AE Monthly

Articles - February - 2006 Issue

Clearing Up One Issue

Clearingup.

Cotton candy in the steak house?


By Bruce McKinney

Internet book listing sites have emerged over the past decade as enormous bazaars where trinkets and gems sit side-by-side and buyers and sellers bid and haggle around the clock. It is a fascinating development that is transforming the field and creating unparalleled opportunities for sellers to list and collectors to buy. Books of every age and description are available and old and used books a small part of this.

Material that comes out of the attic, garage and basement heads off to market in search of a return measured against ZERO is almost always successful because expectations are low. Sellers on eBay may sell a $400 item for $40 but feel no regret because they had no idea of the actual value and no way to get it if they did. For them $40 is a practical outcome. More knowledgeable sellers post their material on listing sites. It's more work and the outcome always in doubt but more than 20,000 sellers list this way today so there is something to it.

The listing sites offer a one size fits all approach that works against the more knowledgeable sellers. They know their material and describe it carefully. They add history and discuss rarity. Most importantly they price it. This information is then out there for anyone to read including other sellers who see the comparative weakness in their descriptions, rewrite them using the material they find in the searches they run to see their own volumes on line, and then re-price their book according to how it compares to knowledgeable sellers' copies. After a while all copies start to sound the same. They are not. In person the differences are apparent. On the net they are not.

One of the challenges today for the listing sites is to develop a way to segment the book market into its various constituencies while continuing to provide searches that look alternatively at the entire database or specific parts of it. This of course will require sellers to know a lot about not only what they are selling but how it fits into the larger picture because this will be their responsibility to select appropriate categories. This very issue makes it apparent why the sites are loath to view the market as anything but a bazaar. It's hard to know and difficult to teach. Nevertheless, development in this area is called for.

If the bazaar mentality is unfair to dealers who carefully prepare descriptions it is absurdly kind to sellers who sell not books but simply photocopies of their pages. Because Abe does not differentiate by type-of-material-offered a search for early material also brings up photocopies of it. This may help the listing sites that accept this trafe increase both their numbers of listings and listing revenues but it leaves the site user wondering if there are ANY listing standards. A bazaar setting is one thing, bazaar listings another.

This issue will in time be resolved either by eliminating this type of listing or more likely forcing such material into a category that can, at user discretion, be deselected. The ability to eliminate this material from search results should be a once and done process rather than a button that has to be reset for each search. I run possibly 10,000 searches a year on ABE and want to eliminate this material with one click.

For my fellow collectors who prefer photocopies there should be an option to see ONLY photocopies. Then we'll all be happy.

AE Monthly


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