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How to Build an Effective
eBay Presentation

Part II: What Your Buyer Wants to Know from You
Textual Content

by Craig Stark

#45, 20 June 2005

Last week I spent over 4 hours putting together an eBay auction presentation. A personal record for me, and if I hadn't had both OCR and voice-recognition software to speed up the process, I'm sure that I would've logged closer to six or seven hours. I spent part of that time reading the contents of one of the items in the auction lot (in this case, a necessary task because it was a one of a kind deal, unknown to virtually any prospective buyer), part of it researching questions that came up during my reading, another part taking and editing 15 pictures; and, finally, there was a 1200+ word description to write, some of which included transcribing over a dozen excerpts. Yesterday, by extreme contrast, I spent an hour and a half on 24 auctions - less than 4 minutes apiece.

It both cases, the time I spent was appropriate. Clearly, there's no one-size-fits-all approach to selling on eBay. Some items can be almost instantly presented with a single picture and one line of text. Others demand several pictures and a more extensive description. A few call for much, much more.

Of course, you can get by with a one-picture/one-line presentation for everything you sell, and many sellers do. You may recall that I discussed one type of seller who does this - the flipper - in issue #13 of the Gold Edition. Flippers believe that they can make up in volume what they lose by using bare-bones presentations. To some extent, no doubt, they do, but overall, if the items they're selling are of a better than average quality, they come out well behind sellers who build well-chosen textual (and photographic) detail into their listings. I confirm this almost every week: I frequently buy inventory from them, then resell it in exactly the same venue - eBay.

Another type of seller (also discussed in #13) is the clueless seller. Clueless sellers may take the minimalist approach because they don't know any better. Or don't feel up to the task of describing something they know little or nothing about. Or assume that buyers will be willing and able to fill in the missing details for themselves - i.e., do the work of researching based on scant information. Sometimes it's almost heartbreaking to watch a poorly-presented book sell for far less than it should, especially when you sense that the seller is struggling to make a go of things and know that an investment of 10 or 15 additional minutes in the presentation would've netted another $50 or $100.

There are a few sellers who overdo it too - build too much labor into something that has low potential - but you can protect yourself against falling into this trap by listing only items that you can be fairly certain will sell for $30, $40 or more. $10 or $20 books should be sent packing to fixed-price venues, where it's rarely necessary to build much labor into anything.

Again, as I did in Part I of this series, I'm going to look at this from the perspective of what the buyer needs to know from the seller. It can be next to nothing or a lot, depending, and here are two examples that will illustrate many of the factors that will point you in one direction or the other. Whatever you do, don't build a presentation on the basis of what's convenient or painless for you. Build it for the buyer. If you believe that accommodating the buyer will require an investment of time that doesn't justify the likely return, then eBay isn't the place to sell what you have. It's time to send it to a fixed- price venue.

Ok, first example. If you have a first printing of The Da Vinci Code - a book that sells on eBay for $100 or more time and time again - you certainly have the luxury of being able to spend some time on a presentation, but it would be foolish to spend more than a few moments on textual content (or a great deal of time on anything overall).

The great majority of buyers could care less if you include, say, a synopsis of the story because this book has such a high profile. Even if fiction has a lower profile, it's rarely productive to summarize the contents, and only then when you've been able to identify a significant flashpoint. Far better to write a line or two of condition notes and issue points and leave it at that, and even that won't be necessary if you've included several photographs that establish both. This is what the buyer wants. This and no more. So what if the entire presentation process only takes a few minutes. Be glad that you can profit so much from so little and move on. There are plenty of books that do require substantial work, some almost too much.

One such book would be (I'm grabbing something at random from an inventory shelf) Some History of Lawrence County (South Dakota).

Profiles don't get much lower than this. Most local history books have printings in the hundreds, not hundreds of thousands, so it's very unlikely that your buyers will know much, if anything, about their contents going in. Many of them won't even know that the book existed before seeing your presentation. Therefore, it's your job to give them a good idea of what's happening between the covers, both illustratively and textually - and there's a lot happening with this title. 724 pages. Hundreds of photographs.

There are two questions that need to be answered before you fire up the scanner. What kind of information should you include? And how much?

The answers will depend to some extent on the book itself. It's difficult to take more than what it will readily give you. If, for example, there's no table of contents, no list of illustrations, no index, and the chapter headings are either absent or non-intuitive - and this does happen with some frequency in this niche - things won't be easy for you because scanning/OCR won't help. On the other hand, if all are present and, in the case of Some History of Lawrence County, there are 41 pages of family names in a 3-column, fine-print format, a 3-page general index, and a 1-page mining index, you'll have some tough decisions to make. There are space limitations on eBay listings, and you couldn't get it all in even if you wanted to.

The answers will also depend on what your buyers are likely looking for. In the case of local history books, some buyers will be seeking information to help them with genealogical research. Some buyers may simply have an interest in the history of their hometown. Other buyers may want to indulge feelings of nostalgia. Based on years of experience selling these kinds of books, I've formulated a prioritized list of five textual elements in order of their importance in helping bump up final values. For the most part (with the exception of surnames), most of the items in this list also apply to other non-fiction books.

