How to Buy Books Online

by Craig Stark

15 January 2017

A Case Study

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I purchased a book of poetry on eBay the other day for $27 and some change. Frankly, I had never heard of the poet before, but I intend to list it for $250, perhaps $300. For me, this sort of transaction happens several times or more weekly and, were I so inclined, I believe implicitly that I could make a good living buying books on eBay exclusively - and selling them on eBay. Exclusively.

How is this possible?

There are several reasons, not the least of which are the experience and knowledge I've gained via plying this trade for going on twenty years. But there's a process here as well or, rather, an approach I take to buying that I have to assume not many other booksellers take. First, I'll tell you what I don't do; I don't bargain shop - look for books that seem to be significantly underpriced compared to what they're listed for or have sold elsewhere. There's no shortage of eBay buyers who do this already, and not much escapes their notice. If one does, sure, I'll snag it, but I'm far, far from depending on this sort of thing, and I'd likely starve if I did. Instead, as I'm looking at a book I'm considering purchasing, I ask myself, "What additional value, if any, can I add to it that the seller hasn't?"

In the case of this book of poetry the seller didn't do much. There was a photo of the cover and several lines of text. The seller incorrectly noted that it was a First Edition but did correctly state that it was a limited edition - and signed by the author. In some instances - say, if the poet was Robert Frost - this might have produced a good outcome had a photo of his signature also been included, but recall the second line of this article: "I had never heard of the poet before."

But I did know several things. One, publishers, even small presses, rarely go to the expense of issuing signed limited editions unless the material published has merit. Two, if you've been in this biz for long, you're keenly aware that there are scads and scads of self-published (or vanity press) poetry books out there, almost all of which are horrifically bad, though mercifully, most were printed in small quantities. That this book was not self-published was something I could establish instantly by noting the publisher. Moreover, the publisher was what is known as a fine press - that is, one noted for selecting material of high artistic quality and adhering to equally high bookbinding standards - and it had been founded by a renowned bookbinder to boot. No mention of this in the description.

So, armed with this, I set out to familiarize myself with this seemingly obscure poet I had never heard of, and lo and behold, on the first page of Google results was a link to an article titled something like "The 20th Century's Greatest Forgotten Poet." Hah. This sounded promising. Next, I did what I always do in these circumstances - I read some of the poet's stuff. In a matter of moments, having looked at several of his poems, I was sold, and most importantly, I now had everything I needed to add substantial value to this book, assuming I could get it for a price that allowed necessary profit.

If there's a lesson here, adding value, which I've preached doing again and again in the selling process, may also come into play in the buying process, as long as one has the leisure to investigate books in advance. And never forget that the best booksellers are teachers, and in this case there's at least a chance that this might apply here in spades. This "forgotten" poet may not be a high profile guy now, but that doesn't mean he isn't quite good, and perhaps a listing description that included a reintroduction of him to potential buyers might perk up the market for him.

In closing, I'm reminded of a passage from Thoreau's Walden that pertains directly to this topic:

"Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. "Do you wish to buy any baskets?" he asked. "No, we do not want any," was the reply. "What!" exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, "do you mean to starve us?" Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off-that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and, by some magic, wealth and standing followed-he had said to himself: I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man's to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other's while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy.

[Editor's note: The specifics of this book have been deliberately omitted in deference to the seller.]

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