Before we launch into a serious and sustained consideration of the relatively new practice of mega-listing, which is of grave concern to many online professional booksellers, we need to define our terms a bit.
Strictly speaking, mega-listers offer many books for sale through the major search services (ABE, Alibris, Amazon, etc.), through other portals, or through their own websites. To use a somewhat arbitrary but real number, 100,000 books constitutes “many” to most of us. That type of volume would represent a lot of effort and a lot of storage space. It goes without saying that most of us would rather own a catalog of 500 stellar titles or 5,000 fairly scarce sellable books than a huge warehouse full of bargain basement dreck that’s actually worth less, but the free market allows for many niches so that is well and fine.
This touches on another loaded term—“penny sellers.” Speaking for myself, I don’t have a huge problem with penny sellers. I don’t think they have ruined the profession, though they do erode confidence in online book buying if they do not describe their wares accurately, or if they are not upfront about the shipping costs, which is where they probably make a good portion of their money. On the other hand, the stakes are not high for most of the cheap and common titles they offer. Penny sellers came when they heard about the used book gold rush. They don’t find many nuggets, and often don’t know fool’s gold from the real thing, but somebody has to pan for siftings in book streams and cart away loads of Grishamite from the mine floor. If this keeps them out of McJobs and gives them more dignity, time to see their family, or whatever, more power to them. Many will learn the basics and proceed to elevate themselves. They have a right to undersell as long as they have the merch (and there is nothing funnier than a $5 bookseller complaining about a $1 bookseller). Penny sellers are a natural market force. The Glut, where everyone and their grandmother realized they could sell books online, begot the penny sellers, and the Glut itself was spawned by the confluence of huge amounts of unwanted books and the selling platform provided by Interloc, Bibliofind, and the 3As, where profits eventually trumped standards. Capitalism, baby.
I often think back on a copy of The Soong Sisters by Emily Hahn I picked up seven or eight years ago. They grew up to become Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Madame Kung, and Madame Sun Yat-sen. It was published in 1941 or so, with red cloth covers and nice photos. Anyway, there were already a small handful of copies on ABE so I ran it through eBay as a lark and realized around $35 on the transaction. Fast forward to today, where there are 117 listings on ABE alone, from $55 down to $2.75 (and no doubt it could be found cheaper somewhere else). Back on eBay, the only copy recently offered was started at a penny, with $4.00 for shipping (though it was for UPS second day air, so not much profit margin there). From the description, “Book is in great condition. Cover is in worn condition. Lots of great photo ilistrations. Book is in great condition overall. Pretty rare. I could’nt find one for sale anywhere on the web.” He could have looked just below the first search page at multiple cheap copies offered through eBay Stores. (It ended up selling for $8.63 on 9/3/2006, by the way, so eBay can still a good place to move books quicker and higher than the search services do.) I liked the nice profit from this moderately common title not that long ago, but that was then and this is now. Things change fast in the internet age. Many of us have altered our business models, shedding common titles or stocking them in bookstores or on antique center shelves at reasonable prices rather than carrying them online where they will languish in multiplicity. We can undercut everyone else online, but time is money, and we would rather be looking for or describing good books than wrapping $3 books.
This is all by way of explaining that “penny seller” is not necessarily a pejorative term—at least to some professional booksellers and to a great many buyers who appreciate low prices—and perhaps the term “mega-lister” should be accorded the same semantic leeway.
Many accomplished booksellers offer tens of thousands of titles. Some, like Rhett Moran of Gutenberg Holdings, list close to 100,000 titles online, with lots more sitting in storage. He acquired these himself over the years, he knows how to describe and ship them properly, and he can answer any questions about them. Giant physical stores like Powell’s offer millions of titles online, though there is not a lot of description (they have a 1941 Soong Sisters for $9.95 described as “worn condition or underlined”—my underlining), and they can’t always locate the desired out-of-print title. One would have to assume that most BOBs (big online bookstores) would not want to be called mega-listers.
There is a newer breed of online bookstore that seems firmly in the mega-lister camp but still maintains some tenuous semblance of traditional standards. They are a combination of penny seller and mega-lister that one colleague calls “book mills.”
Thriftbooks.com out of Seattle is a good example of a potentially above average mega-lister. They carry many cheap listings, they only flood the market with a quarter of a million books rather than millions, and they often even include such bibliographic information as the date. Thousands of titles are wildly overpriced, but tens of thousands more are very affordable.
