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Attention Booksellers:
Misrepresentation is Rampant!

An Alarming State of Affairs in Collectible Fiction

by Craig Stark

#94, 7 May 2007

It's gotten awful - I mean, awful. There's so much misrepresentation of collectible fiction in online bookselling today that the correctly represented book almost seems to be the exception. And the situation isn't getting better; it's getting worse.

A recent example (among countless I could cite):

A question about Nevil Shute's 1939 novel Ordeal was posted in the BookThink forum recently - namely, how does one distinguish a book club edition from the first US edition (EDITOR'S NOTE: The UK first, which preceded the US first, was titled What Happened To The Corbetts?)? Well, it seems as though this book is somewhat difficult to nail down. The first edition, minus a dust jacket, is identical in every respect to the BCE, and unless a dust jacket original to the book is present, there's absolutely no way to distinguish them. The BCE dust jacket differs from the original, however, in that there's no price on the front flap and the words "A Book-of-the-Month Club Selection" appear on the back flap.

By the way, the OP stated that he'd previously emailed an online seller of an Ordeal "first edition" to confirm that the advertised copy, though missing a price on the dust jacket, was indeed a first edition. The seller replied that it was but offered no explanation. Hmmm.

Curious, I ran a search for first editions of this title on Abebooks. 50 results appeared, only one of which advertised a book with a price on the dust jacket - that is, only one copy could be tentatively confirmed as a first edition. (Keep in mind that, even in this case, it wasn't a slam dunk because a first state dust jacket could have been married to a BCE book.) Of the 49 remaining copies, 5 designated their copies as BCEs (with two of them stating BCE probability, not certainty) and yet appeared in this group of results anyway. The remaining 44 copies were either clearly BCEs based on dust jacket descriptions; impossible to identify without contacting the sellers because dust jacket points weren't stated in the descriptions; price-clipped; or missing dust jackets altogether and couldn't have possibly been established as first editions in the first place.

In this same group of 44 copies, 4 had price-clipped dust jackets and 8 stated the presence of a dust jacket without offering additional points. The likelihood is that few or none of these 12 were first editions. What this shakes out to is this: At least 32 and probably as many as 44 copies out of 45 described as first editions - that's 71% to 98% of them - were misrepresented!

To be fair, misrepresentations of this book weren't confined to sellers on Abebooks. Multiple examples also appeared on ABAA, Alibris, Amazon, ChooseBooks, ILAB-LILA, TomFolio and other venues, some of whom have positioned themselves as biblio-policemen of fraudulent or otherwise misrepresented listings in the past. The scary thing is that many of these sellers are obviously not new to the game.

What's going on here??? Clearly, misrepresentation is happening on a massive scale, and something needs to be done about it - yesterday.

Let's talk about what we're talking about first. Essentially, there are three applicable types of misrepresentation:

  1. Fraudulent: A seller knowingly misrepresents a book with the intent to deceive.

  2. Negligent: A seller with no real basis for doing so carelessly (or lazily) misrepresents a book.

  3. Innocent: A seller with a reasonable basis for doing so inadvertently misrepresents a book.

To the buyer, it probably doesn't make much difference which type of misrepresentation occurs - it'll be the wrong book in any case - but it's more likely that the innocent or negligent bookseller will refund the purchase price. Something to be said for that.

Maybe it's fatuous to assume this, but I believe that most of these booksellers are innocent or marginally negligent, not fraudulent, but of course there's no way of divining motives. Two Ordeal sellers state that their basis for asserting a first edition state is the same date (1939) on the title page and title page verso. This would seem to fall under a negligent or innocent umbrella, as would the seller who points to the absence of a blind stamp on the back board as an indication of non-BCE status. It's less clear in the case of copies with price-clipped dust jackets, where fraud could have been easily set into motion with a quick snip. And doubtless a lot of copycat listing occurs as well, with late arriving sellers "vetting" their own copies on the basis of those previously listed. Negligent? Probably.

No matter what the sellers' motivation, however, this is an alarming state of affairs. If you're feeling at all compassionate about the Ordeal sellers because this particular book almost invites misidentification whereas many other books do not, think about this for a moment. The presence of numerous misrepresented copies says much less about how challenging the identification process is than it does about the sellers hawking the book. What's really happening here is that Shute's Ordeal and other books like it have the potential of illuminating a problem that's otherwise, usually, hidden from view - but still lurking! Put a correctly represented copy of this book onto the playground, and it's tantamount to kicking over a rock and exposing what's under it to the light: Carelessness or laziness - perhaps fraud - is suddenly everywhere, wriggling like worms to escape. Is the assumption that there are more negligent or careless booksellers than not so far fetched?

It's also important to note that listings of many collectible fiction titles that present no significant identification obstacles are often - still - widely misrepresented as well, though typically not at these astronomical percentages.

Fortunately, unlike many widespread bookselling problems, I think this one is at least somewhat amenable to correction. And individual sellers can make a big difference.

First, take care of business at home. If you don't know what edition you have, don't guess and don't crib from other listings. Instead, consult one or more authoritative references or ask a trusted colleague who knows or can find out. Even then you'll need to be careful because there will be occasions when sources don't agree. Ideally, what you're looking for is some sort of consensus. Once you find it, run with it, taking care to detail distinguishing points. If you can find only one source, sure, go ahead and list your copy accordingly, but take care to cite the author and reference number as well - for example, "Ahearn, 005b" is a citation for Ordeal entry #005b in Pat & Allen Ahearn's Nevil Shute Author Price Guide. If you can't confirm edition state, the only sensible thing to do is to describe what you have in detail and make no assertions whatsoever.

Second, if you notice that a significant number of descriptions of the book you're listing are obvious misrepresentations, take the opportunity to educate both sellers and potential buyers by spelling out in your description what makes your copy a first edition, thereafter mentioning that copies are often misrepresented as firsts. There's an additional payoff here in that your copy will stand a much better chance of selling.

Finally, as a group, booksellers could solicit the cooperation of the many venues that host misrepresentation, perhaps work together to improve the situation. Here's an idea: What if each venue listed dummy copies of collectible fiction titles that served the sole purpose of detailing first edition points? Registered sellers would have the ability to write the descriptions themselves in much the way users participate on Wikipedia, and if the first author got something wrong, other registered sellers would have access to editing it. Seemingly, it would cost these venues next to nothing to implement this, and over time, a valuable reference of first edition designations would be amassed that would compel all sellers to write accurate descriptions.

Nah, on second thought, that would be too easy!

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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