Bibliophiles Beware: Online Prices Are A Lottery

The internet bookselling market appears to be based on nothing more than whim

The pleasures of a good second-hand bookshop are legion — as are the disappointments of the modern chain bookstore. One offers freedom to browse a broad and unpredictable range of books of all periods and subjects, varying widely in condition and price. Even if social niceties are foregone when an antiquarian bookseller clearly begrudges selling anything from his cherished stock, mutual understanding and respect nevertheless surround the solemn exchange. The other, by contrast, directs its energies to promoting only newly published titles — or newly concocted hot drinks; what stock exists is unimaginatively arranged so as to make the joy of browsing impossible and the thrill of the unexpected almost unattainable. For instance, finding any worthwhile reading matter in a modern W.H. Smith — once the bastion of high-street bookselling — before boarding a train must be one of those shock events that merits appearance on the local news.

The heartfelt lament that good bookshops are an increasingly rare presence on our streets is nothing new: that the last decade has seen the closure of 500 independent stores, roughly a third of the sector, has aggrieved all book lovers. Yet a clear picture of the world of book-buying has been obscured in recent years by significant technological changes. The arrival of the e-book, heralded as the harbinger of death to its physical ancestor, has actually brought about some good: observation suggests that the reading of books has risen among commuters, and the charm of three-dimensional tomes is now appreciated in a fresh light. As with the recent revival of the vinyl record, the enhanced rarity of older books has led to something of a fetishisation of them in the hand. There is no doubt that the demand for second-hand books endures, even among the youngest generations; the problem now is quite where to find them.

The advent of the internet was quickly understood to be a revolutionary moment in the book trade. Amazon set the pace for the online retail of new titles but other “marketplace” sites, most notably Abebooks, saw the possibility of uniting a theoretically infinite number of second-hand booksellers’ stocks with a globally interested community, leaving only the logistics of shipping at home and abroad to be surmounted. This seemed to usher in a much-needed second dawn for book collecting — and for a while the going was very good: bargains that lurked by the Kelvin in Glasgow, down a lane in Godalming, or at the station in Grange-over-Sands advanced online pari passu, and at their same attractive prices. To the collector who had long traipsed the streets for years in search of his desideratissimum, this new vista was incredible: never before has it been easier to trace a second-hand book and to sift for the specific edition or volume. Unsurprisingly, given this wealth of options, the purchase of books online increased dramatically: in 2009 only one fifth of UK books were bought through the internet; by 2014 the figure had risen to more than half.

The halcyon period for buying secondhand books online proved, however, to be relatively short. As booksellers became more aware of other traders’ stock (and notably dealers based in other countries), prices demanded started to conflate upwards without reference to actual sales. Furthermore, as a new wave of entrepreneurs (who now required no extensive and expensive premises to operate in the trade) entered the fray, the hard-won knowledge about worth and rarity became the province of an ever-smaller percentage of the trade. Whereas “uncommon”, “scarce” and “rare” are precise, nuanced terms among experienced dealers and buyers, for many online-only booksellers a search of the marketplace is now the unquestioned authority for ascertaining a book’s supposed value.

The current logic of pricing for many of this new breed seems to proceed as follows: (1) obtain a second-hand book, transcribe its title and author (if identifiable) and unearth its date; (2) search the details in an online marketplace, such as Abebooks or Biblio; (3) if other copies are found, move to (4), if not, steel yourself for (5); (4) find the most expensive copy, comparing its stated condition to yours: if yours is worse, price it 5 per cent below; if better, add 25 per cent; (5) using your own idiosyncratic ritual, which may involve the rolling of dice, multiplication by your age and the addition of a zero for the presence of a dust-jacket, divine a price; (6) describe the condition of your copy with an estate agent’s optimism (“well-thumbed” = pages loosely inserted; “spine worn” = spine absent; “occasional marking” = ubiquitous use of highlighters); (7) sit and wait for the sale, disregarding the possibility that (4) may be predicated on another dealer’s (5); (8) most important of all: never contemplate lowering your price.