  1. List of Illustrations. Hands down, the most important textual element you can include in a presentation for a local history book - for that matter, almost any book - is a list of illustrations. Nothing gets it done like a picture. As a practical matter, you can include only a few actual pictures in your presentation. After that, the next best thing is a list.

  2. List of Surnames. Understandably, buyers will want to know if members of their immediate family, more distant relatives, friends, etc., are mentioned in the book. Genealogists will have even deeper needs.

  3. List of Topics. Topics can be important too. Collectors - especially collectors - with an interest in farm machinery, ice harvesting, logging, mining, etc., will want to know if these topics are addressed.

  4. Index. An index is the next best thing to a topics list. The problem is that most indices contain significant amounts of extraneous words that must be removed.

  5. Table of Contents. Sometimes these adequately reveal content (especially in vintage books), often not, so this isn't always the strongest element. If it's not revealing, use it anyway if it's all you have.

  6. Excerpt. If your book won't deliver any of the above elements, consider using an excerpt - a telling paragraph or two that captures the essence of the book. Here's one, admittedly somewhat overblown, I included in a listing (accompanied by the illustration below) of Henry Farre's Sky Fighter's of France:

Night Raids

"How wonderful are the sensations felt in these night flights over the field of battle; lighted by its thousand fuse lights, bursting shells, and the lines of fire of the machine guns; you will remember, dear chief, having tasted something of this in the great days of Verdun, 1916, where you took part with us in the operations of that time.

"It is a spectacle of sublime and savage beauty, this to view a field of carnage by night. When the lines are passed and one engages, in his turn, in the great struggle, surrounded by the illuminating rockets, in the midst of bursting shells, crossed by the searchlight beams searching the heavens with its rays, and to extinguish it with a salvo from a machine gun, to do this without being blinded, then one feels an indescribable joy.

"When the end is in sight and the precise moment approaches when the projectiles are to be dropped, one realizes at once the amount of danger that had to be overcome in order to succeed; the fascination of firing, and finally that feeling of strong domination, of superiority over an enemy that one holds at his mercy, and that with a simple turn of the hand he can destroy or save. Such realization awakens the recollection of days gone before, and thrills one with joy in the work of destruction."

What this does gets you inside the mind of the pilot - and this is the essence of the book, its central selling point.

I think most of you will agree that a $30 to $50 per hour return on your time is something you can live with. Some History of Lawrence County is a $50 and up book. If you paid a buck or two for it, you can justifiably spend an hour on the presentation. Start with the first element. If there's time left, go to the second, and so on until the clock tells you to stop.

No matter which of the elements you decide to use, often they won't appear in a format that's immediately usable - in other words, there will be more to do than scan, perform OCR, and copy and paste content into your listing. Other elements will sometimes need to be culled. Topics lists, for example, can sometimes be culled from a table of contents (vintage local histories are more likely to have topic detail than more current publications), sometimes from an index, but rarely will they be presented in a usable list. Sometimes things will need to be culled by leafing through pages.

Some of you may already know where I'm going with this. If you have a book that demands a detailed presentation of textual content in your listing and yet forces you to leaf through pages to extract it, you have only two choices, neither of them especially good: one, spend the time anyway at the expense of other books you could be listing instead, or two, add a token amount of information and hope for the best. In the not-too-distant past, some of my presentations suffered mightily - especially those of local history books that were missing easily-scanned lists, etc. - because I couldn't justify spending the time to do the job right. As a result, I often opted for a third choice: don't list them at all. And guess what happened then? It would've been foolish to stop buying them because they so often had considerable value, so, when I got back to my office, I started tossing them on top of a bookcase to get them out of the way, hoping that a solution to the problem would arrive before the bookcase collapsed. This went on for at least a year, maybe more. I remember counting them once so I could have a clear idea of how truly moronic this was. Over 300!

Well, as luck would have it, the answer did finally come: voice-recognition software. As I reported in a recent article this changed my bookselling life. With this tool, I could leaf through books with abandon, talk information into a listing, and the process was near painless and, best of all, quick. If you're serious about selling on eBay - and I speak from years of experience that, once you learn how to make it work for you, this is the venue that will deliver the majority of your income - I urge you to spend some serious money on five things:

  1. OCR software.
  2. Voice-recognition software.
  3. Image editing software.
  4. A scanner.
  5. And a camera that has at least as many mega pixels as the fingers on your hand.
This will probably cost you $500, $600 or more, but you will almost certainly recover the investment in weeks - I'm not exaggerating - and better yet, this will give you a big, big leg up on well over 90% of eBay sellers, most of whom are too stubborn to change what they've been doing for eons and/or unwilling to spend money to make money. Think about it - what's the most common complaint you hear from eBay sellers? It's too much work! Consequently, many eBay booksellers list most or all of their books on fixed-price venues because it's easy and only go to eBay when they think they have something very special.

In part III of this series, I'll discuss the rest of the content story - bibliographic data, condition notes and terms of sale. Look for it soon.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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