They claim some kind of mutually beneficial relationship with one or more local library systems, and their boilerplate claims “the HIGHEST star rating of ALL high-volume sellers!” This is obviously a place to go for reading copies rather than exquisitely bound volumes and creampuff first editions of highly important and sought-after works. They make a point of comparing many of their prices to the same title at Amazon (e.g., one cent vs. $7.99), though I don’t know how they keep that accurate or current. From the helpful FAQ page, “How do you sell your books for a penny? We are able to offer low prices because we leverage both our proprietary technology and our partnerships with many large sources of used books including book stores, wholesalers, and publishing houses.” Fair enough. (I had some FAQs of my own about their operation, but Thriftbooks did not get back to me, so this estimation might be a little off one way or the other.) They use some skimpy and boilerplate description, but for reading copies of dirt cheap books with reasonable shipping rates, that is not such a major concern. On the pricier side, I wanted to know more about the condition of The Postal History and Stamps of Bermuda by M. H. Ludington, priced at $150, which is described as “Good. Good.” Does the second Good mean it has a dust jacket? Their response reads, “Each book is individually rated by a Thrift Books staff member. Below are the different ratings and definitions;” and “Good” is defined as, “A copy that has been read, but remains in clean condition. All pages are intact, and the cover is intact. The spine may show signs of wear.
Pages can include limited notes and highlighting.” So they really couldn’t be bothered to provide more than that generic description. A bookseller who seems to like books offers this fairly scarce title for the same price, and it is rated “Very Good” with details, so that would have been the logical choice in those cases where you are lucky enough to have a choice. From Thriftbooks’ About Us page, they say they hold over 250,000 titles “in stock.” They also claim to be adding 10,000 new titles a day, though it isn’t clear whether they mean to the website or into the building, or maybe they both buy and sell 10,000 a day so the base number stays at around 250,000. At any rate, and here is the biggest distinction of all—they seem to actually own at least some of the titles in question, and they seem to be stored on premises they own, lease, or rent. Yes, Virginia, some mega-listers don’t physically own the stock they list for sale. We are getting used to this bizarre idea, but it’s still shocking when you think about it.
The BOBs and an okay book mill or three are the last outposts of civilization. After that we run into a whole stratum of mega-listers that are high on volume and short on standards. New book dealers who list the entire catalogs of various publishers and distributors at an often indecent markup; page hogging remainders dealers who offer multiple copies of palletized titles they hold; volume processors of ex-library acquisitions, charity works, and bulk donations; and scavengers who scrape all the titles from one site and list them on another. Super mega-listers, like black holes, suck it all in.
This would all be okay of course if they all fought it out on some giant website where everyone knows what the deal is, but they have invaded once-pure book search services such as ABE and Alibris like some noxious species of plant or insect. (Many Amazon sellers are upset too, but this kind of comes with the jungle that is Amazon.) The 2As know that customers respond to branding and prefer one-stop shopping, but they should have worked out a better way for well-behaved new booksellers and used/out-of-print/antiquarian booksellers to co-exist without all the duplication and duplicity, even if it meant less income for them. Rare book tabs on the home page or other anemic sops are not the answer. We were there first, and we gave them life. We need the 2As at the moment, but surely they realize that given the current situation many of us would leave in a heartbeat if one of the independents would just reach critical mass (as in lots of sellers and lots of eyeballs).
But back to the semantic task at hand. “Mega-lister” is probably the best term to use, because the prefix mega means large, and it’s the large ones that hurt us the most. This puts penny seller mega-listers (PSMs) with their own stock in the same tent as data miner mega-listers (DMMs). There are at least three types of data miners. Those that sell new books they don’t own (and often can’t provide) from distributor’s catalogs; those that put up huge lists of books they don’t own (and often can’t provide) from other types of sources; and those phantom listers that specifically target the catalogs of other booksellers with actual books. Most DMMs (also known as aggregators and data consolidators) never handle any books themselves. You order through the 3As, he gets paid, he orders the book through the distributor, the distributor ships it to you, and the distributor bills him for a much lower amount than you paid him to begin with. Some mega-listers ply their trade internationally, where unsuspecting buyers may not be aware of ABE and Alibris. To complicate matters, mega-listers and data miners often do some of both. They share several characteristics in addition to massive size, like poor descriptions and inane boilerplate, so one name fits them all pretty well. Eskimos have many names for pure snow but only one for yellow snow. If mega-listers are also good booksellers who are not sacrificing standards for profits, they will achieve customer satisfaction, some peer acceptance, and business success. That said, however, mega-lister nomenclature does demand a handy title for the worst offenders. Let us further define the “malicious mega-lister,” then, as distinct from somewhat more benign forms of this practice. Their sins against our noble profession are listed in order of magnitude.
