches many things, but perhaps the most fundamental lesson is that we are colleagues, not competitors.

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