Buffalo Medicine Books
The Auction Experience
One thing about writing a column for your own website is that you can pretty much talk about anything you want, express any opinion, criticize the social order, rail about any injustice. Then hope somebody cares to read what you write. A little more than two months ago I made one of those electronic leaps that the times are forcing on us all; first the answering machine (bad enough) then the fax (do I really need it?) then the computer itself, selling books on-line through ABE (The death of the bookstore? The end of book fairs?) and now, the final sellout, on-line auctions.
With the on-line auction I have finally found no-man's land, the primal market place, the true dog-eat-dog commercial wilderness. A place where caveat emptor is more than a Latin phrase, it is a battle cry. Buyer (and seller) beware in a no holds barred catfight deadlier than the OK Corral, bigger than Little Big Horn--Againcourt with mustard gas. Survival of the fittest begins to take on a whole new meaning.
Anyone with a computer and a phone line is an instant entrepreneur; an antique store, book emporium, art gallery, whatever the imagination desires, no experience or scruples required. And I've got a news flash for PT Barnum: You really underestimated the American desire to be bamboozled. On-line auctions are the flim-flam man's answer to heaven. Millions of eager buyers are begging for a chance to "win" an auction, regardless of the cost. While a large percentage of sellers, like me, are just trying to reach a larger audience with a legitimate product, there are an astonishing number of con men in cyberspace.
A friend of mine, who does lots more auctions than I and has been on-line far longer, simply shrugs it off-mostly ignorance, he insists. But I have encountered some interesting things. The anonymity of the nickname is an interesting phenomenon for starters. What is the need for facelessness, a disguise, or a mask in a business transaction? Must be part of the game. Then the secret password-well, you need some control. But then you can take a new nom de guerre every time the old one is simply too tarnished. E-mail addresses are hardly difficult to come by, just keep on the electronic move. I love the young man who has Granny as his nickname.
And there is no question that ignorance is rampant. Most of the people selling books-by far the majority-don't even know the standard terminology. It is standard practice to describe the book in terms of its dimensions and the color of its binding. Almost never is a publisher given, only occasionally a date-more common if the book is more than twenty years old. Ink names on flyleaves, price clipping and torn pages are seldom mentioned; ex-library damage is never mentioned. The standard caveat of "e-mail me with any questions you have" is ridiculous. How could you even try to list every possible flaw, printing question, or other potential hazzard?
One regular seller begins all of his auctions with "I don't know much about books but I think this is a first edition, " then he mentions the original date of publication, while selling seriously damaged G&D reprints that wouldn't bring two bucks at a Goodwill store. I know for a fact that at least five people have informed him that Grossett and Dunlap was a reprint house almost exclusively. The real horror of his merchandise is the condition it's in.
Another regular says "My grandma died recently and left me these books. I don't know much about them, but they've been on the shelf a real long time." They turn out to be more walking wounded D&G crappers. And granny really had a lot of strange books in her library. OK, some of this is just funny, and it doesn't take long to get wise to it. But the real villain in my story is the hosting institution. Obviously E-bay and Amazon are providing a service, for which they charge, and with which they expect to make a profit. They disclaim any responsibility for anything, including keeping their sites up and running on a regular basis.
Both of these host site offer ratings by both customer and seller known as "feedback" but it won't take you long to learn that NOBODY, EVER leaves negative feedback, no matter how bad the other party behaves, because the injured party simply smacks you with return negative feedback, which can never be modified nor removed, no matter how spurious, unfair, nonsensical, untrue or undeserved it is. Furthermore, there is nothing to keep the disgruntled party from doing it over and over again as many times as they like and have the energy for. I currently have one of these going, having been pushed beyond the limit. Not only did the seller lie about the book, in several ways, pack it so poorly it was further damaged, and demand postal money order only, which is an additional expense, but they threatened me as well. I knew I shouldn't do it, but I couldn't help myself. E-bay doesn't even answer my e-mail any more.
In just two short months I've had no-pay bid winners, doctored scans, all sorts of misrepresentation. One silly purchase-yes, I bid on strange things late at night-was advertised as a "photo" movie still from "Treasure of the Sierra Madre", but when it came, not only was it a large repro postcard, he didn't even bother to send one from the right movie. "Photograph" means anything that has a picture not drawn by hand. "First Edition" means it was published at some time. "Vintage" means the ink is dry. "Real Photo Postcard" seems to apply to anything in black and white and some color if it is shiny. "Rare" means the seller hasn't had one before, or hopes you didn't see it when he did. Misspellings are so ubiquitous they don't even bear mention.
Malapropisms could be construed as funny if they weren't so pathetic. Tony Hillerman might be surprised to find out that Lieutenant Leapfrog is the main character in his book "Sacred Cows." But most of the spelling errors, bad grammar and misinformation smacks more of a Hillbilly factor of 9.5 to 10. (My apologies to the Hillbillies.)
What is to be done? Nothing, I suppose. I hope the irritation factor doesn't drive me off the net in disgust. David Brown of Bookline recently reported his experiences selling some books at auction and his observation was that the books tended not to reach actual retail value, but the sale was immediate. I have found it difficult to sell anything over fifty dollars in value unless I'm willing to take less than wholesale. Putting huge reserves on items doesn't seem to help because they simply won't sell. Besides, I find hidden reserves annoying when bidding myself.
Will all of this change the book business? Too late, it already has, along with Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, bookselling sites like ABE and Bibliofind and all the rest. But if you want a quality book in fine condition without being ripped off you'll still need to see a genuine specialty bookseller-or have really thick skin, deep pockets and a taste for bizarre adventure. On the other hand, look at some of the weird and wonderful stuff I've found by free association in the "search" box at 2:30 am.
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