Ethics & eBay – No, Really: Perspectives from a Modern Library Collector


Ah, Commerce! The sounds of the hawkers touting the superiority of their goods, the sights of the brightly colored merchandise shining in the sun, the smell of the camels, oh, wait. This isn’t Morocco. How could I have become so confused?

Maybe because were in eBay, the world’s largest flea market. And a flea bite is a flea bite, no matter what the source of the vermin whether it be a camel, a badly cleaned oriental rug, or a bookseller with the morals of a 42nd Street watch salesman.

Step Right Up Everyone’s a Winner

As a Modern Library specialist and webmaster of www.ModernLib.com, a website for Modern Library collectors, I get lots of e-mail from folks looking for leads on ML bargains and how best to find them. EBay would be the perfect place to find bargains if (among other things) you could trust what the listings say. But, of course, you can’t. Eternal vigilance is the price of a great deal (sorry, Mr. Jefferson), especially in a virtual reality viper’s nest.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all, or even most, eBay sellers have larceny in their hearts. The majority of sellers I’ve encountered show no obvious inclinations to robbery or even deceit. Many are professional booksellers of long standing who adhere strenuously to a high code of ethics such as IOBA’s own (http://www.ioba.org/code.html). Why, some of my best friends are . . .

Of course, the majority of eBay auctioneers are just-plain-folks selling old books from the basement and attic. They don’t describe books completely or accurately, have no clue how to do so, and they can’t be expected to. To these folks, eBay is just an electronic garage sale.

Still, the Internet highways are fraught with marauders when all roads lead to eBay.

Puffery versus Treachery

Here’s a fairly common near-prototype example of an eBay book description. It mixes plain old puffery with outright lies. The book advertised is a 1950s Modern Library copy of Brothers Karamazov.

“This Rare Hardcover Dustjacket Edition is in excellent condition. . . . This book is very elusive and copies of this scarce book are extremely hard to find.”

The puffery here lies with “in excellent condition.” Looking at the images of the book, it’s Very Good at best. But as we all know, the seller’s Near Fine is the buyer’s Near Very Good. But that’s OK—few mothers describe their children as average.

The problem in the description lies in touting the title as elusive and scarce. On the surface the claims are absurd because:

-Modern Library was a reprint house and few titles from the ’50s are scarce.
Karamazov is one of the most commonly reprinted titles in the world, and it certainly is common in the Modern Library.
-At the time of the listing there were six copies of that printing available on eBay alone.

The technique is a common one: claim everything is unique and see how many sell. I looked at the other titles this seller had for sale. The same paragraph appeared in nearly all his listings.

Ignored Expertise

We all make mistakes—especially other people. Being a natural troublemaker and the owner of an asbestos suit that I purchased many years ago soon after discovering newsgroups, I always write to sellers pointing out what I believe to be just plain mistakes, and I’m polite about it. After all, most book dealers are certainly not Modern Library experts! So I expect to see errors and omissions, not out of malice but out of ignorance.

Not assuming folks will take my word for it, and why should they, as I am just some guy with an e-mail address (“Excuse me, dude in the next seat in the diner, you wouldn’t happen to know the first edition points for Styron’s The Long March, would you?”), I usually back up my claim with references to expert texts and reliable web sources. Here’s what I include:

-Description of the alleged error.
-Statement of why I think it’s an error.
-If I have it, reference to my source material.
-Suggestion(s) for correcting the error.

I can’t claim great success here. I usually get ignored. Sometimes I get thanked and the listing actually gets changed. Occasionally I’m shown why the error isn’t one. And sometimes I get my ancestry questioned coupled with suggestions for things I might do to take up my time rather than bothering honest citizens in the pursuit of commerce.

My favorite response—a common one—runs something like, “Hey, thanks for that information, I didn’t know that.” I used to think that meant that the listing would be changed. Often it doesn’t. When I write back to the seller pointing out that he forgot to change the listing, I’ll be ignored or get the reply, “I don’t know how to change the listing because I already have bids.” (And yes, if the listing is for an important book and I’ve got the time I do write back with a pointer to the eBay instructions telling him how to do it. And no, the listing is usually still not changed.)

Reputable sellers are always interested in correcting errors. Beyond being the ethical thing to do, it’s just good business because it attracts long-term customers. These sellers welcome corrections and will thank you for them. (Well, sometimes they will—and sometimes they’ll just fix the error without thanking you.)

