Fraud in the Book Biz

by Craig Stark

24 January 2016

Some Feedback

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A few representative opinions on last week's newsletter:

Dear Craig

Re your article on fraud, at least the seller in question is actually buying the books he is offering for sale. The book business is full of examples of sellers who, for one reason or another, are able to sell their copies at more than most sellers. I agree that calling these books "first edition, first printing" is very inaccurate, but I really don't think that any buyer who sees the seller's copy of the Easton Press edition of "Jane Eyre," for example on either eBay or Abebooks or anywhere else the seller lists, will actually believe that this is a "first printing"

Certainly this is misusing the traditional terminology of book collectors and the book trade, but I would not consider it fraud. And in my opinion, this fades in importance to the real fraud in the book business, and that is the increasing number of "non-existent" books being offered by companies which do not own a single book and yet hold themselves out as having millions of books. That they are successful in doing this is evidenced by the huge numbers of feedback which they have on Amazon.

Case in point: I was looking at a reference book on Abebooks recently, a large heavy book. A large seller had a copy (2 actually) described as ex-library, and listed at just $3 postpaid. Right after their listing were 4 copies being offered by bookjackers, starting at just $3.50 plus $3.99 shipping, and described simply as "good condition." A buyer unaware of the practices of these bookjackers might easily think "I would prefer a copy in good condition to an ex-library copy, especially since it is only a little bit more." Of course, what that buyer would receive, if they ordered one of those "cheap" but "good" copies would be the ex-library copy they had passed over, "dropshipped" to them by the seller. When I ordered these copies, these very cheap bookjacker listings also disappeared, and now they are listing at prices above the least expensive "real" copy still being offered. I wish I had taken some before and after screen shots.

I can cite an example I am very familiar with - any random later title in the Trixie Belden series - let's say Vanishing Victim - if you go to Amazon, and do a search for this out of print book, you will find that there are 21 used, 2 collectible and 8 "new" copies of this book which has been out of print since the early 1980s. Copies of "new" paperbacks start at $68 but there are even 2 copies of "new" hardcovers (while this title was issued as a paperback, some copies were bound in hardcovers for the library market and virtually every hardcover copy is an ex-library copy - very few show up with no markings) at $680.94 and $916.60. The seller offering the less expensive copy has over 690,000 feedbacks - and in my experience only about 1 buyer in 10 on Amazon posts feedback - so either we have two levels of fraud (non-existent books and fake feedback) or we have literally millions of sales.

At any rate, I think the activities of these "bookjackers" (to use a term coined by one bookseller) are far more significant in terms of the numbers of buyers tricked into ordering, and the amount of profits being made at absolutely no risk - not a dollar is invested in inventory. They are also far more damaging to the trade in that they inflate the number of "available" copies artificially and they also use a scattershot method of pricing. Many of them don't stop with listing one non-existent copy of a particular title - they will list it multiple times - good used comparatively cheaply, very good used for a higher price and new on Amazon. On Abebooks, whether you search from highest first or lowest first, they will often be there in first few results. They change the names of their business or add new names.

Chris Volk

I'm not cool with it at all. In such cases, I sometimes pose a public question that "outs" the misrepresentation and which I assume potential buyers may read.

[A following email]

BTW - I think I goofed about the public seeing my questions to Ebay sellers. Asked a Q yesterday of the fellow I think you wrote about ($2M Easton Press book available for $20 on Abe). I don't think my question is visible and I've received no reply.

This kind of seller is little better than the bookjacker who lists but doesn't own inventory.


Hi Craig. I take it you are talking about [name removed]? I think it's an issue of scale, exclusive of the income derived from it. In other words, if he/she was regularly getting ten times the price for a $3 book by constantly misrepresenting them as 1st/1sts it is just as bothersome as getting $300 for a $30 book.

You may or may not know that technically I've gone back to my first career, as I had a sports collectibles part-time business from the age of 10 till my mid-20's. When I was 8 a man sold me a stack of "autographed" Yankees photos that he insisted were legit. I found out they were fake in my early teens.

Why that story?

Two platitudes: As sellers, we are all in this together and a rising tide raises all ships. Any type of fraud harms everyone's business, albeit sometimes negligibly. I was already hooked on sports collectibles and deriving an income from it when I found out those signatures were fake. They were purchased with money I earned from my paper route, and had I found out before I was hooked on collecting, I may have given up and poured my money into candy or video games. While the De Caro/Girolamini fraud likely only directly affected the highest end of the trade, one would think that even a lower level collector would have the story in the back of her mind as she contemplates spending more money on objects. The type of fraud you describe is awful because, when found out, it could rob the trade an essential resource: new collectors. And that ugliness can turn others off of collecting when the deceived shares her story.

Adam Schachter

Craig, I am pretty hard core on the subject of your article. If the bookseller knows better, it is fraud. If he does it twice or if he makes a living at it. If he makes a living at it, I think it is likely that a case could be made that it is criminal. (I told you I was hard core.) There is no excuse for this guy.

I specialize in C.S. Lewis. Right now there is a book on eBay "signed by C.S. Lewis." The book was published well before Lewis' birth, which the seller explains as a book Lewis bought as a used copy. I have bought and sold many signed C.S. Lewis books. Absolutely no way this book is signed by THE C.S. Lewis. If the seller would just Google "C.S. Lewis signature," he would see this.

My pet peeve is something I consider fraud but it seems others don't. People who put date of publication as "1111." Thus if a buyer searches for a copy of Huckleberry Finn with a high date of 1900, then this guy's copy gets included in the search even though it was printed in 1980. I guess it's more of a pet peeve than fraud but "it ain't right."

Stan Shelley

I'm with you - deliberately misrepresenting books on eBay should not be allowed. Very early on in my eBay buyer years I ran into a listing for a book bearing the "signature" of George Washington, which is being bid up. The problem was that the image clearly showed a copyright date for the book that was several years after Washington had died. When I wrote to the seller on the assumption that he was ignorant of this fact, he (or she) simply cropped the image to eliminate the copyright date! At that point I wrote to the person who had the highest bid warning him about the book. As a result, I got a severe reprimand from eBay for interfering with an auction and, as far as I know, they didn't take any action against the seller, who clearly was deliberately misrepresenting the book. It bothered me that eBay didn't seem to be at all interested in what the seller had done.

Now they have the "Report item" link on the listings. I have never used that, but I assume that is now the appropriate way to deal with such a situation and knowledgeable folks who can present evidence that the information is incorrect should be encouraged to report that. I assume that if a pattern develops (that is, if enough people report items from a particular seller) that eBay will act to ban the person for selling.

I feel your pain!

Wes Baker

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