Thoughts on Amazon’s $2630.52 Bodice Ripper.

A few days ago, under the online banner “Amazon’s Curious Case of the $2,630.52 Used Paperback,” the venerable New York Times reported with surprise on  phenomena we are all too familiar with: second hand books for sale at absurd prices.   The first  book in question was a 2009 romance novel, for sale on Amazon, entitled “One Snowy Knight.” Having brought this information to the attention of David Streitfeld, the Times’ respected Amazon authority, the author then innocently asked “How many really sell at that price? Are they just hoping to snooker some poor soul?” She then alternatively wondered whether Russian hackers might not have taken up the manipulation of used book prices to keep themselves busy during their spare time.

The answers to the questions are: 1-we will be astonished to ever see evidence that books with similarly absurd prices do actually sell, even on Amazon, and; 2- Russian hackers have better things to do, even when there are no elections available for them to subvert.  The inflated prices reported in the the story are, almost certainly, the products of imperfect algorithms created to continually reprice products without any human intervention. Booksellers call it “robopricing,” a term of general contempt.

How this works and what it means for the future of second-hand bookselling is a dismal subject. I have already written a lengthy blogpost about it, which can be read  HERE. I will refrain from going over it again.  The  New York Times article did, however, bring up a few interesting questions that I did not cover in my earlier post.

The focus of the Times piece was, of course, Amazon.  Certainly the automated pricing tools are effective there, and it would be hard to argue that price adjustment is not a natural, even essential, part of retail sales.  And when a price is obviously off the mark then it is probably due to a flawed algorithm rather than a scheme to fleece a naive and price-indifferent buyer.

But I am also wondering if there might not be more to it than that. Could there be other ways to benefit from putting a crazy price on a used book?  In this case I couldn’t help but notice that the $2,630.52 bodice-ripper in question was out of print and the colourful tweet that illustrated the online version of the story made it a point to mention that a new reprint was scheduled for release in July.  It can’t have been bad publicity for this news to appear on page B1 of the NYT when it did.  Was it just a fortuitous coincidence? The author, Deborah MacGillivrary, is no ingénue in the art of influencing book sales on Amazon.  Perhaps she has discovered some clever method for boosting the sales rank of a new book by drastically inflating the price of second-hand copies.  If so, she is not letting us in on her secret.

However, someone from MacGillivrary’s publisher, Kensington, is also quoted in the story and prefers to point the finger of blame in a different direction. “Amazon is driving us insane with its willingness to allow third-party vendors to sell authors’ books with zero oversight… It’s maddening and just plain wrong.”

Streitfeld also sees culpability in the third-party sellers. He writes: “Amazon is by far the largest marketplace for both new and used books the world has ever seen… (Amazon)  directly sells some books, while others are sold by third parties. The wild pricing happens with the latter.”

The problem with this is that third-parties are the only sellers of second-hand books on Amazon, which is only interested in selling new books on its own account. Without third-party sellers its book offerings would be limited to what is in print (or recently remaindered).  At that point Amazon ceases to be “by far the largest marketplace for new and used books.”  That status (which is quite arguable to begin with)  would then belong to a metasearch site – like viaLibri for instance – where the number of independent sellers  and second-hand book offerings substantially out-number those available from the Big A, even when its new titles are added in.

But this strays, of course, from the primary focus of the story, which gaped at an incomprehensible price attached to what should have been a cheap used paperback.  It is not clear how this threatened the sanity of the featured publisher, who we presume is not also a third-party seller and does not traffic in used books.

We are also warned about “the wild pricing specialists, who sell both new and secondhand copies”.  I have some experience in this particular world and this is not a category of bookseller I have yet encountered – at least not one who was active as a third party bookseller who sold both new and used copies with ‘wild’ prices.  This explanation comes from Guru Hariharan, a former Amazon employee who now heads a company “which develops artificial intelligence technology for retailers and brands.”  Referring to these wild pricing specialists he explains that “By making these books appear scarce, they are trying to justify the exorbitant price that they have set.” If Mr. Hanrahan’s has indeed discovered a method for making common books appear scarce then the prospects for his company would be rosy. I  wouldn’t count on it. Internet search engines now provide a definitive measure of scarcity that is visible to anyone in the market place for old books.  While it might be possible to make a scarce book appear common, I have not yet learned the secret for making a common book appear scarce.  When I have mastered that bit of magic I will be sure to keep it to myself.

Unless I’m too late. The Russian hackers may already have started to work.

 

A better way to “Buy It Now” on eBay.