Guarding Against Sleaze

Here’s a list I use to determine if I’m dealing with somebody with whom I need to take extra care.

-Has an eBay positive feedback rating of less than 99%. EBay folks are reluctant to leave negative feedback for fear of getting negative feedback in return. So if there is negative feedback, there’s reason to be suspicious. Feed the seller’s eBay name into the Toolhaus eBay Negative Search at http://www.toolhaus.org/cgi-bin/negs and see what comes backnot just in terms of the kinds of complaints people have about the seller, but the responses that the seller gives.

-Accepts payment only by money order, cashier’s check, wired funds, or cash. This is a deal-killer for me. If the book turns out to be a dud, I’m stuck with it if I pay cashand all of the methods listed above are essentially cash, so I have no recourse.

-Does not allow returns (“all sales final”). This is another deal-killer on the face of it. The seller won’t stand behind his/her product. Often the listing has a qualifying statement such as, “All sales final unless the book is described incorrectly.” But in such listings the terms are generally arguable condition statements, and the seller has the final say about what’s an incorrect description. If the seller doesn’t offer a no-questions-asked return period of at least seven days from the book’s arrival, I won’t bid.

-Refuses to answer questions or gives evasive answers. Prima facie Deal Killer # 3. I can’t think of a single reason that a legitimate seller would refuse to answer a question directly. Of course, “I don’t know” is a direct answer and often quite acceptable. This is especially the case when the dealer isn’t a Modern Library specialist. For example, if a seller claims that the book is a first edition and I ask for the points, he/she may only know the obvious one—say, a first edition slug on the copyright page. But determining firsts in Modern Library editions can be fairly complex, so I’ll tell the seller what the points are and ask him/her to verify that the points are there. If the seller doesn’t get back to me, I won’t bid.

-Totally ignores e-mail. I make no exceptions here, no matter how much I want the book. If the dealer won’t contact me before the auction, it’s a pretty good bet that I’ll be ignored if I have problems after I send my check.

-Wants unreasonable shipping charges. A great bargain is no bargain at all if the shipping charges are three times the price of the book. Some eBayers use shipping charges as a profit center. Generally I won’t bid when shipping is high. I check Priority Mail rates for the weight of the book and add $1.50 or $2.00 for packaging and handling. Any non-giant Modern Library book should have charges of around $5.50 to $6.00 tops, less if sent by Media Mail. If shipping charges and method aren’t listed, I always ask before I bid.

-Keeps bidder’s list secret. The chief reasons that sleazy sellers keep bidder’s lists secret is so that you can’t contact other bidders to ask embarrassing questions or to warn them of an obvious scam eBay’s “auction interference rule” be damned), or so that you can’t see obvious shill bidders.

-Refuses to send additional scans/photos without good reason. Sometimes a book is too cheap for a seller to spend a lot of time on it. I’m not going to ask for extra scans for a five buck book. (I say “extra scans” because I usually ignore listings without scans unless the title is genuinely scarce.) But when the price gets over $20 or so, I won’t buy a book without scans of the front, spine, and back.

-Uses stock book photos. A stock photo for a used collectable? I don’t think so.

-Makes absurd claims. Here’s my absolute all-time favorite and incredibly common stupid statement: “There is no copyright nor print date so it’s probably a first edition.” Such claims can often be blamed on plain old ignorance rather than skullduggery, but it’s certainly a warning flag.

What an Ideal Modern Library Listing Includes

Sometimes sellers deliberately fudge on their listings knowing that what they have wouldn’t pass muster even as reading copies. But the vast majority of book listings on eBay are incomplete because most sellers aren’t professional booksellers, and many professional booksellers aren’t very good at their jobs. Additionally even the best non-specialist booksellers will have trouble determining the finer points of Modern Library titles. (By the way, sellers who handle a lot of Modern Library titles really need to own a copy of Henry Toledano’s Modern Library Price Guide, and should spend some time at the Modern Lib website as well.) Here’s a list of the items I tell folks they need to see in a listing or should ask the seller about before they bid on a Modern Library book.

-Title and author. This can actually be tricky, as the title on the dust jacket was often different from what appeared on the title page!

-General condition statement based on AB Bookman’s Weekly guidelines. Actually, this may be the least important item on the list if clear scans and fault descriptions are present. Condition statements are vestiges of the pre-internet era when listings were one paragraph long with no photographs. In such situations puffery ran rampant (even more than now).

