The Future of Bookselling
By Bruce McKinney
Alice Through the Looking Glass
The purchase and sale of rare and collectible books that has been, since the Gutenberg era always improving, now approaches the moment when printed material in all its forms assumes an entirely new structure for research, listing and purchase online. The changes coming are the product of three forces:  vastly increased online inventory,  a decline in personal contact between bookseller and book buyer and  and the requirement that collectors be able to follow, without penalty, their fields as they evolve from day to day. The world of books on line has been structured for the convenience of sellers. In this new world it will be structured for the convenience of buyers.
Personal contact, if not personal relationships, have been at the heart of book collecting, for great collections are often the combination of a dealer's knowledge and a collector's ambition. The dealer's knowledge of what to buy and how to value it and the collector's ambition and financial capability, when working together in an atmosphere of trust are the ingredients usually present in the building of great collections.
Today, throughout the world of books, the great lament is that the next generation of great collectors has yet to appear. They are out there.
Over the past twenty years the speed at which we live has increased and we are all drawn into a faster paced life. We read less, command broader perspectives, manage businesses with fewer people and more automation, vacation further from home, select restaurants in distant cites, read their reviews, make reservations and send confirmations quickly and very matter of factly. These are all aspects of busier, more complex lives. Elements of daily life that have adjusted as we have changed have remained as part of who we are and what we do. Functions that have been slow to change have simply seen their place in the pecking order decline. The book business has been both very fast and very slow to adjust and as a consequence has lost some standing.
The book business has gone online and now suffers from an overwhelming inventory that continues to increase at the rate of 10,000 items every day. For booksellers to post inventory online is an easy decision. It is both simple and relatively cheap. It's also increasingly ineffective because online listing sites assume that collectors know what they are looking for. They do but often only in a general way. In the past collectors' general interests were converted by skilled dealers into specific selections. Today collectors more and more look online themselves. They do it but it is time consuming, often raising thorny questions and too often diminishing enthusiasm. The collector wants to collect but it surprisingly difficult to do so in a time efficient, pleasing way.
The way to overcome the inherent inefficiency of huge searches and large undifferentiated search results is, rather than to send collectors out to search, its to bring all appropriate material within a collection or collector focus onto a single screen and to organize it in a way consistent with how collectors live their busy lives: compartmentalized.
To do this a collecting bibliography is created and material that matches the bibliographic listings brought onto it. A way to structure this is the wiki bibliography which is simply a living [that is, ever-changing] bibliography that encompasses all know material within a field. The bibliography exists as a vertical plane numbering two, perhaps even three thousand items within a collecting focus. Each item has a horizontal plane on which ephemeral listings on eBay and at traditional auctions create short-lived matches that create live links while the material is up for bid. Further along the plane are examples in AE's Books for Sale and other sites that link their listings to these Wiki Bibliographies. As well, for AE research and premium members bibliographic, auction and historic dealer catalogs are linked for price and rarity reference. It's an going cooperative that is everyday updated.
The Future of Bookselling
These bibliographies are the products of collectors, dealers, auction houses and societies that partner with AE to create and manage these sites and the communities that arise from them.
AE has enormous bibliographic resources which begin with the AED so looking back is always the first way to understand the scale of a subject. For many subjects, the bibliographies created on AE will be the first, in other cases simply an advance on what has been known. To what is created at the outset any passerby can propose additional items for consideration. The bibliographies that already exist are primarily for books. Pamphlets are woefully under-represented and ephemera hardly known. In these Wiki bibliographies we expect the unreported material will eventually change what is generally known about most fields. Hence, in time, such bibliographies will, while creating a unified market by subject, also transform our understanding about it.
Because people are busy such wikis must be easy to follow. Anyone can sign up as a free member of AE and then be able to select any number of Wikis to follow. Whenever a member returns we'll provide an update of changes whether it's additions to the bibliography, items appearing on eBay, at traditional auctions and on listing sites. In a matter of minutes, collectors will understand everything that has occurred since they last looked. And it will empower them to collect.
Given time collectors will develop a perspective on the flow, level of prices and the type[s] of material that come to market and learn to recognize relevance, rarity and value when it presents itself. They will become educated collectors and be confident in what they do.
For the wiki organizer there are substantial benefits. Each Wiki will be a community, each person, who signs up to follow a Wiki, a member. The organizer will have access to the statistics of sign-ups, frequency of sign-ins, and will know how people are using the community. Anyone's appropriate material can be posted for sale and no commissions on the Wiki will be charged although sites that charge commissions and link their listings will charge their regular fees to their clients. No one will be excluded unless complaints are made and proven. This is an open site.
The Wiki organizer may, at their discretion, call for periodic auctions and, in time, organize events where people bound by interest in a specific subject may exchange pleasantries, information or cash. Such events may be organized around auctions.
We envision three possible forms of auction and the decisions whether and how to will be made by the Wiki organizer. They can be sequenced as an eBay sale, perhaps a once year event coordinated with eBay, be organized with a designated traditional auction house or run as a Dutch auction a la University of Michigan. Auctions should help to establish market valuation and to clear accumulating listings. Auctions are voluntary both for the organizer and those listing their material on the Wiki.
The Future of Bookselling
This month we are introducing the control panel for Wiki Bibliographers. For members with whom we have reached an agreement on subjects their AE screens now include links to their Wiki controls. This month, for the first time, non-AE personnel will be creating bibliographies. We will only support a single Wiki within a subject focus. That said, most Wikis are relatively narrow. Some will run to 7,000, even 10,000 items but they will be broken into a parts so that, for collectors, they are manageable.
Among the subjects already agreed:
American Pocket Maps to 1860
Audubon Books and Prints
Original Currier & Ives
Paraclete Potter, Poughkeepsie Printer
Rondout & Kingston, New York
Important Texas Maps
The California Gold Rush
19th Century Women in the West
17th century American imprints
The "Book Hospital."
Joel Munsell, Albany Printer
To be a Wiki Bibliographer you need to be a member. For most members that's an Octavo membership and includes all AE services and control over the Wiki Bibliography[ies] you are managing.
Link to Wiki Bibliography Home Page.
Link to Rondout Kingston, New York