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Why Bookselling Isn't Working For You

by Craig Stark

#33, 20 December 2004

Part IV: Tortoises, Hares and the Southern Sandbur

First, a promise. I'll be done with this hyper-extended baseball metaphor - and probably this series - soon. Maybe today! But before I move onto something else, one more story. Several years ago, near the end of a baseball practice in late November, something pretty damn freakish happened. Or at least it looked freakish until we figured out what had really happened. It was early evening, cold (for Florida), the sun had just set, and the western sky was a deep, brooding orange. Practice, in other words, should have been over, but there was a problem.

Essentially, our practices consisted of non-stop competition. Two solid, intense hour's worth. At the beginning of each season, I divided the team into two evenly-matched practice teams which competed against each other in drills or skill-focused scrimmages for the rest of the year. Both individual and team scores were given for almost every measurable activity, added up at the end of practice, and the winning team climbed into the back of my pickup truck, drank ice cold Gator-Aid, and (sometimes, unfortunately, with overtly expressed self-satisfaction) watched the other team pick up equipment, garbage, etc. It didn't come up often, but sometimes things ended in a tie. Since I only brought drinks for half the players, a tie couldn't stand, and a short playoff was then necessary to get to a wininer.

Well, as I said, we were already running late that night, and it was nearly dark. The playoff had to be both safe (not involving a baseball) and almost instantly decisive. The only thing I could think of - dumb, not especially fair, but at least definitive - was a foot race. I quickly lined up both teams on the first base line and gave them their instructions: "run to the sidewalk that borders left field, touch it, and run back. Whoever comes in first wins the practice for his team." Simple, huh?

If only. First, no sooner were the words out of my mouth, and there was a delay. Somebody wanted to take his shoes off (so he could run faster). Other players, of course, weren't about to concede this advantage, so they took their shoes off too. Most of them. Three players didn't - not surprisingly, our slowest runners. I'm sure they were thinking that it was pointless to run barefooted across several hundred yards of cold, fire-ant infested turf if the odds of a payoff were near infinitely long.

Anyway - finally - everybody who wanted to be shoeless was shoeless, and I barked a fast "Ready! Set! Go!" They were off, stampeding like a herd of spooked cattle, thumping hard across the infield, breathing smoke from their mouths, and, in the next moment, thundering into short left field. It was impressive. You could actually feel the pounding under your feet. Then it happened. About 15 or 20 steps beyond the baseline between second and third base, suddenly, all at once, eight of them went down. And I do mean down. Hard. It was almost as if they'd been strafed with machine gun fire. Two or three of them rolled, attempted to get back up and go on, only to take a few steps and go down again. Some grabbed their feet. Most were moaning. Meanwhile, the three runners who'd kept their shoes on, continued running to the sidewalk, turned, and headed back, having to dance their way carefully though a gauntlet of fallen teammates before sprinting to the finish line. The tortoises had won again.

No question, for one brief moment I was alarmed - and other parents were too - but this concern, fortunately, was short lived. When one of the still-trod runners came up to me, gasping for air, he shouted one word: "Sandburs!"

The Southern sandbur, in case you aren't familiar with it, is, in my opinion, one of the South's, if not this planet's, most noxious weeds. Oddly enough, it looks pretty harmless when it pops up in the Spring - actually, it's difficult to distinguish from grass - but give it a few months, and it shoots up a stalk that's packed solid with green, spiked balls that can puncture just about anything they come into contact with. By fall, these green balls have turned brown - and hardened. And sharpened. Step on one of these in your bare feet, and it can bring you to your knees. The sandbur also has a tendency to grow and spread in patches. I hadn't noticed it until then, but there was one mother of a patch of it in left field.

Yes, there are lots of variations of Aesop's "The Tortoise and the Hare" fable, but this one, I think, is especially interesting because it illustrates something that the original version didn't: tortoises can win even when hares are running as fast as they can.

Think about this in terms of bookselling. Several years ago, it was so easy to make a living at online bookselling that many booksellers seized the moment and simply ran with it as fast as they could - buying anything they could get their hands on and almost instantly flipping it for a profit on eBay. In a sense, it was mindless. Competitive, very, but nonetheless mindless. You used your instincts to buy stuff (and they were almost always right back then because there wasn't much that didn't sell), and over time your instincts got better. So did your sales. When you weren't buying books, you were busy selling them - spending entire days writing descriptions, emailing buyers, packaging books, and so on. It was a heady time, but not in the sense, if you know what I mean, that heads were being used.

Inevitably, things changed, and what was once a walk in the park is now aggravatingly difficult, and many of the "hare" booksellers have met the same fate my baseball hares did. Caught up in the heat of the moment, it didn't occur to them to take anything protective with them - in this case, book knowledge. The consequences have been crippling. It wasn't apparent at the time, but over time it's become very clear that the race they were running was what we've all come to know of as the race to the bottom, not the race to the top.

As prices on most common books have plunged, their ignorance has now come into full view, and "slower," more knowledgeable booksellers are passing them by. Frankly, I think many of these hares are in denial. They refuse to acknowledge the fact that they've learned next to nothing about books as books because they've focused almost exclusively on the process of selling them. For the most part they don't know why some books sell for a good price and some don't. What the best ones are. Where to find them. Heck, how to spot them once you put yourself under the roof that houses them. Nor do they seem to appreciate that this knowledge constantly changes. Knowledge isn't easy stuff, and it's certainly not the stuff of instinct. It comes only at a price.

I think it's human nature to assume that you know what you're doing when things are going well and, conversely, to blame external, inexorable factors (too many books, too few buyers) when things start going south. Lately, I've been hearing "reasons" other than market glut postulated as well - without exception, of course, based on phenomena that we can do absolutely nothing about. On the surface, I must admit, some of them are almost irresistibly plausible. Example: WWII books and ephemera don't do as well as they once did because so many collectors (i.e., WWII veterans) have reached an age where they are dying off in large numbers. This, in turn, simultaneously creates a diminished demand and, because their estates are being sold off as well, a glut of books and ephemera. Also, there's this exacerbating factor: so much near definitive WWII scholarship has been published in the last 10 or 20 years that these newer books have more or less trumped or obsolesced the content of older titles.

Similar things are being said about other once overheated niches.

Discouraged? Why? Even if this theory is true - personally, I think it's a pack of half truths - so what. If WWII memorabilia is cooling off, move. Go somewhere hot. Don't know where that is? Then where are we? Back to the original point: you can't win the race without book knowledge. Look, if you've had success in the past and find yourself struggling now, it ain't the market. It's you. How do I know this? Because not everybody is struggling. If you read book forums, I think it's too damn easy to get the wrong idea about your prospects because there's so much lamentation now about how good things used to be - and can never be again. But keep in mind that these prophets of doom are made up entirely of the sellers who are struggling. Successful sellers have nothing to complain about. They're selling books and, consequently, don't have time to post long, agonizingly speculative notes about their demise.

Ok. Here's the deal we have for you: if you like bookselling, if you want to stay with it, make some money at it, stay with us. Every week (sometimes more often), we add content to the BookThink website or distribute it via newsletters (e.g., the Gold Edition and 50/50). Though some of this content is only marginally related to bookselling as such, most of it is proven bookselling knowledge. As the market changes, so changes the content. If it isn't useful to you one week, the next week it might be, and so on until we hit your bull's eye. And with so many arrows flying, week after week, I guarantee that targets will be hit.

So, if you've spent your last ounce of bookselling energy on the race to the bottom, stop, pause to get your breath, and join us in the race to the top. Oh - and one last thing: no shoes, no service!

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