-Clear scans or photos. Scans of the front and spine of the dust jacket or, if the jacket is lacking, the front and spine of the book are sine qua non for me. There’s really no excuse for not scanning these days: scanners are very cheap to buy, very easy to use, and work very quickly.

-Description of all faults. Here’s where the above-mentioned AB Bookman’s guidelines come into play. Listed faults must include tears, folds, chips to the dust jacket (front, spine, and back), browning, foxing, underlines, highlighting, loose pages, stains, warping, ex-library indications, integrity of the block in the boards, and so on.

-Copyright date if present. Many Modern Library titles came in two or more editions. For example, Don Quixote had different translators, The Mayor of Casterbridge included introductions written by different people, and several of the short story anthologies had their contents change while the titles remained the same.

-Date of the printing. This can be really tricky. Sometimes the only way to hone in on the correct date is to use the catalogs that often appeared on the dust jacket and at the back of the book. (Modern Lib provides dating keys to solve this problem.)

-Description of the binding type. There are nearly 20 distinct Modern Library binding styles. Different styles were used during specific periods, including one that was employed for just a single year.

-Whether the book and dust jacket match. This is another tricky area in Modern Library collecting that most sellers don’t know about. A cooperative potential bidder should supply the points and ask the seller to verify their presence.

-Number of titles listed in the dust jacket catalog. The number usually appears on the upper inside of the dust jacket in a statement such as, “Which of these < XXX> outstanding books do you want to read?” The number of titles currently available in the Modern Library series at the time of printing is often a key first edition point.

-Statement saying if the printing is a first or later. This may be the trickiest point of all. Many first editions carried statements identifying them as such, but around 10% of titles in the series most of them published between 1959 and 1965—carried no such statement. To make matters worse, titles printed by offset lithography (all titles after 1965 going into the 1980s “revival” period and about six earlier titles) retained their first edition slugs in later printings. Once again, the Toledano guide and the Modern Lib website are your best friends here.

-If a buckram or a paperback, the number on the spine. Both college paperbacks (T series) and quality paperbacks (P series) had numbers on the spine. Buckrams, all of which were issued with no dust jackets, were supposed to have the number of the title at the bottom of the spine and the words “Buckram Reinforced” above it. (Some printings lack the statement and number but have the distinctive binding.)

-If a paperback, description of the type. College Series, numbered series, and so on.

Buyers Can Be Unethical Too

“But wait,” you say, “What about unscrupulous buyers?” Well, there certainly are such people. Sellers don’t have an exclusive on unethical behavior. Buyers can cheat by not paying for the books they receive, by claiming they didn’t receive the book, or by sending back for a refund a different book than the one they received. Here are some ways that I protect myself against these common buyer scams.

-Don’t ship until the check has cleared. I accept money orders, cashier’s checks, and personal checks. Sometimes I accept PayPal (although I don’t like to because of the cut they take—the eBay hit is high enough as it is). If I don’t know the buyer I wait until the check clears before shipping the book.

-Unobtrusively mark the book and dust jacket. Sometimes the buyer wants to return the book. I want to make sure that the book I get back is the book I sent. So I make the lightest possible pencil mark in a non-obvious place on the back of the dust jacket and on a specific page in the book and make sure the marks are there when the book is returned.

-Make and keep scans of the book and DJ’s front, spine, and back. I make 300 DPI scans and keep them until my warranty period expires (generally ten days after the book is delivered). This is a further check in case the book is returned, as I can compare the scans against the book and DJ.

-Don’t send a refund until the book is returned. If the book I get back is the one I sent, I send a refund the same day.

-Always use Delivery Confirmation. As a small-timer who doesn’t sell that many books, I always use USPS for deliveries. I’ve never had one go astray. But to protect myself I always use Delivery Confirmation.

-Sometimes I act in sleazy ways myself. For example, a seller will advertise a book as a first edition but the dust jacket or binding photos don’t match what a first in that title should be. I write to the seller asking for the first edition points even if I already know that I don’t want the book. If the seller makes stuff up, I know to put him on my kill list to be excluded from future searches. You might claim that this is sort of unethical on my part in that I have no intention of bidding on the book. I’m just playing Net Cop and in some ways wasting the seller’s time.

Unethical? Maybe but this is eBay. I’m just trying to fit in.

Scot Kamins can be contacted at http://www.ModernLib.com.

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