Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Ludicrous Book Price Inflation

I don’t know if any of you have looked up a relatively common book on an internet bookselling site, only to find that the prices of the copies being offered are insanely high. Ever wonder why that happens? Here’s an example of how it works. I’m looking for a copy of Mark Twain’s “Following the Equator” in the Oxford University Press edition published as part of The Oxford Mark Twain in 1996. Volumes from this set typically sell for anywhere from $7.50 to $20.00 per volume, with the average price probably about $15.00. There are several copies of the volume that I am seeking currently being offered on Abebooks.com: the lowest price is $149.00. Now, how can that be? This is not a rare book. How in the world can it be that copies are listed at such inflated prices? Well, here’s how it happens. It starts out with, say, six copies of the book being listed for sale, with the top price being $20.00. Some idiot comes along and lists a copy at $200.00. The six copies listed at $20.00 or less gradually sell – sometimes the purchaser thinks that he is getting a great bargain because someone is offering the book at $200.00 – “Gosh, the book is ‘worth’ $200.00 and I only paid $20.00!” Now, while the cheap copies are slowing selling, other booksellers are acquiring copies of the book. These booksellers – who know nothing about nothing when it comes to pricing books – invariably check the internet to see what other people are asking for the book, since they can’t depend on their own nonexistent knowledge. They see that somebody has it at $200.00, so they don’t want to “give it away” at a price like $20.00, so they list it at $175.00. So now, in addition to the reasonably priced copies, there are two copies listed at outrageous prices. The reasonably priced copies continue to slowly sell, while other booksellers come along and see that two booksellers are now listing the book at a high price, and so they list their copy at a high price as well. Eventually the time comes when the last reasonably priced copy sells, and the only copies left that are being offered for sale are these ridiculously high-priced copies. Nobody ever actually pays these prices, but because these are the only copies currently being offered for sale, the moronic booksellers who base their prices on what others are asking for the book on the internet invariably put a great big price on their copy – “After all, the cheapest copy on the internet is $175.00, so I should be able to sell my copy for $150.00, which is a bargain.” For a $20.00 book!! No copy has sold for more than $25.00 in the history of the world (and likely never will), but the no-nothing booksellers (now mostly amateurs and naïve entrepreneurs who have no background or expertise in the book trade) all act like sheep and list the copies at these stupid prices. This grievous state of affairs is becoming increasingly common. When bookselling sites on the internet first came along, booksellers were very excited, because they figured that they would now have a much greater audience for their books – why, instead of only having customers who were in their home town, they could have customers across the world! What they didn’t realize was that while their presence in the marketplace had expanded throughout cyberspace, the bookselling sites also enabled every other bookseller in the world to compete with them both locally and worldwide. And because it was so cheap (no renting of a shop, no issuing of catalogues, no need to have a significant inventory), every Tom, Dick and Harry was in a position to become an instant bookseller on the internet. The results have been disastrous. Most professional used booksellers – who, honestly, never made a comfortable living from bookselling in the first place, but who usually got by – found that they couldn’t compete, with the internet glutted with outrageously cheap copies of books and outrageously overpriced copies of books. They had more money invested in most of their books than hundreds of these amateur booksellers were asking for their copies of the same books, and they couldn’t hope to sell their copies unless they absorbed a painful loss. Thus, many bookstores rapidly went belly-up, and only the very high-end rare booksellers were able to survive at all, for the most part (since the nincompoops merrily wrecking the used book market didn’t have access to truly rare books and therefore couldn’t compete with the high end booksellers). Further, the influx of amateurs further damaged the used bookselling industry by undermining the confidence that customers have in purchasing books via mail order. Many of these people either don't know how to describe their books - particularly the condition of their books - or don't choose to take the time to type out a description. They also don't waste their time packing the books in such a way as to assure that the books are not damaged in transit. Many customers have been disappointed so many times that they are loathe to purchase books over the internet, which hurts all booksellers. Booksellers thought that the internet was a new golden opportunity – little did they know that the internet was actually going to destroy the industry, a process which is steadily taking place as we speak. The advent of e-books, while not an immediate threat, will ultimately be the final death-knell to used booksellers, and probably to retail booksellers as well. Books used to be one of the few products that supported a secondhand marketplace, and this anachronistic enterprise is now running its course. Those of us who remember what it was like to visit a city like New York or Chicago 30, 40 or 50 years ago and find scores of bookstores and booksellers tempting us with their wares find it sad and disappointing to have lived through the changes that the last decade or two have wrought. Those “good old days” are surely gone forever, and book collecting will certainly never be the same, for good or – as some of us believe – for evil. How’s that for being an old fuddy-duddy?

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