ILAB Amsterdam Congress and Fair cancelled

The sad but generally expected cancellation of the ILAB  Congress in Amsterdam was announced yesterday, along with  similar news for the book fair that would have accompanied it. That news was followed today by cancellation of the September York fair, Europe’s largest.

The status of other future book fairs,  or at least those scheduled for sometime in 2020, is now an open question.

The most notable response, so far, has been a quick scheduling of  the alternative online events now generally referred to as “virtual” book fairs. At least a couple of these have already taken place and another 3 that we know of  are planned for the next three weeks.

Everyone is hopeful that these virtual fairs will find enough real buyers to help sustain booksellers and collectors until they are ready to emerge from lock down.   If you are interested in doing a bit of virtual book hunting we list below 3 events already on out calendar. If there are others you know of please let me know.

Virtual Grand Palais Book Fair and ILAB Webinar

Many of you may not be aware that a “virtual Book Fair” has been organised to fill the void left by the postponement of this year’s Salon du Livre Rare, traditionally held this week at the Grand Palais.  The familiar physical fair will now be held in September, but a new virtual version will also now be held on the usual dates.  Some details will be found here:

https://ilab.org/articles/next-ilab-webinar-paris-virtual-book-fair-launched-week

In connection with the virtual book fair there will also be a pair of Zoom webinars (French and English) scheduled to begin at 1 pm (Paris time) on Wednesday. These will provide the launch for the virtual fair, which opens on Thursday at 5. A more complete brief on the focus of the webinars has not been provided – to me at least – but I suspect they will extend themselves beyond just the idea of virtual bookselling.

Links for joining the webinars will be found by following the link shown above.  I haven’t yet found the url for the virtual fair itself, but will post it here as soon as I can get it.

Here is where you will find the virtual book fair, starting on Thursday at 5pm (Paris time):

https://www.salondulivrerare.paris/

Zooming The Coronavirus & Book Trade Lockdown

Last week’s ILAB-organised webinar on COVID-19 And The Rare Book Trade was a fascinating event for bibliophiles in general and the rare book trade in particular. (See last week’s blog post for more about this). Seven prominent booksellers from seven countries shared insights into how they are coping  with lockdown. For myself, I found it noteworthy how similar the experiences were around the globe.  In was yet more testimony of how much  Amor Librorum Nos Unit.

I’m told that over 170 people plugged into Zoom to listen to the conversation live and ask a few questions after the remote panelists were done.  Fortunately for those who could not log into the live event a recording was also made.  It can be watched here:

ZOOM

I hope everyone else will get as much out of this as I did.

Do Book Collectors Need Rules?

I recently listened with great interest to an online recording of the 2019 Malkin Lecture delivered last month at the Rare Books School in Virginia by Heather O’Donnell and Rebecca Romney.  Its provocative title was: “The Right and Wrong Ways to Collect.” If you missed the live performance and haven’t yet caught the recorded version then I would strongly encourage you to click this link –  bit.ly/2xNOE9z  – and listen to what they had to say.

Their title captured my attention because it connected directly with the topic of another lecture I had, myself, presented at the University of London’s Senate House some five years earlier. For my lecture the title was: “Taste and Technique in Book Collecting An Update for the Digital Age”. In my case, however, there were no recording devices present.  I had instead intended to rework my original oral presentation into something more readable and then post it on our website where I knew that, if nothing else, our friend the Googlebot could be counted on to find and read it.

Of course, as often happens, action did not readily follow intention and the notes from my talk soon found their way, instead, into an archive folder on my laptop where they were eventually saved and forgotten.  They would likely have stayed there, too, if listening to Heather and Rebecca had not brought them back to mind. I was thus nudged to update my own thoughts on the subject and put them into a form more suitable for appearing online. You can now find that here:

https://blog.vialibri.net/taste-and-technique-in-book-collecting-updated-for-the-digital-age/

Both lectures focused, in particular, on the ways in which the established “rules”and practices of book collecting have been altered, if not made completely irrelevant, by the internet and related technologies. Traditional collectors, and the booksellers who serve them, regularly bemoan the resulting loss of “standards” and complain of a general decline in book collecting as the inevitable result. I was happy to hear that Rebecca and Heather have seen a very different and more encouraging horizon. Theirs has been informed, in particular, by the numerous young collectors who have submitted entries to their annual Honey & Wax Book Collecting Prize. They give us a glimpse of a very positive future and I was pleased to hear about them.

Many of these young collectors have no interest in following in the footsteps of their predecessors. Nor should they. Some of their interests may seem incomprehensible to the collectors of my generation;  they may have confessed to the prize judges that “I know I’m doing it wrong,” but what we learn from them is that,  in fact, there is no such thing as “doing it wrong.”

My own lecture concluded with a similar message.  It leaned heavily on the prescriptions of John Carter, the English bookseller who did more than anyone else of the previous century to explain and defend the “rules” of book collecting that guided my own generation of bibliophiles.  Those are among the rules that are now being being tossed aside, or simply ignored, by a new generation – one that is mistakenly accused of having no interest in books.  I personally find it fascinating to examine the origins and evolution of those rules, but it is even more exciting to think about the huge opportunities that are now opening up to this new wave of collectors who feel no need or interest in being told how or what to collect.

So if you are among the many who are skeptical and pessimistic about the future of book collecting I would like to direct you to the two links above. I hope they will cheer you up.

 

Who Owned This? – THE MOVIE

Provenance Meets Big Data – Do they have a future together? by Jim Hinck from The Grolier Club on Vimeo.