-MMs who scrape listings from actual booksellers and offer them up as their own at higher prices. They can’t stand by the book’s description because they did not create it, and most would probably be incapable of doing so with important titles anyway. They can’t easily answer questions about their phantom listings without contacting the actual bookseller and pretending they are the customer. They rely on drop-shipping by the actual owner, and cannot guarantee proper service in this area either. (As an aside, isn’t it annoying how we even do the wrapping and shipping for these leeches?) They can’t always insure availability, particularly when the order is finalized directly through one of the search services, and that means dashed hopes and the pursuit of refunds. This is all quite distinct from traditional book search services that charge a modest fee for locating wants. The markups many malicious mega-listers charge for a brief stint as middle man are totally outrageous. Selling items you don’t actually own is blatant misrepresentation at the very least. It’s the kind of thing a good federal agency or state attorney general should look into. The situation is different with newer books that they pretend to own but actually order from the distributor, though this can also be problematic for the would-be customer in terms of accurate bibliographic description, stockouts, and high markups.
-MMs steal the hard work of actual professional booksellers who have found, researched, described, priced, and housed these books. They do this in a major way by lifting descriptions in their entirety, which is nothing short of plagiarism, and they are quick to pilfer images as well. This practice is falling by the wayside quite a bit, due to threats of legal action embedded right in the original descriptions, by altercations they have had with angry booksellers, and by the possibility of getting kicked off the search services. It is probably more common now among rogue operators selling single books they actually don’t own on eBay than it is among large established businesses on the 3As, although in some cases this might be one of their off-the-shelf operations. Have malicious mega-listers stopped stealing our hard work and merchandise on the 3As, or have they figured out less obvious ways to present phantom listings they don’t actually own by simply stripping them of unique descriptions and identifiers?
-MMs clog the search service results. This can be confusing and maddening to customers looking for a desired title. It is also a real pain in the butt for true booksellers and researchers, and the ripple effects include virtually useless wants matching and meta-search engine results (as in BookFinder and AddAll). Piling on so many wild price variations and multiple listings of the exact same book with questionable ISBNs and misleading stock images is sure to bury legitimate offerings and sure to add to an erosion of confidence in online book buying.
-MMs have an unfair pricing advantage over small booksellers. Most publishers and distributors don’t sell directly on the 3As because they know the booksellers who support them would complain. Instead, they enter into agreements with mega-listers who have few if any inbound or outbound shipping, inventory, customer service, or other overhead costs. They load entire databases to the web without checking against actual distributor inventories and delivery schedules. Once in this lawless zone, they can underprice and overprice at the same time, casting gill-nets at will and pulling in many of the available fish. Small publishers suffer when most sales are driven through Amazon, Baker & Taylor, or Ingram with their large discounts, because sales from their own websites fall off. And many mega-listers designate new books as used/rare/out-of-print on such sites as Amazon at two or three times retail when they are still in print and available directly from the publisher. In a more recent development, dubious charity mega-listers cut to the front of the line on the supply side, and undercut those of us who have to pay for our stock on the demand side.
-MMs data mine. They use software programs to do the listing work for them. Data mining repeats erroneous bibliographic information, publisher catalog data mining lists many books that are no longer available, it causes too many listings to read the same way, and it often employs stock photos that are really only acceptable for new publications. It is virtually impossible to data mine in a responsible manner, as you would have to personally check thousands of listings for availability, etc.
-MMs throw all price guidelines out of whack with a blizzard of confusing and conflicting information. This lines their pockets, but it often reduces the value of our property, wastes everyone’s time, and drives away paying customers.
