Taking Bookselling
To The Top

by Craig Stark

#56, 21 November 2005

Part III: How to Succeed in Bookselling
Without Really Trying

At the conclusion of Part II of this series, you may recall that I'd just hammered out a $5500 deal with an increasingly impatient, if not desperate, Mrs. Z. to purchase what amounted to a few boxes of G. Bernard Shaw books and ephemera, a number of them signed, as well as two albums containing some Abraham Lincoln ephemera - one notable piece handwritten and signed by the bearded prez himself. As I was carrying the stuff to my truck, I felt pretty good about things, though not so good that I'd felt I'd just committed robbery. I was just ... confident, I guess, that I could recover my investment and make a few bucks on top of it.

My wallet now $5500 lighter, however, I certainly wasn't going to sit on this stuff for longer than a moment or two. The sensible thing to do, it seemed, was to put the Lincoln signed Civil War pardon letter up on eBay immediately and get at least most of my capital back in one whack. As I mentioned previously in this series, there were no shortage of comps for this type of letter. Lincoln had signed a good number of them during the war, and at that time you could search eBay closed auctions back further than you can now: about a half dozen had popped up. Also, I'd found a few examples on dealer's websites, though these were priced considerably higher than what was happening on eBay. What was happening on eBay was this: final values between $3500 and $4500. I decided that I would shoot for $4500.

Back in eBay's Golden Age, I was hopelessly infatuated with reserves, forever trying to lift buyers up to my prices and only occasionally dumping things for less than I thought I could ultimately get for them. No doubt there are a few of my early how-to articles floating around that enthusiastically recommended this practice to other sellers. Also, reserve fees were reasonable then (no longer!), and it didn't bug me in the list to relist things that didn't sell - in fact, it wasn't unusual for me to relist books three, five, sometimes ten times to get my price. And I usually did.

Well, lofty or not, $4500 was my target. That's where I set my reserve, and I let it fly. Since this is the dull part of the story, I'll be brief: it sold about a month later for $4375. However, I negotiated this price by email after the listing had expired, so in effect (there were no eBay fees to pay) I pretty much got my price. I was a happy guy.

Really happy.

Really, really happy.

But not just because I'd sold the letter. Something else had happened at about the same time. While I'd been merrily listing and relisting the Lincoln thing, I'd also listed one of the Shaw books - namely, Pygmalion. Again, I felt that this item had the best potential for helping me get back to the break even point. It was Shaw's most famous play, the basis for My Fair Lady, and this particular copy was not only signed by Shaw and inscribed to poet/friend John Drinkwater, it also bore Drinkwater's personal library bookplate and - best of all - was a rough proof.

The term "rough proof," in case you don't know, is more or less synonymous with the more familiar acronym ARC (advance reading copy). The difference in this case was that Shaw's publisher, Constable, typically produced their proofs in conventional bindings - that is, my copy of Pygmalion was a conventional hardback bound in green cloth, exactly how it later appeared in the trade edition. Of course, being a proof, the text wasn't in its final form, and Shaw seemed almost messianic in his decades-long practice of both apologizing to the recipients of his books and lamenting their editorial incompetence in many of his inscriptions, rough proofs or not. This particular copy wasn't so inscribed, but I had several others in the collection that were.

Anyway, I'd been able to find a number of comps online for Shaw signed books and ephemera - lots of expensive stuff on websites, and some pretty depressing final values on eBay. Still, I hadn't run across a signed copy of Pygmalion, let alone a rough proof, so it seemed at least reasonable to set the reserve at $2000 and see what happened. Well, once I listed it, emails are what happened. Dozens of them. One in particular evolved into a short correspondence. A UK dealer had asked me what my reserve price was, I told him, and he wrote back to inform me that there were only three other known copies of this book, one of which had recently sold somewhere at auction for $1500. Would I take $1200?

I was tempted. This dealer had submitted his credentials, and $1200 in my pocket would bring my total take for the Z deal back to break even. Not bad after only two items. If anything gave me pause, however, it was the volume of emails I was receiving, and besides, the book now had bids on it (though the high bid was well under $1000). I decided to wait and told the dealer I'd be in touch if it didn't sell.

The next part is hard to explain. I'm a self-taught touch typist. I'm ok on the main keyboard, maybe 60-80 wpm, but the number pad is a different matter. I had a part-time job a number of years ago that required me to type exclusively numbers off of something called waybills, and the faster I typed them, the more money I made. But there was also a high premium placed on accuracy - that is, there were monetary penalties for mistakes, etc. - so eventually, out of necessity, I learned how to type numbers very quickly and very accurately on the number pad. This is why it surprised me that shortly before the auction was scheduled to close, Pygmalion had been bid up to $2400.

The surprising part wasn't so much the price; no, what didn't make sense was that my "$2000" reserve hadn't been met! This was especially disconcerting because I'd informed perhaps a dozen potential buyers, all of them serious collectors and/or dealers, that it was indeed $2000. Well, when I signed on to investigate, I discovered that the, ah, master typist had inexplicably entered '8000' instead of '2000' in the reserve box when he set up the auction. Since I made this discovery with only minutes left before closing, there was no time to write anybody back. I felt like a priceless ass.

But too bad. There was absolutely nothing else to do but sit down and watch the auction end - and hopefully negotiate something with the high bidder later. And apologize and apologize.

If you're a baby boomer (or older), no doubt you remember precisely where you were and how you felt the day Kennedy was shot. 42 years ago it was, and my memory is still fresh. There aren't many of these moments in most of our lives. There aren't many of them in my life either, but one of them was - was it ever - the night my Pygmalion auction closed. As I often did with high-dollar items, I began refreshing my screen at 10 or 15 second intervals with about five minutes left in the auction. Nothing was happening. $2400 solid, again and again, and it began to look like it would end there.

As things got closer, 30 seconds, 20 seconds, I began refreshing the screen continuously. Still nothing. At 10 seconds, however, the Earth must have quaked or something, bumped the hands of fate in a direction that I could never have anticipated. Though only moments passed, it seemed like days.

I watched in utter disbelief as the price soared.




"Reserve met."

"Your item has sold for $8,000."

And, before even a shadow of a doubt could creep in that somebody had unwittingly typed in the wrong proxy bid, this arrived in my mailbox: "Notification of an Instant Payment Received from ..."

I don't remember how long I sat there, mouth open, stunned into silence, but coming back to my senses took some time, and my eyes had watered up so much that I couldn't see the monitor. I do remember getting up eventually and walking, very, very slowly, out to the living room, looking at my wife with what had to be a perfectly dumbfounded expression, and saying softly, "You are not going to believe what just happened."

How to succeed in bookselling without really trying? Hah. I was beginning to think I could write a book about it. Believe it or not, there is one more part to this story - a sale [that] turned out to be the most interesting one of all. Stay tuned.

Read Part I and Part II of this series.

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