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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.


Auction descriptions for fun and profit

Maria Bustillos

Truth is beauty, saith the poet. In order to profit as a bookseller (and indeed, as a human being) it is well to take this precept to heart. For truth inevitably leads us not only to beauty but also, as we will attempt to show in the following paragraphs, to peace and prosperity.

In this article we will give a number of ways to improve your book descriptions, most specifically with reference to online auctions of books, in order to whet the appetite (and tempt open the pockets!) of a fickle buying public.

In a previous article, we gave suggestions for photos, perhaps the most significant element of successful online auctions. Given that you have already prepared elegant, well-lit and truthful photographs (free of stray teacups, paws or other distractions), your next step is to write:

The headline

Most online auctions give a set number of characters for the headline, which will be the first point of contact for prospective buyers, who are faced with a dizzying array of competing one-liners alongside your own. The space is usually quite limited, and, as in writing headlines for newspapers, succinctness is key. There are two basic approaches: the factual, and the whimsical.

Factual headlines should be used when the item in question is of sufficient scarcity or bibliographic interest to make its mere existence sufficient to pique the curiosity. Thus,

True first ptg., Lady Chatterley’s Lover, inscribed to Frieda is to be preferred to

Racy, slightly soppy Novel about a Noblewoman and her Gamekeeper.

On the other hand, the whimsical or surprise headline is preferable when the item in question has desirable attributes that might not appear in a conventional description, so that:

Crest K596, 1st pb, Warrior’s Rest by Christiane Rochefort

Is handily beaten out by the equally truthful

Brigitte Bardot, naked, on cover of Movie tie-in PB, 1963.

In short, the best auction sales strategy is to consider each item on a case-by-case basis; determining first the psychological profile of the buyer most likely to pay the best price for the item in question, and then tailoring the pitch to appeal to that mythical personage.

Many would-be buyers search on headlines alone. If there is a word likely to be searched (such as “heraldry”, “bondage”, “millinery”, etc.), be sure to include it.

As I have advised before, category selection should also be considered in this light. It is generally better to sell a vintage embroidery book in the Needlework section of an online auction, and have the headline include remarks such as

Gorgeous 19th-c. French embroidery stitches in color!

particularly if the copy in question is not a particularly fine one, nor otherwise likely to appeal to a conventional collector. Surprisingly high amounts can thus be realized, just by using a bit of imagination.

Each book has its own ideal owner, a lost soul who, if he only knew of the existence of your book, would beat an agreeably hasty path to your virtual door, waving fistfuls of cash. Our purpose is to locate this lean and hungry unfortunate, out of all the Internet browsers on the wire, and finally to slake the thirst for knowledge that, perhaps without his knowing it, afflicts him.

Full disclosure; the description

Having completed the work of writing a suitably intriguing headline, let us head into the heart of the matter.

The average online description is liable to state the defects of a book, but not its merits. This is the most common mistake made by booksellers in online auctions (and online sales generally), and the most damaging to the bottom line. Okay, so the corners are slightly bumped (as the picture should show), but is the binding straight and tight, the paper creamy, the gilding still rich and brilliant?

How about the story? Does it enthrall, does it enchant? And the author? Was he a seriously bizarre specimen like David Garnett, the author of the fantasy Lady into Fox, the Bloomsbury litterateur and bookseller who eventually married the daughter of his own ex-boyfriend, Clive Bell? Such details make all the difference to a prospective buyer, adding a touch of the subtle spice that makes him feel ever-so-slightly proprietary stirrings toward the item in question.

There is much fulminating in professional circles against the novice who writes, Good condition for it’s age, and so on. The admittedly spine-twisting effects of possessive “its” with an apostrophe aside, I think that this approach can work just fine, provided it speaks clearly to the intended audience. Lay terms are exceedingly useful to us, and should on no account be despised. Many perfectly solvent book lovers are utterly bereft of the terminology of the trade; and unintelligible technical jargon intimidates us all. Clarity, friendliness and brevity are qualities of elegance, of good manners. A style of describing your books which is inviting and approachable to lay persons will result in better sales; and will most certainly elevate the tone of your establishment, rather than the reverse.

The whole truth…

Prepare a brief standard paragraph or two to tack onto the end of your descriptions, including your postage and return policies, plus a link to your own website (and to IOBA, of course!) This simple expedient inspires confidence in the prospective buyer’s heart, and is an easy and effective way to enhance sales.

…and nothing but the truth

So often the disputes that arise in online auctions (as elsewhere) are caused by omissions, half-truths, or slightly stretching a point in order to make one. Remember that any distortion at all will far increase the likelihood of disputes, returns or other unpleasantness. If anything, we must describe our books with the eye of a very critical buyer; not exaggerating, but clearly detailing the slightest defect which might offend the most discerning.

Though it is but human nature to stress the aspects of a case that show us in the best light, omitting those elements which might seem less flattering, in business one must put personal considerations aside and strive toward a modest, conservative and equitable description of the facts in order to achieve success.

A parting note

Online auctions provide an excellent means of keeping in close touch with the bookbuying public. Studying the habits of, corresponding with and listening to collectors, particularly new collectors, is quite possibly the single best way of ensuring that your business achieves and sustains profitability. The more closely and carefully we listen, the better our skill at laying those delicate snares in which booklovers love to find themselves entangled.

Bonne chance, and great success to all.




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