We are pleased to announce that viaLibri now includes books from eBay as part of its search results.  If you look in the “Where to Search” panel in the upper right hand corner of our home page search form you will see two check boxes for eBay.com and eBay.co.uk. When these have been ticked the old, rare and out-of-print “Buy It Now” book listings from those two sites will be added to all the items from all the other sites we already search.  This means that over 30 million more items have now become searchable.

And there are more to come.  We expect to start searching auctions on eBay in the near future and plan to expand to other international eBay sites as well.

But beyond just adding numbers to our search results we are also creating a better way to search eBay for books.  You can now use viaLibri to search for books on eBay in ways that are not possible on any other site, including eBay itself.  Once you have given us a try we are confident you will not want to go back to whatever you did before.  Here are some of the things you will now be able to do, for the first time, when searching for books on eBay:

Authors: What could be more essential to the identity of a book than the name of its author?  Nothing that we can think of.  When a book is listed on eBay the author’s name is just another undifferentiated tidbit of information. Searching specifically by author is not possible.  To overcome this limitation we have developed techniques to extract the author’s name from most eBay book descriptions . This means, for example, that if you wanted to search for books written by Martin Luther you could have results that were not also cluttered with books about him. You can also combine this with our exclusion feature to make sure that your search for books by Martin Luther did not also fill your results with books by or about Martin Luther King.  This is something you cannot do when searching on eBay itself.

Publication Dates: The year in which a book was published is, of course, an essential element in determining its interest and value.  One of the most useful tools that viaLibri offers to collectors is the ability for search for books within a specific date range and to sort results by date.  If you are only interested in books on a subject before a certain date we can filter your results to eliminate the things you don’t want. This is something else you can’t currently do when searching on eBay directly.

Fuller descriptions for search results: Native search results on eBay show only a title, price and photo for the books that are returned.  To see any details you need to click through to another page.  Our results will in most cases show, in the results list,  the notes or condition information provided by the seller.  In this way, much needless clicking is avoided.

Bookseller easily identified: In addition to details about the book, our results list will also give the name of the seller who is offering that item, this helping to identify favoured sellers and eliminating what should be an unnecessary click.

First Editions:  We have built our own eBay tool to find books which have been identified by their sellers as first editions. After testing the results we have found that we usually return significantly more eBay firsts when we search on viaLibri than when we search on eBay itself.

Signed copies:  The same thing applies when we search for signed copies.  In fact, with signed books we do even better than with first editions.  In one case, for example, we turned up 3 signed copies of books by a particular author, while eBay had none, and did not even get an option for trying.  If your collecting interests are focused on signed copies we should be able to help you find more of them.

Clipboard: The viaLibri clipboard is available for saving details of items you have found on eBay, along with items from any of the other sites we search.  Even after the book is sold or withdrawn, the information about it will be stored indefinitely for future reference, or until you decide to delete it.

Exclusions:  When searching on viaLibri you can specify words or phrases that help identify items that you want to exclude from your search results. eBay lets you use a single word in the title to select items for exclusion; viaLibri lets you use multiple words or phrases, and the exclusions can be applied specifically to the author, title or keyword fields. For example, this would be useful if you were searching for books about Charles Darwin but did not want books written by him. This can be easily done with viaLibri, but is impossible when searching directly on the eBay site itself.

No ISBN: A checkbox on the viaLibri search form lets you filter out books which have ISBN numbers. This is useful for identifying and excluding modern reprints of early editions when it is only the early editions that are of interest.

Translation:  When an item is described in a foreign language you can use the viaLibri translation feature to translate the text into the language of your choice.

If you are only interested in looking for books on eBay then we feel quite confident that viaLibri is the best way for you to do it.  All you need to do is go to the “Where to Search” panel and uncheck all the options except “eBay (UK)” and “eBay (US).” But why would you want to do that?  We have over two dozen other boxes you can check that will lead you to books from many thousands of additional booksellers from around the world.  eBay is an excellent place to look for books, but if it is the only place you have been looking so far, then I think you are in for a pleasant discovery.

If you are, on the other hand, a long time hard-core eBay buyer then I think you will also be in for a pleasant surprise.  Give it a try and see for yourself if we don’t make your hunt for books on eBay both easier and more productive.

 

How To Find A Rare Book

I think most people now take it for granted that finding an old book isn’t very hard.  Of course, this wasn’t always the case.  There was a time, not too long ago, when finding even a relatively ordinary out-of-print book print involved a fair amount of effort and patience.  Having already blogged about that HERE I will resist the temptation to rattle on about that subject again.

