Hard Times Ahead
for eBay Booksellers?

by Craig Stark

#17, April 26, 2004

I've been a regular reader of the eBay bookseller's forum for several years now, and I can't remember a time when I've seen so much negative, at times vitriolic commentary directed at a specific issue - namely, eBay's recent category rollback and full implementation of Item Specifics and Product Finder in the books category. Based on what I've read in both this forum and the music forum (where similar changes were made earlier this year), I'd have to conclude that this change has landed with a resounding and almost universal thud. Say something - anything - positive about it, and you'd better duck and run. Many booksellers, it seems, have decided to stop listing either temporarily or permanently.

Most of the criticism is aimed at the buying side of things, which of course directly affects the selling side. It's distinctly more difficult to find stuff - well, certain stuff. I purchase approximately one third of my inventory on eBay. Or did until recently. Much of my success depended on browsing strategies that are no longer possible with Product Finder. What was once a beautiful, complex tree of living categories now calls to mind a verse from Shakespeare's Sonnet 73:

That time of year thou mayest in me behold
When yellow leaves or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Though not quite a bare ruined choir, the books category has been reduced to a significantly lower common denominator.

A few branches remain, a few leaves, but browsing is for all practical purposes a dead animal. Product Finder, a tool designed to replace category browsing, retains some of the original category structure in drop-down menus but too often returns too many results, too many irrelevant results, or simply not enough results. eBay spokespersons assure us that these problems will be addressed, but even if they are, what we now have is a browsing process that is no longer intuitive in that it bears no resemblance to what one encounters in an open-shop bookstore, library or any other place one encounters lots of books. In remains to be seen whether or not buyers will overcome this obstacle, take the trouble to learn the new system, and, most importantly, buy.

In defense, eBay argues that most book listings are found by keyword searches anyway, not by browsing a category. This may be generally true, but for those of us who had finally figured things out, had learned how to sell a certain class of books at retail or higher prices in what was essentially a wholesale venue, it isn't. We used strategies that were often dependent on category structure, dependent on attracting the interest of category browsers, sometimes introducing collectors to books they hadn't previously been aware of. This is the crux of the problem for me. If my buyers don't know that the books I'm selling exist, how are they going to find them?

Yes, it's still possible to discover new things with keyword searches, but many buyers aren't actively engaged in the buying process. They don't have the inclination, energy or imagination to type in the specific keywords that will necessarily deliver them to my books. Many times they want to have this done for them. Prefer it. They may know that they love Art Nouveau illustrations so often found in early 20th-century books, but they may not know the precise term used to describe this movement, especially if they're just beginning to develop a collector's mentality. How many of us know somebody (perhaps ourselves) who didn't become collectors until eBay came into existence? Sometimes the very purpose of browsing is to discover things in us that we'd like to pursue, things we may have been aware of in only a vague sense. Or not at all. Because of this, buying is frequently a passive process, and if we set up a system that requires buyers to be more active, to work at it, it seems that sales will suffer.

It's worth noting that high-volume sellers, especially those who focus on ISBN-era publications, remainders, etc., may find this new system much to their liking - in fact, it seems to have been designed with them in mind, perhaps because these sellers have the most potential to deliver revenue to eBay. The new Prefilled feature, which allows sellers to use stock photographs, synopses, and publication data of many newer publications, can dramatically decrease the amount of time needed to put together a densely informative, if canned, presentation. Unfortunately, at present the eBay catalog is woefully incomplete and replete with errors, and the books that have the most potential to deliver revenue to us - older books, uncommon or obscure newer books, etc. - aren't catalogued at all and likely won't ever be.

Time will tell whom this will affect adversely and how much. Since launch date, total book listings at eBay have dropped significantly, and during the past few days a downward momentum has gathered - that is, total listings are dropping by a greater percentage each day, though this may be offset some by scheduled promotions. Sell-through percentages remain relatively flat, which isn't reassuring either since one would expect them to increase as supply decreases. To be fair, historically this time of year has always been a slow period for eBay, so it's difficult to say with much statistical certainty how things are shaking out.

Meanwhile, we're faced with a choice: leave or stay and try to make things work. At this moment, despite the challenges, I vote for staying. eBay has been a consistent source of income for me for a number of years, and the reality is that there isn't a viable alternative - yet - for selling books in the auction format. Fixed-price venues do produce sales, and I think for serious sellers they are a necessary and productive component of a successful bookselling business, but sales come slowly, often months after inventory is purchased, and resulting prices don't have the same potential to reach the sky.

Today's BookThinker will suggest some strategies for selling under the new system. I should emphasize that these are only suggestions, not proven methods. We're just not far enough into to this to be confident about any approach one way or the other. Please feel free to contribute your own ideas in BookThink's forum. The more we help each other out in this, the more likely we'll find a solution.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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