Perspective on Books and the Net
Sometimes the future is right there in front of you
By Bruce McKinney
These days the world of collectible books is a warren of categories - on line listings, shops on Main Street, catalogues on line and through the mail, presentations at trade shows, and auctions, both traditional and eBay. These categories function independently. They sell to different customers - dividing the world of rare and collectible books into a mosaic of hundreds if not thousands of pieces.
The scale of the venues for old and collectible books is exponentially increasing, the number of dealers, number of books, the number of auction houses and sales all increasing. Some aspects of book selling however are declining. Shops, catalogues and shows are all fewer or less.
Overall the quantity of material is up, and continuing to rise, while the number of primary selling channels, the number of listing sites, shops, and shows down. Succinctly stated, there is more material to sell and fewer cost efficient options for disposing of it. The powerful alternatives are group options and their fees increasing. It's not only more difficult to sell, it's also more expensive.
The increasing volume of listings is not only depressing sales, it's reducing prices. Listings seem to increase geometrically, buyers arithmetically. "Collectible," a term long defined by dealers [to their advantage], is now defined in the marketplace. The loss of control over the defining of "collecting" is and will be deeply destructive to many sellers.
The market, as weak as it is, is actually weaker than it appears because various categories of selling - the shops, shows and catalogues are separate universes; their tribulations recorded only as distant thunder. Their realities are understood often only via informal statistics and impressions. Their customers buy based on convenience, friendship, and special payment terms, view books more as a whim, less as an investment. No one knows how much and for how long such trade will continue, only that it is declining. These areas seem somewhat age related. These are the approaches to book buying that older people prefer but it's not yet certain the next generation, who today overwhelmingly prefer time and cost efficient pursuits, will adopt them. It seems unlikely.
Its now more than ten years since the internet emerged and long submerged inventories began to surface. Today the destruction of the traditional book business is well underway. What lies ahead?
It seems likely that the listing sites, that are undermining traditional selling alternatives, will in time also perish - all to be replaced by a single search [if not a single site] of at least 250 million items that, in providing a single search, will galvanize book buyers by finally simplifying the task of finding material. Multiple selling sites are understandable to booksellers but time consuming and arcane to/for book buyers. It looks to them like a dumb game, a variation of how the Japanese number street addresses in sequential order by date of construction.
Perspective on Books and the Net
For listing sites is there light at the end of the tunnel or...
In the course of aggregating all listings on a commission-free basis the difference between common and rare, collectible and casual will emerge, defined by 'listing time' and price. The length of time an item is listed at a specific price IS RELEVANT, the current ever-green listing approach absurd. Items remain posted for years.
In a single search copies will be stacked up like cord wood. Indexes of interest will emerge for every title and edition and they will determine value based on several factors: number of copies, number of days posted, relevance to collecting spheres as defined by Wiki Bibliographies and other similar approaches. In this environment, the power to set prices will shift from the seller to the market.
The single financial incentive to organize/promote this universal index of works on paper available for sale is going to be the opportunity to handle the credit card processing. Given the scale of the project, the credit card processing should be reward enough and probably be the lowest available online. The identity of the seller will be transparent, the incentive for buyer and seller to use the payment system its low cost.
Elsewhere in this issue of AE Monthly Mike Stillman has written an article, Browsers as Servers: Is Change Coming to Bookselling?, that may provide a glimpse of the future of the "unified search." For listing sites proxi-servers may be their poison. It will soon becomes possible to bypass listing sites by the use of proxi-servers, software that emulates a server and permits material from anyone with internet access to have their material become visible in a single search.
It's logically a Google or Microsoft project, possibly even a project done on behalf of the ALA or a worldwide library group. It could rekindle the relationship between libraries and books by placing them at the epicenter of what the world of old and collectible books, and perhaps all books in time, will become. It would give booksellers back their primacy of place in book selling by restoring their visibility. It will not bring prices back to where they were, but for those items for which there is interest, it will create an efficient, low cost market that, by working for buyers, will work for sellers.