The Great Flood

by Craig Stark

#3, 6 October 2003

Armageddon For Booksellers?

You might not agree that these are not the best of times for booksellers - yet - but for what this editor's opinion is worth, whatever these times are, despite pockets of prosperity here and there, they are most likely headed for something worse. The internet is awash in books; some would say drowning in them. Prices for hundreds of thousands of books online have plunged to pennies, and who would argue that they wouldn't go lower if negative pricing was permitted? Oh, they most definitely would as long as some pocket change could still be extracted from shipping allowances.

Unfortunately, it may not only get worse but also may never get better. More and more sellers get into the game every day, and more often than not their first impulse is to undercut the prices of existing sellers. It requires next to nothing to become a bookseller, neither experience nor significant investment in inventory or overhead. You can start from your kitchen table with a single book. More and more open shop dealers, in turn, are shutting their doors and jumping from what has become a desert into the water. Swimming in the great Sea of Cyber is their only hope for survival. There is pressure on the market, consequently, from above and below.

There are also growing, distinctly disturbing developments on the buying side. Many once productive sources of inventory are either disappearing, raising their prices, or both. Recently one of our readers reported that Goodwill Industries is now scanning incoming books in test markets, and those books that show promise are sold to major vendors, therefore bypassing individual buyers, who once could find many profitable books on their shelves. There are also indications that some library systems which previously sold donated books and discards directly to consumers are now also bypassing them in favor of consigning their books to third party vendors for sale online. Given the intense labor requirements of putting on a large FOL sale, how can this trend do anything but spread?

Moreover, online venues have begun to commingle with a vengeance. Alibris and Amazon Marketplace are bedfellows now, as are eBay and Abebooks, and who is to say the great River won't soon break through corporate dams and flow directly into the great Bay? Countless smaller venues have fallen off the map. Others have been absorbed beyond recognition into larger venues. Book search services are also culpable. Enter a title at one of these, and dozens, sometimes hundreds of venues are searched almost instantaneously. The effect is to accelerate a process that we predict will only end in this: the emergence of a single, savagely competitive venue.

Oh, there may still be distinct venues in a corporate sense, perhaps for some years to come, but if every book listed for sale on the internet is both instantly accessible and subject to immediate price comparisons, what difference will it make if such entities still exist on paper? Next to none.

The effect will be this: one venue.

The central problem is, books were born to be sold online, and the very qualities that make them nearly perfect for this - for example, their portability (compactness) and resistance to damage via shipping - is not only contributing to the demise of the open shop used book market but also may ultimately destroy its counterpart, the online used book market, as we now know it. Let's face it; books are too damn easy and cheap to ship. Too many of them arrive in perfectly acceptable condition. We still hear cries of protest from open shop sellers who insist that most buyers will always want to personally inspect a book before they buy it, but the Internet, unbeknownst to them, hasn't robbed buyers of this opportunity; it's only skip-stepped the process. Books purchased sight unseen and shown to be unsatisfactory are simply returned for a refund.

Yes, there are sellers who are busy piling up sandbags to protect themselves against the flood, fleeing to islands of safety, etc. They launch individual websites by the thousands or band together with other sellers, attempting to brand themselves, seeking to establish a haven, but the water level? It rises moment by moment, creeping quietly and ominously, stopping for nothing. Their end will be delayed, perhaps, but not prevented, unless - unless what?

The Ark

Is there an answer to this? Can we survive the flood? Yes. And it's an answer so obvious that it may have entirely escaped your notice.


No matter how competitive things get, you will always, always have yourself; also, you will always have the capacity to become more than yourself - to grow. Part of this growth, if bookselling is truly something you're committed to doing, will include developing an ability to add value to the books you sell.

No, we don't mean simply raising your prices, though this is a tactic that many sellers now champion, sometimes with great conviction. If only more sellers would stop pricing their books so low. If only Amazon would raise their price limit on books to $1. Or $5. Yes, $5 would do it! Wouldn't all be well then? No. Amazon, if acting unilaterally to raise minimums to $5, would lose a significant share of the used book market within weeks. Even if some sort of collusion could be engineered with all major venues - that is, if everybody raised the bar - it still wouldn't work. The problem isn't under-priced books; the problem is too many books for too few buyers.

Here's the key: adding value to books is accomplished only through knowledge, both acquiring it and later (whenever the opportunity arises) applying it. Books are endlessly complex and complicated, and an entire lifetime spent in pursuit of book knowledge will still fall far short of complete mastery. Nobody can know it all, and yet every time a bookseller acquires knowledge, the ability to add value to books grows along with it.

Examples abound, but consider for now how your business would be strengthened, both on the buying and selling ends, if you had a good working knowledge of first edition identification and a complementary skill to quickly research information that would establish edition state - publisher's designations, issue points, etc. You'd know what to buy, how to present and sell what you bought. Being able to confirm that a book was a first edition could make a difference of thousands of dollars in a single transaction. This is no small matter.

Today, BookThink begins a project that will ultimately grow into a large body of first edition identification resources. In time we'll be adding additional resources that will benefit sellers in many other ways as well. If you make a deliberate attempt to expand your knowledge of books, it's certain that you'll immediately separate yourself from the vast majority of booksellers who have little or no interest in learning more about what they sell but seek only the quick buck. Or should we say, quick penny? Anyway, be comforted in the fact that this is history of man on Earth. Only a few will pursue knowledge with any determination - yes, even if it's presented on a public website. Knowledge is your route to safety, the high and dry ground of success that no flood can touch.

Please proceed to the next article in pairs.

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Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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