Modern Book Hustling?

by Craig Stark

#6, 17 November 2003

The Essence and Ethics of Online Salesmanship

Booksellers, as a lot, are reluctant salesmen. Certainly there are some who overheat their stuff, but for the most part we tend to be steady and quiet in our approach, responsibly avoiding editorializing in our descriptions and, when photographs are necessary, taking straightforward, no-nonsense shots. Maybe this has something to do with how we revere books, treating them as almost sacred objects (which the process of selling can only cheapen?). Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that booksellers are also serious readers of books, and serious readers are so often constitutionally restrained.

Whatever the reason, the problem with a conservative approach is that, while it discards one contemptible aspect of salesmanship, it can, if carried to an extreme, neglect another aspect that can be productive for both you and your buyers. We refer here, yet again, to the concept of adding value to your books.

Adding value can take any one of a number of forms, many of which we've already discussed in previous issues. If details about provenance (a book's history of ownership), the author's background, the historical context in which the book was written, a riveting passage which captures the spirit of a book in some essential sense, designations which establish edition state, etc., are carefully chosen and used with restraint in a description, they can add significant value to a book, much or all of which can be carried away with the purchase - in the buyer's mind - if not physically bagged with the book itself.

However, some of this makes some booksellers uneasy. Using these - what shall we call them? - devices, choosing one passage (or photograph) at the expense of a less stimulating one may, the conservative seller claims, distort the true picture. This seller, perhaps a reputable one with a high standing in the bookselling community, will be at a disadvantage if he uses a more clinical approach to sell the same book, and why should he be penalized for simply stating the facts? The facts are the truth, aren't they? It ain't fair.

A week or so ago we came across several auction listings of books that were photographed with bottles of beer. That's right. Pictures of books lying next to bottles of beer. Full bottles. Obviously there was some tongue-and-cheek stuff going on here, perhaps a clumsy attempt at symbolism as well, but it was interesting how this juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane seemed to affect the books themselves, in particular how it subtracted value from them despite our attempts to make allowances for what was going on, however witless the whole business struck us as. Not surprisingly, none of the books had attracted any bids, but we think it's also unlikely that this sort of presentation would have attracted any criticism either, particularly as it concerns ethical matters. The thinking is, it's ok to make books look worse than they really are. If these books had sold for high amounts in spite of this, well, it would've been good fun.

There's an inconsistency here that's worth looking at closely. Obviously, a book can be placed in a variety of contexts, both textual and illustrative, that will affect how a potential buyer perceives it for better or worse, but there seems to be a prevailing notion that, if the book is placed in a favorable light, it's somehow unethical in the same sense that an aggressive sales pitch from a used car salesman raises questions of ethics.

But is it? It's easy to forget that there are two animals afoot - good salesmanship and bad salesmanship. The former is characterized by the intent to add value to the product being sold; the latter is so obsessed with making the sale that the end justifies the means, which in turn creates a breeding ground for deception.

Deception is the acid test. If it's there, it's unethical. If you approach salesmanship - specifically, book photography - clinically, using near-colorless, neutral backgrounds and shadow-less floodlighting, you may feel you've adhered to high standards of ethics and professionalism, but if the outcome doesn't replicate how you yourself perceive the book or how the book typically presents itself on a shelf, are you being any more honest than the seller who hits you over the head with it?

If you care about a book - and you're selling it - it makes sense to express your positive opinions of it in some way that will carry over to the next owner. Some of the best teachers do just this with books; they express their affection for a book in such a way as to inspire a similar response from their students. No one would argue that this doesn't have important and lasting value. Why should booksellers be prohibited from doing the same thing? Both end up with a paycheck honestly earned.

The vehicle for the above expression can be either textual or illustrative, of course, and both types can be deceiving or not, depending. An attractively photographed book isn't a lie because it presents a book in a favorable light. If it deliberately conceals flaws, it most certainly is, no matter how it's photographed, but if it presents the book in such a way as to enhance its strengths, why, then strengths it has, and the sooner your buyer sees them too, the better.

Here's the crucial thing that sellers so often don't get: the reason that books look different in different contexts is that they are different. It doesn't matter that they were printed by the same publisher at the same time with the same paper and binding materials. It doesn't matter that they are in exactly the same condition at the moment of sale. A book is what it is because of where it is - the context it lives in.

If you buy the book next to the beer bottle, no matter how you later attempt to disarm things, it will still be the book that lived next to the beer bottle. When it's on your shelf, it will forever remind you of its troubled past. Yes, you can add something of value to it yourself, but this will be in spite of its past; you will never be able to hide it. The best you can hope for is a faded memory. Yes, you can sell it, choose not to divulge to your buyer that it was a book with a beer bottle brother, and this may enable the next owner to hold a more favorable view of it, to see it as more valuable, but if this happens, it's only because it indeed has become more valuable to the new owner by virtue of you adding value to it. It's a different book because it's lived with you, passed through your hands, never once hobnobbed with a beer bottle, and moved on to a new place with the specific value you've chosen to add to it.

The best salesman is the one who can take a book and make something more of it. This is the essence of good salesmanship. If the seller does this honestly, the added value is transferred to the buyer. This isn't a game of mirrors. It's as real as rain. Buyers will pay more for added-value books because they are more valuable. If you reject this concept, then it's very likely you'll continue to scratch your head when you see books you've sold yourself go for much higher prices than you could have ever hoped to attract yourself.

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Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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