From The Editor

by Craig Stark

#87, 29 January 2007

As a frequent buyer of books on eBay, I've observed that context matters - sometimes a lot. A nice book, for example, in the context of a poorly executed presentation, will often sell for a disappointing sum. But even if the presentation is good, sometimes a different sort of context will drag the final value down as well. Take a seller who groups 5 or 7 or so books into a lot. Usually, these lots comprise books or more or less similar values, but not always. On many occasions I've seen book lots with one, sometimes two, relatively valuable books in the company of some near worthless ones. This happens perhaps most often when the seller uses the common denominator of advanced age, say, groupings consisting entirely of books older than 100 years.

What do you do in a situation like this? I try to bid on the auction on the basis of the book or books I'm seeking and ignore the rest of them, thinking that I can ask the seller not to send them (and save on postage) or simply toss them when I get them. The problem is that both alternatives require an additional expenditure of time and energy, and I've noticed myself, sometimes subconsciously, downwardly adjusting the price I'm willing to pay. In chemical terminology, the word "antagonism" describes this outcome exactly - that is, "antagonism" is a phenomenon in which two or more agents in combination produce an effect which is less than the sum of their individual effects.

The antonym of "antagonism" is "synergy" - a phenomenon in which two or more agents, when combined, produce an effect which is greater than the sum of their individual effects. There are examples of this in bookselling too. Take Reader's Digest songbooks. There was a time once when I sold most of the titles in this series one by one and did quite well (by including crystal clear photographs and complete song lists in my auctions). This was before, of course, as the story now goes, I single-handedly destroyed the market for them by featuring them in an early issue of 50/50. What I've experienced since, however, is that grouping these songbooks often produces a final value higher than what I could've gotten for them if I'd sold them singly.

Why are some book lots synergistic? It might have something to do with a simple computation: It's cheaper and much less trouble to purchase a group of books all at once than it is to buy them one by one, so, as long as the buyer wants most or all of the books in a lot, he or she might be willing to pay a premium for them. However, it might also have something to do with things less measurable. BookThink's History Editor suggests another reason in our first article, "The Whole is Greater than the Sum of the Parts: Building a Book Collection for Resale."

Bookseller Stephen Burnside is also on board today with a Bookseller Profile. Steve is yet another illustration of how bookselling can be a good fit in situations that many professions wouldn't be: "I needed to find a new purpose and interest in life after suffering 2 heart attacks and not being able to work as a Project Manager in Software Engineering anymore. The stress of Project Management was killing me and my cardiologist said no more working." Fortunately, he discovered what many of us have - that bookselling was not only a solution to a problem but his true calling as well.

This brings me to the only unpleasant item in today's newsletter. With the publication of Steve's profile, I've now burned through my profile inventory - you know, such as it was. Untold dozens of templates have been emailed to booksellers in the past year or so. If you're working on yours, fine; if not, get busy. If you lost your template, ask for another. If you didn't ask for a template in the first place, ask now. The idea - and I sense that there may be a misperception here - isn't to feature the best and brightest booksellers; rather it's to illustrate different approaches to bookselling, to suggest strategies that may work in your own businesses, and perhaps most of all to remind you that other booksellers are fighting (and winning) the same battles you are, both small and large, however modest or impressive their incomes. Write me at

Finally, a number of you emailed me after last week's newsletter was delivered to report that you hadn't received the December 50/50 (issue #20, "Horses, Horses and More Horses"). I have no idea what happened, but if you were among those who didn't receive yours, write me at ASAP, and I'll forward a copy.


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