Things are very different now.  If you want to find an old book today it is all very simple:  just fill out a form on viaLibri, click the Search button, and then scroll through all the results. If the book you want is being offered for sale almost anywhere on the internet then our comprehensive search engine will almost surely find it for you. And you are likely to find many copies to choose from. Even on a site like viaLibri, which specifically targets the interests of collectors, the median number of results returned from each search is 14.  In most cases the only challenge is deciding which copy you want to buy.

But not always. Even with the huge ocean of the internet to fish in it is also possible to search for a book and have nothing show up in the results. Although unusual, it does sometime happen that there are no copies for sale.    That is when we can start talking about something being rare.

‘Rare’ is a word we have lately learned to use only with some trepidation.  It was subject to much abuse in the days before online bookselling when the primary tool of measurement was nothing more certain than the experience and expertise of whoever was describing the book.  Needless to say, the reliability of personal expertise can be quiet variable, and when mistaken claims of rarity have made their way into reference works and respectable bookseller catalogues it is inevitable that they will be repeated elsewhere and eventually take on the appearance of fact – all of which was possible because, for most of the books that might be encountered in the market place, there was usually no objective reference to validate or refute a claim of rarity.

 Then, of course, the internet came along, and with it the perception of rarity ceased to be a matter of judgement and experience and became, instead, a simple,  measurable fact.  A book for which multiple copies were available online could no longer be considered rare and no bibliographic authority could make it otherwise.  To much consternation and dismay, many books long regarded as “rare” were found to be otherwise. As a result, a new simpler measure established itself:

No-copies-for-sale-online = RARE

A simplistic formula for sure, but its simplicity and empirical objectivity trumped any other considerations, at least as far as the marketplace was concerned; and it was a proof available to all.

Using that criteria it turns out that a significant number of the books that people want cannot, at this moment, be found for sale online.  A check in the search log for viaLibri shows that roughly 1 search in 5 returns an empty result.  Moreover, while it turns out that many of the books once thought to be rare are actually not so, it has also become apparent that there are many more genuinely rare books than might previously have been imagined.  When they surface they are compared with what is already for sale online.  If there are no other copies found then they are far more likely to receive a careful examination than they would have in a less connected world.

At the top of this post I alluded to how easy the internet has made it to find copies of most out-of-print books.  One might suppose that rare books would be different and that if the book you wanted was not currently available for sale online then there would not be much that the viaLibri could do to help you find it.  But that isn’t necessarily so.

If a book is not available today that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t appear tomorrow, or next week, or six months from now.  But it also doesn’t mean you have to keep coming back every day to look for it.  That is what we created Libribot to do.  Once your search criteria have been saved in the Wants Manager you can sit back and relax. Our persistent search bot will then start to work checking daily for new listings of the book you want. When it finds one it will send you an email with a direct link to the website where the book is being offered for sale.

You may think that you are doomed to wait a very long time if the book you are looking for is “rare”  and not currently available online, but that isn’t necessarily true.  It is often the case that a book cannot be found for the simple reason that the demand for it greatly exceeds the supply.  In absolute terms it may not be considered rare, but in practical terms it will effectively be so.  When a book of this sort appears on the market it doesn’t take long for it to be noticed, sold and to disappear. If you really want it then you will need to move fast and buy it before someone else.  Libribot can help make sure you are not too late.

Even if the book is really not that rare, it may be that all the copies you find online are more expensive than what you want to pay.  In that case you might resign yourself to the idea that the book is beyond your reach. You shouldn’t give up so easily. The copies you find but can’t afford may just be over-priced.  They may belong to patient sellers who hope some day to get the maximum price possible.  While they are waiting, however, other sellers may come along who, in return for a quick sale, will be happy to let their copy go more reasonably. All you need to do is tell Libribot and it will quickly go to work and report to you when it finds a copy with a more agreeable price. And if you tell Libribot the maximum you are prepared to pay it will continue searching for your book without bothering you about copies that don’t fit your budget.

All of which is meant to show you that if you aren’t already letting Libribot help you find books then maybe you should give it a try.  Times have changed and finding rare books may now be much easier than you think.

Bibliopolis is harvest-ready (and always has been).

We recently announced some new updates to our harvesting platform that enable booksellers who have sites built with WordPress or Shopify to be included in our search results.   That was news when it came out, but I didn’t want to overlook the fact that websites built by Bibliolpolis are also harvest ready.  And they can be harvested with little more than a digital flick of the switch.

