by Steve Weber

#92, 9 April 2007

Will Technology Kill the FOL Sale?

Selling on Amazon

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The advent of Amazon Marketplace, which offers instant access to the prices of millions of used books, has changed book scouting forever.

Now, armed with cell phones or database price-checkers, book dealers have a technological advantage in finding valuable books. Services such as ScoutPal have taken the guesswork out of book scouting, transforming an art into a science.

All is well, right?

Wrong. Faced with rude behavior by some booksellers, Friends of the Library groups are beginning to ban scanners and cell phones from their popular book sales. This has caused quite a stir because FOL sales are the most dependable and lucrative source of inventory for many online booksellers.

Some booksellers wonder if the ban on price-checking will go nationwide. This month, in announcing one of the largest book sales in the east, a Gainesville, Florida, FOL group added this warning:

"To ensure patrons' convenience, comfort, and safety: No electronic devices for scanning purposes."

According to anecdotal reports from booksellers, this is happening more frequently at book sales large and small.

When I started selling books on Amazon nearly seven years ago, there were no tools like ScoutPal. The only ready tool was your brain, your experience and intuition. When cell phone price-checking arrived on the scene, I was an early adopter of the new technology but a bit conflicted about it too. It was great to be able to screen out some of the duds. But price-checking also took some of the pure joy out of using your wits alone to find a great book.

I don't normally use a price-checker at a busy sale - there's not enough time - and I don't want to draw attention to myself anyway. Let's face it, dealers (or people who look like dealers) are often scorned by the FOL volunteers for a variety of reasons. Some people resent the fact that you're making a profit from their books, and aggressive book dealers can make it harder for "regular" book sale attendees to find good books.

But the final straw, I guess, hasn't been the use of scanners themselves. It's the rude behavior that scanners seem to exacerbate - or make more obvious. It's the hoarding. We've all seen it, the dealers who hoard stacks of books, only to toss most of them aside after scanning and checking the prices. All too often, the people who look like book dealers are knocking over other sale attendees and spreading blankets over mountains of books. Those few bad apples are responsible for the scanner ban that is spreading across the country.

But it's hard to enforce a ban on a technology. Cheating is rampant, and confrontations and hard feelings are common. Perhaps the ban on scanning will eventually be accepted by the bookselling community.

Meanwhile there are also some ways that FOL volunteers can prevent the bad behavior afflicting so many book sales. Here are some ideas, some of which may be more popular than others:

  1. You bag it, you buy it.

    Some sales have a rule stating that as soon as you pick a book, you've bought it. As soon as you put it in a bag or box, it's yours. No reserving stacks of books under a blanket. An FOL volunteer takes your picks, totals them, and adds them to your tab. This can go a long way toward preventing hoarding.

  2. Raising prices.

    Many sales have raised prices in recent years. This has stopped some mega-sellers who are less likely to haul off hundreds of books when they're priced at $2, $3 or more. But if the books are priced at a dollar or below, dealers will buy huge amounts, then dump most of them later. With higher prices, regular collectors can afford the books they really want, and the FOL earns more money for the library -- as long as the prices aren't so high that they discourage buying.

  3. Holding areas for purchases.

    Large, well-organized sales usually have holding areas for your boxes of books. You fill a box, mark it with your name or an assigned number, and hand it to the holding-area attendant. While you continue shopping for more books, FOL volunteers total the contents of your boxes and add them to your bill. Getting all these boxes away from the sale area prevents people from tripping over your purchases as the sale continues. More breathing room makes everyone happier.

  4. Private sorting rooms.

    Some sales have a side room where you can cart a load of books in, and sort and scan them to your heart's content. When you're finished, volunteers put your discards back on sale. If it's run properly, lots of books sell, and the FOL earns plenty of money.

  5. Limiting purchases.

    Some sales simply limit the number of books you can buy to 25 or 50 books per person. This policy seems to work against everyone's interests, though, and the FOL earns less money. Sometimes this policy is applied to "preview" sales for FOL members only.

  6. Allowing dealers in only after a certain time - say, one hour after the beginning of the sale. This policy is popular with some sale-goers, but dealers believe it's unfair.

  7. Members-only "preview" sales.

    For the privilege of attending a preview sale, dealers and others provide a donation of $20 or so to the FOL. Dealers get in early, but sometimes there's a limit on how many books they can buy during the preview.

  8. Relaxing the ban on scanners after the first hour (or day) of a sale. Allow scanners two hours after a sale begins, or on a sale's final day or during "bag sales."

Scanners are so detested in some quarters that vigilantes are blocking them by jamming the wireless signals. But many of the fastest scanners don't use cell phones anymore; they use a local database on a handheld PDA.

If you're not using a scanner yourself, there's still a way to profit from it. Try following behind a dealer who's interested only in books with barcodes. When the dealer tosses aside the pre-ISBN books, you can scoop them up, and snag quite a few out-of-print gems in the process.

Still unhappy with your local FOL's policies? Volunteer. Help out. Perhaps you'll be asked to join the board and can provide suggestions on running better book sales.

And here are a few things that we booksellers can do to make sales more pleasant, whether we're using scanners or not. Be nice! Don't reach in front of other people. Don't block the aisles. Smile, and enjoy the sale!

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