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The IOBA Standard is the journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association and covers the book world, with a special focus on the online used, out-of-print, and collectible bookselling markets.


An Online-Auction Primer for Booksellers

Maria Bustillos

Part One: Selling

All thats required is a connection to the Internet and a digital camera or scanner. The process of putting auctions on the web is very simple, taking a little extra time owing to photo preparation but otherwise quite comparable to the task of book input for databases such as ABE.

Online auction descriptions generally consist of three parts: the all-important photo, the headline and the description.

You could list your auctions online without photos, but prices realized will be substantially lower than those achieved using even the most primitive photos. Scanners have come rocketing down in price, to around $100 for a very tolerable new one; digital cameras of high enough quality for web use can be had for $250. Software for preparing photographs for upload comes with your scanner and/or camera, and these products are getting amazingly easy to use. That said, I highly recommend Adobe Photoshop for preparing photos. Its a mind-boggling program with a high learning curve, but well worth the troubleand its fun!!

Any details you can show will be of interest to potential buyers. Closeups are great, especially of signatures– and of flaws that cant quite be made out in a full-size photo. Remember in preparing photographs that the maximum resolution permitted on the web is 72dpi; anything over this is a waste of download time, it wont be seen by potential buyers. In general photos should be no more than 30k in size, in order to download quickly. Online shoppers are notoriously impatient. (Mind you, as people get faster connections, like cable and DSL, the importance of file size will diminish).

The headline is the next item of interest. Consider your target buyer(s) carefully. You only get 75 characters or so for your headline, so you have to make them count. We have found that jokes and teasing headlines can attract a lot of traffic, but if you have a specialty item of primary interest to collectors, take this into account in composing your pitch. Put yourself in the position of a potential buyerwhat would make you click on a headline??

Dont use L@@K! headlines, capital letters, or exclamation points; these look unprofessional and cheapen your offering. Abbreviate when you can (1st ed. is fine, especially if you can squeeze some other more tantalizing information in), but not so much that the sense is lost (or that it begins to sound like one of those personal ads for singles).

In describing your offering, be as comprehensive as you can without being boring. A light, informative, breezy style works wonders; a friendly tone rather than a forbidding one attracts bidders. It is always important to bear the psychology of the target customer in mind. If youre selling to a collector, youll want to be more detailed in describing condition; but if youre selling a reading copy, focus on the content. Slant your description more towards specialists or towards lay persons, balancing the need for brevity against the need to convince both experts and the most casual browsers that you know your onions, and that youll be a fair and reliable trading partner. Always include your shipping and return policies on auction descriptions, together with your preferred form of payment.

Now youre ready to choose a category, an opening price and have at it. Remember in choosing categories that specialty items might do better in other categories than Books. Try putting a coffee-table book on Faberge in the vintage jewelry category, for instance, lacemaking in the Sewing category, and so on.

We tend to start auctions off at the lowest price consistent with a barely-reasonable margin. The reason for this is that contested auctions bring the highest hammer prices; the goal is to attract at least two highly interested bidders. Having once bid, a potential buyer tends to look on the item in a far more proprietary manner. Those who cannot bear to be beatennote well that this is a character trait and not a professional or a consumer oneare an auctioneers delight. Reserves are okay for very high priced items, but bidders tend to look on them unfavorably; we never use them ourselves and have had excellent results from our first experiences in 1997 to the present day.

It bears mentioning also that those who prefer to wait and squeeze absolute top dollar prices out of their merchandise are ill-suited to the auction world, which is primarily about turnover. Dont forget, though, that every dollar you have tied up in merchandise is a dollar you cant use. Booksellers tend to accumulate inventory faster than they can catalogue or sell it. So turnover at auction, the rapid liquidation of saleable assets, can be a very useful tool, judiciously used.

Part Two: Bidding

It is well known that rarities generally have become suddenly and dramatically easier to find via the Internet. The online auction has further facilitated this perfection of the market. All kinds of weird developments in the antiques and collectibles markets have occurred as a result of the increased liquidity. Most commonly, the truly rare has escalated in price, while the relatively plentiful objects in any category, formerly supposed to be scarce, have been “flushed out” by the demand, so that prices drop. So it’s an exciting time to be a collector.

To trade successfully in an online auction, it’s often necessary to ask a lot of questions. It is crucial to gauge the seller’s knowledge of the category in question, just as in a real-world sale. Ignorance and sophistication both can be used to a buyer’s advantage. In the matter of buying rarities generally there are always instances where even the most knowledgeable experts can be fooled. One is easily tempted to imbue an unseen object with dreamy virtues, like a blind date as yet unseen, but knowledgeable buyers aren’t ordinarily so easily fooled. You’ve got to be on your toes. A good rule of thumb for a beginner is never to bid on an object with no photo included. Another cautious policy to follow: if no money back guarantee is offered, don’t bid.

Many if not most of the members of IOBA, of course, are highly sophisticated collectors and well able to read between the lines of any real-world auction catalogue. The same rules one would apply to dealing with any new dealer also apply here.

Online auctions have proxy bidding systems that automatically raise your bid only just enough to lead the auction. You might easily wind up paying very much less than your bid. Don’t ever bid in round numbers! Seasoned participants always add a few cents to the bid. It’s very saddening to be beaten by a penny.

Sniping – Confounding Your Competitors

Many seasoned auction bidders wait until (literally!) the last few seconds of the auction in order to avoid being sniped, or having the rug pulled out from under them at the last moment. This is achieved by opening two browser windows, with the same auction page in each one. Prepare the bid right up until the last click in one window. In the other, keep pushing the reload button until you get within ten seconds of the auction end (this is really fun!!) Then mouse over to your bid window and bash the Confirm button!!

Thanks for reading, good luck to all, and please stay tuned for future installments. Please address your online auction questions to the author at



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