In fact, a few sites built by Bibliopolis were included when we first launched this feature several years ago. They participated from the start, and many more of their sites have joined us since then.  They are, by far, the most numerous among the cohort of booksellers whose  websites are searched directly by viaLibri.

Bibliopolis now host sites for over 300 booksellers. If you are one of them, but have not yet tried connecting your site with viaLibri, we would like to make you a special offer: a free trial period from now until the end of 2017.  You can try it over the holiday period, without obligation, and if you decide to continue after that your paid subscription will not begin until  January 1, 2018.

Once you have been set up the rest will happen automatically. No additional effort is required on your part.  Whatever is for sale on your website will also be for sale on viaLibri with a direct link to your site. The monthly fee is only $25 ($250/year) which includes listing up to 10,000 books along with all the other standard benefits of a Premium Services subscription. There is no set-up fee and you can cancel at any point with a full refund for whatever time still remains on your subscription.

So if you have a Bibliopolis website and have wondered whether you should connect it with viaLibri (not to mention Libribot) this would be the perfect time to sign up and find out.  For more information write to us here.  We will be pleased to hear from you.

 

 

York Book Fair – See You There.

The York Book Fair is nearly upon us and eager anticipation is everywhere on the rise.  With over 200 booksellers  (including several from overseas) York is easily the largest antiquarian book fair in Europe.  Many bibliophiles will be travelling long distances to be there when the doors open at noon on Friday the 15th.  And I, as usual will, be among them.
This year, however, I will be accompanied by Alasdair North, our CTO and the digital magician behind the viaLibri curtain.

Once inside, we will both be looking for books – I to resell (mostly), Al to collect.   But we will both also be there with feedback about viaLibri at the top of our want lists. If anyone has questions about any of the things we do then we will be more than happy to take a break and try to answer them.  That includes questions about building a new website or having links to your existing website included in our search results.

If you would like to have one of us drop by your stand during the fair just let me know.  If you don’t have a stand we can meet with you in one of the cafés.  If you like to plan ahead you can send a quick email to: mail@vialibri.net.   If you want to get in touch just before or during the Fair then you can call me on my mobile:  +44 7814 266 372.  Either way we will be happy to hear from you.

Follow Us Now On Instagram

We are now posting regularly to Instagram. You will find us there as Insta_glyph@vialibri. The main focus of our postings will be photos of unusual or graphically interesting early books and related items that have been found by visitors searching on our site. We hope to do this daily, and if we fail to keep that pace it will not be due to a lack of suitable material.

If you are not yet familiar with Instagram you may want to try visiting it now. There is already a large and active group of bibliophiles from around the world sharing interesting images there. The community of rare book librarians on Instagram is particularly active and eager to pull from their vaults many treasures that would otherwise be rarely seen. @americanantiquarian is a particular favourite of ours, but they are just one of many. The number of booksellers with interesting feeds is also impressive, although we must resist having favourites there.

viaLibri now also has a new feature created specifically for the benefit of our Instagram followers. You can now go to www.vialibri.net/instagram and find a graphic grid showing all the photos we have recently posted, with the most recent ones at the top. These photos are all linked to individual pages where the complete descriptions of the pictured items are given exactly as provided by the bookseller who offered them for sale. There is even a link for purchasing the item if it has not already been sold. A link to our photo grid is also included as part of our Instagram profile, or “bio,” page so that detailed bibliographic descriptions can be found only three clicks away from your feed.

Of course, you can also check out our most recent postings just by going to the page mentioned above. That would save you from ever having to actually go to the Instagram site itself; but then you would be missing out on all the fun.

viaLibri adds ISBN searching. Please ignore.

You may have noticed that a new feature has been introduced with viaLibri’s latest update. It is something many people have asked for. Most thought it should have been included a long time ago.  As in, from the beginning.  I resisted for many years, but have finally capitulated.  You are now able to search for books on viaLibri using ISBN.

Please don’t.

The reason is simple.  ISBN numbers are a terrible way to search for books.

I will certainly grant the fact that they serve an important purpose for the activities of publishers, distributors and new book stores.  I’m sure they are useful in other contexts as well, especially for those who are only interested in new books. If you inhabit a world where data is always orderly and you like the idea that books are generic objects suitable to the algorithmic demands of data processing and purchaser profiling, then ISBN is most definitely for you.  Happily, viaLibri does not yet live in that world, and I feel confident that most of its users do not want to live there either.  And they do not have to.  They do not need ISBN numbers, and are cordially invited to ignore them.

