Reorganizing the Web for Bookselling
Finding gold will be easier!
By Bruce McKinney
The Case for and Logic behind Wiki Bibliographies: Organizing material into collectible subjects
Online book selling is tied to dated technology and assumptions that no longer apply. We live in a faster paced world that the rare book field will adapt to or face continuing decline. The good news is that the solution won't be difficult.
More than ten years ago online book selling services emerged as the next alternative for booksellers to increase sales. It was the most significant new tool for booksellers since trade shows emerged in the 1950s and book trade magazines evolved into "wanted" and "offered" lists in the 1970s. Many dealers sold at shows, had shops or issued catalogues: a few used all of these approaches. Listing on-line became the next alternative in the early 1990's and more formally in 1994 as Interloc organized a for-the-trade service. Soon after a group of for-the-public listing sites opened. Online listing was not an overnight success but it was relatively simple and inexpensive. Marketers understood that if a bookseller had computerized inventory programmers could usually figure out how to move and format these records onto their much larger web-searchable databases where the knowledgeable could unearth otherwise difficult-to-find, hitherto mostly invisible, material. It was nothing short of a miracle: elegant and smart. No one knew how much inventory was out there but in time, we would learn.
As the book business was beginning to transform so too the public's interaction with and use of information online was evolving. News began to move seamlessly from yesterday's events in today's newspaper onto the net in something close to real time. Bank statements, credit card invoices and myriad other things that once arrived by mail now began to arrive by email. Doctor's appointments, hotel reservations and dinner options defined and mapped by neighborhood effortlessly entered our experience. In short, we succumbed to the internet's efforts at reorganizing our lives, accepting its conveniences and being altered by the experience. More than anything else it changed our expectations. The side effects of drugs, movie reviews, real estate for sale in distant cities, the schedule of the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace: one or two clicks and we have access or answers. We now routinely focus online on complex and arcane subjects, obtain information and move on. What was a miracle a few years ago has now become second nature and increased our expectations for all internet interaction.
The online experience however has been uneven. When the online masters of the universe take on a challenge a Google can define and broaden searches, Apple make telephone to internet connectivity easy and eBay turn a corner of the net into a world-wide internet garage sale.
By those standards, the book business, although online for almost 15 years, looks very out-of-date, even backward because it assumes knowledge as a prerequisite whereas today the animator is 'interest.' The roughly 20,000 booksellers who list today may have moved on-line but continue to assume collectors will spend inordinate time identifying material. Some do, most do not, for collectors are subject to the same rising expectations as the internet community at large. Today collectors want to spend their limited time considering interesting choices, not reading road maps to the next possibility. "Find my stars in the Milky Way" is what booksellers are hoping but potential book collectors see evidence of better organization in other fields and are, at the margin, drawn away. Two examples: coins and paintings. The bookseller today is too often
Reorganizing the Web for Bookselling
Endless searching diminishes interest.
passive and expects the buyer to be active but it simply happens less and less. Booksellers describe this phenomenon as the "death of traditional collecting" and to this they add, "there are no new collectors." They are half-right. New collectors abound but use their time efficiently and are less and less attracted to inordinately time intensive activities. The new mantra is 'waste my time and I'll go elsewhere.' Booksellers ask too much and as a result get less than they hope for. Too often today the bookseller is trying to sell to yesterday's customer.
To make the collection of works on paper easier [i.e. faster] the book business will adopt a subject-centric model based on online living bibliographies that are now possible because so much information is available. Many people are looking for specific subjects but it is not obvious to the world at large because they are not yet on the same page. They are on competing websites, dependent on their own knowledge and luck, spending their time searching rather than evaluating possible purchases. These new interactive bibliographies will be both complete and authoritative, bring a categorical perspective to each field and be neutral to all be they buyers or sellers. The communities they engender, built around shared interest in specific subjects based on an ever-increasing freely accessible bibliography that defines the subject, will significantly increase prices simply by aggregating demand. These bibliographies in time will include all books within a subject and date range. They will also include all known pamphlets, broadsides and ephemera. These Wikis will then everyday draw from across the globe all accessible material that matches or fits within the Wiki description and make it available to anyone who follows the subject: one place, always fresh, easy to follow.
Those who sign up to follow bibliographies will be able to track changes between sign-ins. Such memberships are free. Bibliographers have the option to maintain a blog, provide message boards and call for periodic [always voluntary] auctions based on rules provided by the bibliographer. Wiki communities are expected to attract a wide range of interest from 200 members on the low end to 2,000 on the high end and to take two years to reach maturity. Bibliographies will tend to be narrow because the material will potentially be deep. AE will support only one Wiki on any specific subject.
Wiki Bibliographies will rely on various databases initially and gradually evolve into a unique combination of authenticated discoveries including a significant amount of material that is undocumented today. Ephemera, broadsides and pamphlets will be as welcome and appropriate as books.
Associations and collectors, auction houses and dealers will organize many of the Wikis for there are benefits to organizing them. For associations it is an inexpensive way to make collections accessible, broaden membership and encourage gifts. For auction houses it's a way to manage what will eventually be specialized sales both to the community at large and more importantly, the wiki's own community. For dealers it's the opportunity to lead a community that follows and collects the very material they specialize in. Irrespective of background, we expect many of the bibliographers to emerge as expert if not the expert in their fields.
Reorganizing the Web for Bookselling
Separately on AE Monthly in the article 'Reorganizing the Web for Bookselling' we discuss the mechanics of the Wikis. They are a work in progress but emerge as the next big thing for the rare book business, the online structure that delivers information automatically within a subject-centric model in a way that permits busy collectors to slip in and out as they have time and to, in a matter of minutes, bring themselves up-to-date.
Today we know that what began with a few thousand titles as an interesting online used and collectible book listing experiment in 1994 has become something more than one hundred sixty million items online and now demands a new approach for at least the collectible books. The field has grown beyond large databases to the next generation: reductive pooling of resources.
For a closer look at Wikis as the first of them emerge click here.
If you would like to propose a wiki click here to contact us. We'll begin a discussion.
Here is a list of subjects that are already under agreement and in most cases under construction:
1. 17th Century American Imprints
2. Chess: It's Your Move
3. Cotton Mather
4. Isaac Newton
5. Joel Munsell, Albany Printer
6. John James Audubon: Prints on Paper
7. Lucy Maud Montgomery [1874-1942]
8. Maps of New York
9. Marcus Aurelius - Translations and Comments on his Thoughts
10. Paraclete Potter, Poughkeepsie Printer
11. Pre-1860 American Pocket Maps
12. Rondout & Kingston, New York
13. Texas Maps
14. The "Book Hospital"
15. The Hudson River: Life on the Water
16. The Mexican-American War: 1840-1854
17. The Texas Revolution and Republic to 1845
18. The War of 1812
19. Zamorano Eighty
Here is a link to an article on Wiki functionality [Wikis Come into Focus] in this issue of AE Monthly.