Monday, June 05, 2006

How the Databases are Ruining the Book Business

This will not be the usual plaintive wail you have seen other places about the Big Bad Databases. I like the databases. For the most part they make my job of locating good books easier. But there is also a downside, and that downside is represented by IGFs- Ignorant Greedy Fucks.

A quick story will illustrate. Last year I was buying books from one of my usual private sources, an ex-antiques dealer selling off her library. The last book she brought she laid proudly in front of me and proclaimed- "I'll bet you don't know what this is worth!"

I looked at the book, an uncommon and good silver title, and said "As a matter of fact I do, because I just sold a copy. $750."

"No, No," she said smiling. "It's worth $5000!"

"Um, no," I said, frowning, "it's not."

Upon returning to the office I found the source of the problem- a copy listed on a major database for $5000. Now let's get real- I have been selling books in the very specialized field of the decorative arts for 25 years. We deal with major collectors, dealers and institutions. I know and monitor the other specialists in my field. That book was worth $750.

Yet one ignorant idiot, with pretensions of grandeur almost spoiled my opportunity to buy a saleable book at a fair price (fortunately my seller had faith in me, and I got the book).

But the plague continues. Just today I got a want-match on an out of print 1990s furniture book which is, possibly, on a good day, with a tailwind, worth $1000, and the price was $4500. I've sold 17th century decorative arts books for that price.

That's all fine and well- it's a free country after all, except that other dealers use the databases to price. How much do you want to bet that a new copy comes up tomorrow for $3000, that dealer also being ignorant, and thinking to undercut the current price? I love dealers undercutting other dealers prices, except where the original price was hatched in a crack dream. And not long in the future I will have that price quoted to me by a collector looking to sell.

What can be done? Not a damn thing that I can see. There have always been dealers, like this one, who simply add an extra digit to the highest number they can think of. The problem is that, with the internet, everyone else takes their cue from those fantasy prices. The other ethical problem is what if someone actually pays that price? I know, I know, a "fair price" is determined by a willing seller and informed buyer, but the key here is "informed". Everyone in the book business knows that many buyers are not informed. A certain Ebay seller has made a fortune taking advantage of uniformed and deep-pocketed buyers. Does that make it right? The greedy preying on the ignorant?

I dunno.

But it's a problem.

What's Veronica Lake have to do with all this? Nothing, I'm just a fan, and they were talking about her on Biblio the other day.


catalyst said...

Uniformed buyers? Naahhh, I never sell anything to anyone wearing a uniform.

But seriously, Colonel, dealing with those people who have that "rare and expensive book" which they're just willing to part with for you only is one thing I don't miss about having an open bookstore anymore.

Phoebe Fay said...

Someday, somehow, Veronica Lake will make it all okay.

Until then... it simply is a very fucked up world.

CKW said...

I have one book that doesn't even come close to rare. The complete far side collection, first printing. I love those books. Best stuff ever written.

Ya know if you read it backwards it reads like shakespear

or a john denver song depending on your mood.