Because, as I said, ISBN numbers are a terrible way to search for books.  You will quickly discover this the first time you attempt to search online for an out-of-print book using its ISBN number and then repeat the search the old-fashioned way using author and title.  Author/title searches nearly always yield more and better results than searches based on ISBN.

The reasons for this are simple:  many of the booksellers who deal in older books do not bother with ISBNs, so the listings they put on the internet do not include them.   To a collector the information is meaningless, and the booksellers who focus on serving collectors generally share that attitude, even when they are also selling books to the general public.

But that is not the only reason why a second-hand book might be catalogued without its ISBN number.  Often a book will have a number, but it does not actually appear inside of it.  This is especially likely in the case of reprinted works that were originally published before ISBNs were firmly established. There are also many cases where the publisher didn’t obtain the ISBN until after the book was printed, or just didn’t think it was worth including as part of the text.  In all of these cases the book is very likely to be catalogued without its ISBN, and if you search for it using that ISBN there will be many available copies that you will not find .

A few examples pulled from my personal reference shelf will demonstrate.

You might, for instance, want to buy a copy of BOOKBINDING IN AMERICA 1680 – 1910. FROM THE COLLECTION OF FREDERICK E. MASER, published in 1983.  The ISBN number for this book is 0813910137, although it is nowhere to be found within the book itself.  But if you don’t have the number already you will have no trouble finding it by looking in WorldCat or an ISBN database.   If you use that number to search for your copy on viaLibri you will get 12 listings.  Only two copies are available for less than $25, both of them from Amazon.  However, if you try your search again, while ignoring the ISBN, and search instead for: title = “BOOKBINDING IN AMERICA MASER COLLECTION”,  you will receive 39 matches, including 3 additional copies that are priced for less than $25.  This is a significant difference in results.

Or, suppose you stumbled upon a reference to the 4 volume set of ARTS IN AMERICA, A BIBLIOGRAPHY, edited by Bernard Karpel and published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1979.  Suppose you could not resist the impulse to buy a set of your own.   If your reference did not give you the ISBN number (0874745780)  WorldCat will, as will many other online sources.   It is also printed in the book.  The 10 digits seem so precise and unambiguous. It is easy to think that they would be the logical way to find your copy.  Please do not be fooled.    If you use those numbers for your search parameter you will find only 66 matches (including many odd volumes and duplicates)  and there will be no complete sets available in North America for less than $45.  If, on the other hand, you try your search using author and title you will, instead, be rewarded with a total of 104 matches, including five complete sets in North America selling for $40 or less.  The ISBN matches will still be there, but so will many others that would have otherwise been missed.

These are not the only good reasons for ignoring ISBNs.  For me, the most compelling reason is the potential for discovery.  You can’t always know whether the ISBN you are using will correspond with the best possible version of the book you are interested in.  What if there is a later enlarged edition that has a new ISBN?  You would not find out about the updated version if you did your searching with the ISBN of the earlier edition.   The author/title search would quickly let you know.

Sometimes, when you use author and title to search for one book the results you receive will also show you another, different work by the same author that could also be of interest.   With ISBNs you rarely discover anything you are not specifically looking for.  With names and words you may find something unexpected that is even more interesting than the book you thought you wanted.

I would also mention the problem of typos, a problem that comes from both buyer and seller.  These, of course, can happen anywhere, but they are much harder to notice and correct when it is only a string of numbers that have been mistyped.

Are there circumstances where only searching  by ISBN is worthwhile?  Very few.

It might sometimes be useful to check for strays after the old-fashioned author/title search had been tried.  This might find a copy of a book with a typo or other cataloguing error that might otherwise be missed.  Anything is possible.

Sometimes students are assigned text-books that are being continually “updated” by their publishers with new ISBNs.  In this case the student will only want a copy with the correct ISBN.  Used copies that are listed without this information will not be satisfactory, so searching by number would not exclude anything the searcher would want to buy.

Lastly, I have been told that there are online listings of books entered using non-Roman alphabets and that, unless you have a special keyboard, these books can only easily be found using ISBN numbers.  Having never encountered such a book during my own extensive burrowing through online data I am a bit sceptical that such listings actually exist. But I do not rule it out.

It is with these special circumstances in mind that the latest change was made.  I hope it will be regarded as an improvement.  But I still worry that people will actually use it for a purpose it does not serve.

At least I can tell myself that you, patient reader, have been warned.