ScoutPal, And The Dumbing Down of Bookselling?

by Craig Stark

#28, 4 October 2004

More Important Than Ever: Flashpoints

Just in case you haven't noticed, subscribers to ScoutPal, BookHero, and similar services for researching prices and sales rankings of ISBN books and other Amazon Marketplace merchandise on location, are multiplying. What was once an occasional sighting of a bookseller using a cell phone or other handheld device to look up an ISBN number is now fairly commonplace.

As a recent convert to ScoutPal myself, I'll be the first to admit that this is pretty cool stuff. At less than $10 a month, this service doesn't take long to pay for itself in money not spent on worthless books and occasionally picking up valuable, seemingly flashpoint-less books I would otherwise have left on the shelf. What's more, it's taken a bite out of the number of books I bring home and ultimately have to dump. No small benefit.

Sure, I'm confident I could get by without this. I know that lots of you do fine without it as well. My instincts for picking up the right books at sales are pretty good. Heck, I've been building my library of flashpoints for years - my hunches should be good - and it's a rare occasion when I spend any real money for a loser. Also, most of my income is derived from pre-ISBN books anyway, the kind that can't be researched on ScoutPal (though some wireless devices do have this capability), so why bother?

I bother because bookselling is more competitive today than it was yesterday. And the day before. And the day before that. Given a consistent, years-long pattern of increasing competitiveness, I have no reason to believe that it won't be more competitive tomorrow and indefinitely into the future. There are some booksellers - still - who don't own computers, but can you imagine the disadvantage this would put you at? I wouldn't even want to think about it, and I doubt that any of us have second thoughts about spending the considerable money we spent to get ours. The principle is exactly the same with ScoutPal. It's just on a smaller scale. And if ScoutPal can make a difference of even an additional $100 or $200 a month - and this is conservative - why not use it?

Well, since these services were first introduced, there's been much debate about them, and there seem to be as many detractors as there are proponents. Some detractors are simply expressing fear. Obviously, the capability to nail a book's value on the spot, no matter what you know or don't know about books, opens the door to dummy bookselling - in other words, a whole new world of potential competition for us: sellers who don't know crap about books but have two feet notwithstanding, can go to book sales, pick up books, and punch in some numbers on a cell phone. It is pretty scary, and isn't bookselling already competitive enough?

I recall expressing some concerns myself once - that relying on this kind of service would, over time, degrade your buying instincts because you'd be spending so much time looking at numbers, so little at flashpoints. And even if you found a book with resale value, would you be likely to recall anything of value about it if you were focused primarily on its ISBN number? It seemed not.

Now that I've used ScoutPal myself for some time, I still have the same concerns, but they've shifted. And narrowed. I don't at all feel that ScoutPal has degraded my instincts. If anything, it's improved them in the sense that I occasionally pick up books now that I wouldn't have before. This has had an expansive effect on my flashpoint library because I recognize the importance of retaining flashpoint information and make an effort to commit surprising, ScoutPal-assisted finds to memory. A good thing.

However, I'm no Johnny-come-lately to bookselling. I've built my business on principles that originally had nothing at all to do with remote access to pricing information and everything to do with instinct - relying on it, in fact, exclusively. I've done all of the work necessary and then some to get to this point. And I still work at it. If I didn't, I'd probably be selling time shares now.

The tricky thing about tools like ScoutPal, I think, is timing. Where you are in your business when you first start using them. If, like me, you've successfully sold books for years prior to using ScoutPal and understand the importance of book knowledge, I'm guessing that it can only benefit you. Make you a better bookseller. But what if you're new to this? What if you're not already carrying around a library of quality book information in your head? For one thing, you'll be leaning a lot more heavily on ScoutPal. For another - well, when I went to school, teachers were big on memorization. Frankly, this seemed dumb at the time, not to mention boring. There probably isn't one of us who didn't at some point ask ourselves, c'mon, what's the point of this? Dates especially. What possible difference could it make if I knew when Lincoln was shot?

It's funny how perceptions change over time. Surprisingly, I'm at a point in my life now when I wish I'd done more, not less, memorization. Lots more. Finally, I see the point. If I'd had just one teacher - one - who could have explained the importance of it to me then, I know I'd be a far bookseller (and who knows what else) because of it now.

Things have certainly changed since I was a student. Not as much memorization is done now. Seemingly, not much needs to be done. Like we do, students have, use and appreciate calculators (no need to remember multiplication scales), computers (no need to remember state capitols, how to spell difficult words, etc.), and so on, but the difference for children now is that they don't have the experience of life without these tools. Computers especially have had the effect of detaching memory from their minds. The habits that support memory, that is, are no longer instilled to anywhere near the extent they once were. My boys are blown away at the answers I can come up with on Jeopardy and similar game shows, and yet I'm really not all that terrific at trivia - compared to other adults I know.

The de-emphasis on memorization can be crippling because the very point of it is association, the mental act of putting two or more seemingly unrelated facts side by side and seeing a connection between them. This not only gives life to an otherwise dead number or word; it's also the sine qua non of understanding itself. You simply cannot understand something without first putting a group of associated numbers or words into a framework. An idea.

Which brings me back to flashpoints. Lists of flashpoints, which we emphasize and re-emphasize in the BookThinker and Gold Edition, are nothing more than associated words. How many of these lists have you memorized? I have no way of knowing, but I bet almost none of you have deliberately sat down and done this. I agree that it's difficult to see the value in this on the surface, but I can state without reservation that, if you do the work, it would absolutely be money in your pocket.

Example. I know when the hell Lincoln was shot. I also understand why he was shot. But this understanding would be impossible to arrive at without knowing a larger number of associated facts. Or flashpoints. John Wilkes Booth, Ford Theatre, Civil War, slavery, and so on. It's the association of these words that gives meaning to the date, attaches importance to it - and in turn to books and ephemera associated with the event.

This example, of course, is obvious. Almost everybody who sells books understands why the Lincoln assassination was important because at some point they've memorized the necessary flashpoints. However, if I hadn't memorized them myself, I'd be at least $26,000 poorer today because, almost by accident, I stumbled into an album of original Ford Theatre playbills a few years ago. Some of the playbills had been printed before the assassination, some after, some were fakes - and two, oh boy, were printed on that very day.

The point I'm getting at is that memorization of associated flashpoints, not ScoutPal or any other bookselling tool, computers included, is the key to succeeding at bookselling in a big way. This is what separates booksellers who make good incomes from those who get by. Only deliberate, consistent memorization will give you the ability to see groups of words converging in value-enhancing events - spotting the books you can make money on. Memorization is the screw that holds everything together. ScoutPal is a screwdriver that tightens it.

For more information on ScoutPal, click here.

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Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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