Why Bookselling
Isn't Working For You

by Craig Stark

#32, 20 December 2004

Part IV: Tortoises, Hares and the Southern Sandbur

Printer Friendly Article

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 winner.

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.

>>>>> Article continues on next page >>>>>

Enter Book Title or ISBN

Powered by FetchBook.Info
New & Used Books