The Year just Past, the Year Ahead
Every dealer sees the future differently.
By Bruce McKinney
Thread by thread the world of books, manuscripts and ephemera is being sewn on the net into forms inconceivable only a few years ago. These are some of the most traditional fields and their online transitions now underway are resisted, fought, swore at and lamented by many sellers -- all to no avail. The genie is not going back into the bottle and no one is exempted. The market is remaking itself.
For many sellers the forced transition is both painful and exhilarating. Those well established in traditional bookselling have only a marginal advantage online. They may have shops, issue catalogs, and attend shows but online the focus is laser-like on the book, its condition, the price, and shipping. The name of the seller does not trump a better copy at a lower price.
If the internet is creating an increasingly impersonal market it is also creating a much larger one. The wife's tale, oft told, by dealers of "declining market" is hard to hear amid the babble of the increasingly busy online marketplace. Such sellers are actually talking about loss of pricing power which is shifting to the net; their demands now bracketed both by other copies and sales history. The "I expect to get" perspective of many booksellers is now giving way as increasingly experienced buyers, who know what material has brought, are not inclined to move far beyond what the market has demonstrated a buyer should pay.
Some dealers respond by moving away from material that has easily identified online comparables that provide unwelcome perspective on a dealer's pricing overall. These dealers would rather quit than be compared. If a buyer can see that a seller is regularly asking twice the online listing price others ask and four times eBay realizations the easy assumption is that all of a seller's material is priced this way. It's not that simple but the suspicion is there.
Entering 2007 it's starting to come down to who sets the price. The dealer has always been able to set the price and their assumption has been that the single variable is time. If the price was low the item might sell in a week, if priced too high perhaps it would remain unsold even five years later. These days though the high price has a doubly bad effect. The over-priced item is increasingly continuously visible to the buyer who has learned to track material and is unwilling to consider anything else from sellers who price material without regard to its selling history. Very few buyers had this perspective in the past but it's increasingly common today.
The Year just Past, the Year Ahead
Book buyers have many choices
If the seller is more accountable they are also able to reach a larger market. Material that could not have been sold ten years ago is selling today although the price it brings may be market derived rather than crystal-ball generated. It sells and that's a very good thing.
In the Bible it says the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. If the net is introducing democracy to a field that has long been autocratic it is also bringing new buyers. Millions of people are interested in old books and the web gives them a way to find appealing material. Perhaps one category of buyer will dominate book buying in the next ten years: those who purse their personal history. There has always been an interest in personal history but it's never been easy to find. The net has been changing this for years. What's different now is that Google is capturing the full text of old material and making it possible for collectors to identify material as relevant that they could never have identified before. Personal relevance is an entirely different and more powerful basis for book, manuscript and ephemera collecting. In the era of "it's all about me" this is very powerful stuff.
So looking out into 2007 it looks to be a very good year for both buyers and sellers. In the antiquarian and collectible field material enters the online marketplaces at the rate of 3,000 to 4,000 items a day. They are thrown into the Ganges, the Hudson, the Thames, the Amazon, the Mississippi, the Yellow, the Murray, and the Danube and they all flow into the sea which is increasingly one market worldwide: the web. There we find them: the crappy and the commonplace knee to jowl with the unspeakable gem. Wow.