-MMs provide poor customer service. They unite a good number of books with a good number of customers for a hidden surcharge, and often nobody is the wiser, but the very nature of their operation precludes a high degree of honesty and satisfaction. These bottom two attributes were around before mega-listing on the internet, by the way, but they are readily identifiable aspects of it. I have some questions about this cyberpiracy that are perhaps rhetorical. First of all, am I missing something? Do MMs do anything that is good for anyone other than themselves and their hosts? And what about the major search services? ABE, for example, used to outlaw this activity before May, 2004. Does the increased income justify sacrificing standards, dealing with complaints, and denigrating the site? (It must, of course, so that one isn’t so rhetorical.) Should we just leave them in disgust and set up our stores on sites most book buyers are oblivious to? Do ABE and Alibris feel they would fall behind if either did the right thing here and reined in malicious mega-listers? Is “malicious” even a good word to use, or is there a better appellation for this new creature in our midst that would serve to differentiate between big online bookstores, relatively well-meaning cheap book mills, and the bad kind of mega-listers? Malice means “desire to harm others or to tease.” They don’t exactly desire to harm us, but they don’t seem to lose sleep over it either. And tease may be a stretch, but they are sure in our face as well as in our pockets, and it’s time somebody did something about it.
I must confess that I do not totally understand how malicious mega-listers ply their trade. It would be interesting if a reformed employee of one of these outfits would come forward and write a book about it or something, or perhaps trial transcripts would reveal the same secrets. The technical details of data mining; the ins and outs of fooling honest booksellers; clashes with same; profiles of customers who pay ten times more because they didn’t know any better; certain understandings they have reached with the search services, including better deals on fees and commissions; the hellishness of their daily email and phone work trying to reconcile canceled orders and explain themselves to disappointed customers. Great stuff, though it doesn’t make up for the loss of our verdant fields with maybe three or four listings of a rare book (remember that dreamtime?) that are now clogged with countless rip-off mutations, phantom titles and PODs (another serious issue) like bodies amid broken down war machines on a bizarre and confusing battlefield, with camp follower penny sellers bringing up the rear, dark clouds and vultures above, and the 3As generals observing it all from a safe hilltop, though General Amazon can be partly excused because he never claimed to be an antiquarian and out-of-print bookseller to begin with.
It seems too late for major reform. The 2As Amazon wannabes are liking huge amounts of newer books and wildly overpriced older books better, regardless of how they spin it. We do not necessarily believe that quality listings and services will always win the day, for example, as ABE and Alibris are now saying, because mega-listers are not stupid and they aren’t hanging around and multiplying for nothing. ABE and Alibris can’t really afford to provide significant relief for their original “partners” by drastically curtailing mega-listing without hurting the bottom line. They say they have plans to deal with the scourge by limiting listings to two copies only of books which are substantially the same (i.e., new books), by introducing seller ratings , etc., but we remain skeptical. What I learned in preparing this article is that they understand why we don’t like page hogging, but the new owners have either forgotten or never fully understood the whole traditional bookselling standards thing. Data miner mega-listers will still be free to list millions of books that are not available anywhere; data thieves can still scrape our listings for inflated prices as long as they are not extremely obvious about it; many older books will continue to be described in highly misleading and substandard ways; many customers will be left bewildered, disappointed, or cheated; most good booksellers will remain frustrated; and the venture capitalists will continue to extract profits while grooming these properties for virtually inevitable takeover by even bigger corporations.
The average ABAA bookseller, somewhat above the fray to begin with by virtue of superior stock, is probably happier now that blatantly pirated descriptions of truly rare books are on the wane. The high fees and commissions they generate give them some clout, which is why Alibris has been courting them. The average IOBA or unrepresented bookseller, squeezed by penny sellers from one end and ruthless mega-listers from the other, are pretty close to the bottom of the totem pole at the present time. ABE or Alibris could make a bold move by firmly re-establishing itself as the premier site for used/out-of-print/antiquarian books. This could be accomplished by consistently expelling bad booksellers and by limiting inventory to, say, 100,000 titles per bookseller, where anything over that would require review. They could also start charging significantly more for listing over 150,000 or 200,000 titles rather than capping the high end of the sliding fee. They could roll back a few other hurtful loss of control policies, downsize a bit, still make good enough livings, and do right by the profession. Come home, ABE or Alibris. Become the site of choice for real booksellers and their happy customers. All is forgiven.
Since that is a pipe dream, you know the drill. Work hard; improve your stock; improve your knowledge; set up your own website; list on clean independent sites like Biblio.com, TomFolio.com, and IOBAbooks.com; try lucrative venues like eBay; ease into book shows and antique centers; join trade associations like the ABAA, ILAB, and IOBA; and work toward a better future.
Shawn Purcell operates Balopticon Books & Ephemera and can be contacted at http://www.balopticon.com.