This is no satire: the phenomenon is easily visible online. Take for instance Walter Pater’s Greek Studies (1895): one copy is offered for £1,000 in Hove, and a second at £990, owing (one presumes) to its rebound state, in Arlington, Virginia: good luck to both of those sellers — the book is worth £30 in decent condition. One Lancashire bookseller has no fewer than 80 books priced at £977.26, including Monster Poems (1995), The Masterchef Cookbook (2010), and Volume 2 of the Loeb edition of Plato’s Laws (1961): on a very good day (in the real world) the last could fetch £10. When asked about their rationale of pricing, this retailer was curt: “Our prices reflect the current demand in the market place.” Such is the misunderstanding between prices asked and prices realised, between meaningless obscurity and genuine desirability. Whether this is the result of ignorance, greed, delegation to computer software — or all three — it is profoundly depressing.

Yet such dealers will profess that they have done their work: take this description of a (disconcertingly posthumous) “first” of Gaskell’s Cranford from 1891: “First edition. Hardcover, library binding shows wear, cracked spine, worn edges . . . Condition considered in pricing. $1,995.” Such a book is scarcely worth £5. The pricing of most second-hand titles is now all at sea: Pevsner’s Wiltshire (2nd ed., 1975) may be bought for £15 (Hartlip) or £165 (Billingshurst); Ramsey’s Foundations of Mathematics (1931) for £40 (Leamington Spa) or £750 (the Fulham Road); J.K. Stephen’s Lapsus Calami (1891) for £5 (Church Stretton) or $2,250 (Cleveland, Ohio); reprints of J.D. Duff’s commentary on Juvenal’s Satires (1898) for 64p (Lincoln) or $3,250 (Richmond, Texas). Even recently published books can baffle: pity the fate of those wanting to tour a noble county, when prices for Philip’s Street Atlas of Lincolnshire (2007 ed.) make such a trip hard to stomach: two copies are priced around £500 (in Lancashire and West Sussex), one at £1,337 (Lewiston, New York), one at £1,684 (Exeter). The book is worth £10 new. Caveat emptor has never rung truer.

As the art of pricing books rapidly dissipates, so does that of describing them evanesce. Take the following bookseller’s summary of Karl Streckfuss’s translation of Dante’s Divina Commedia (1840):

I am not sure who the publisher is as I do not read German . . . and old German with the fancy letters makes it even harder to figure out. I am not sure if this is rebound or not . . . the spine has heavy wear to the head and heel and the design is rubbed off of it . . . there is another title in this book about half way through . . . $148.95.

Nevertheless, amidst such chaos online, bargains can be found, with books lurking at a tenth — sometimes a fiftieth — of their probable value. Searching for misspelt author names (“Houseman”, “Yates”, “Tolkein”) and mistranscribed titles (especially of foreign works: Fraktur and Ancient Greek can cause especial bewilderment) often reveals cases where sellers, particularly on eBay, have invented their own prices far below par. Thus, with sufficient circumspection, antiquarian libraries can still be built from scratch at a relatively low cost. Yet to limit one’s bookbuying to the online market is to lose the inimitable pleasures of browsing a shelf of unpredictable titles, handling them with open-minded curiosity, and finding the book you had never known you wanted so much.

What then of the reality on the streets? Although closures continue to be regular across the UK — and indeed Europe — many established second-hand bookshops have weathered the online storm, happily keeping their feet on the ground. Those with offline stock, such as G. David’s in Cambridge, Bookcase in Carlisle and Baggins in Rochester, remain a delight to browse; unexpected finds still lurk in the right places — up the hill in Lincoln, opposite the church in Lewes or at the old ironmonger’s in Lechlade. Our three Book Towns (Hay-on-Wye, Wigtown, Sedbergh) also continue to reward patient sifters of their immense stockpiles.

More nevertheless needs to be done to keep quality bookshops in our towns. In recent years charity shops, aided by freely acquired stock, volunteer staff and preferential business rates, have stolen a march on traditional high-street bookstores: since 2012 Oxfam Books has been the third biggest bookseller in the UK. While the charitable cause thrives, the established independent seller feels the pinch. Given the criminally frequent closure of libraries in recent decades, for which a long series of governments each share a portion of the blame, their preservation is essential not just to British culture but to general education. We who regularly buy second-hand and antiquarian books online, despite our knowledge that it offers a mixed blessing, must support in person our local(s) all the same, so that the new generation wishing to seek out books from the past can enjoy a share of that which inspired so many generations before.

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