If you regret having missed last month’s “Who Owned This?” symposium  at the Grolier Club you can now see the video version that has just been published to Vimeo.

A link to my own contribution is shown above while the full program can be accessed here:

Who Owned This?

I was pleased to be asked to present a paper at the recent symposium “Who Owned This,” sponsored by the ILAB, ABAA and Grolier Club on 5 March, 2019.  The event took place at the Grolier Club with 120 registrants in the audience and, I am told, an early and lengthy waiting list.

The 8 speakers spoke on various subjects relating to the difficult but timely problems faced by booksellers and librarians in connection with provenance, theft and forgery.  I was honored by being assigned the closing position and used it to consider these subjects with a particular regard to the use of databases to protect from theft, recover stolen books and establish provenance. At the end I ventured a few general speculations about how the database technologies of the future may be even more useful for these purposes, including a preview of some of the things that viaLibri will be doing to make use of these technologies. The title of my paper was: “Provenance Meets Big Data – Do they have a future together?

The full symposium was videotaped by the Grolier Club and will, in the future, be available on their website.  I will make an announcement of that here when it happens.

In the meantime, a few colleagues who had not been able to attend the symposium have asked me to send them a printed version of my paper.  On the chance that there might be one or two others who remain curious about what I had to say I have posted the full text of my presentation elsewhere on my blog.  You can read it here:

Provenance Meets Big Data: Will they have a future together?

Comments have been enabled for that page and will be very welcome.

 

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 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.

 

Ups and Downs as we move to the clouds.

Searching on viaLibri has been up and down for much of the day today, chiefly as a result of recently moving our data to a cloud server. A few technical issues have emerged during the migration, in several cases causing the site to go down for a while until we made some adjustments. Search is again up and running and we hope to keep it that way, but the issues are not completely resolved and there are a few sites that are still temporarily missing from our results. We will keep working on it until everything is fixed and results from all our search sites are back.

We are very sorry for these interruptions and apologise for any inconvenience they may have caused. Once we have completely recovered we expect you will resume your searches on a much improved viaLibri, in terms of both speed and reliability. In the meantime your patience is greatly appreciated.

-Jim

Algorithmic book pricing and its implications

John Henry said to the captain,
“A man ain’t nothin’ but a man,
But before I let your algo beat me down,
I’ll die with a pencil in my hand
Lord, Lord
I’ll die with a pencil in my hand.”

Back in September the issue of algorithmic pricing surfaced in one of the ABA (Antiquarian Booksellers Association) email Bulletins. It came in response to a letter sent by a member to myself and the ABA office seeking an explanation for a strange phenomenon he had recently observed: out-of-print text books on sites like Amazon and AbeBooks were being listed at absurd prices, in some cases reaching into six figures.  He wondered if this might possibly be evidence of a new scam devised to fleece careless librarians who used automated ordering systems and may not be noticing the prices that they pay.  I suggested, instead, that the most likely explanation was that software, rather than human intelligence, was being used to price the books.

Shortly thereafter  the ABA newsletter editors, ever conscious of the need to fill pages, asked if I could elaborate on the subject for a forthcoming issue.  Having already exposed myself in the pose of someone who understood this depressing subject I did not then find myself in a position to refuse their request.  It is not a subject I would otherwise choose on my own, but here it is.

Let me say, right off, that what I know about this subject has no basis in personal bookselling experience.  I have never let a machine price my books or even been in the presence of a machine that I knew was programmed to do so.  I would be fascinated to hear a personal account from a colleague who had actually tried this with his own books, but I suspect that if there really is someone amongst us who has already ventured down this gloomy path he would be reluctant to step forward and tell us about it. So you are left with me.

Algorithmic pricing (also known as robo pricing) refers to the use of specialized computer programs  to automate the pricing of  books (or anything else for that matter).  The best known providers of these programs are Monsoon and Fillz. Once provided with the ISBN number of any book, either of these services can connect to the internet and retrieve the prices and other relevant information for all the copies of that book available on the major book sites.   This is, of course, an automated version of what most of the rest of us already do manually nearly every day.  But the robopricing engines take this one step further and include the ability to customise a small program (the “algorithim”) that processes all the data that it collects and spits out a price to match the particular instructions it was given.   It might, for instance, decide that it wants its copies to be priced at the exact median of all available copies (a bad strategy I would think) or to be 5 pence cheaper than any other copy, or half the average of any book with over 10 listings, or to be priced with virtually any other clever strategy the bookseller might conceive.  Moreover, the software  runs on a kind of auto-pilot that can continuously update prices online as things change, or even if they don’t .  The knowledge and experience of the bookseller plays no role in this operation.   Facts about the book itself are irrelevant.  All that is taken into consideration is the quantifiable information that can be gathered from the current online listings tied to a given ISBN.

The “algo” has no problems doing its job as long as it is given data to process,  but the situation can become  “interesting” when there are little or no other copies available for it to price against. Then anything is possible.  This was almost certainly the situation with the books that the concerned member was noticing. With nothing real to go on, the algorithm just went fishing with a very optimistic idea of what price might be possible.  It did not have to do this, of course.  The algorithm could have been designed with more reasonable expectations.  In this case it was just badly designed, and the result was a book that would not sell, at least until the algorithm decided to bring it back down to earth, which it probably eventually did.

An even crazier situation can result when there are only two copies of the same book available at the same time and both are being priced by algorithms that require their copy to always be the second least expensive available.  (Or the most expensive, though I doubt that actually occurs)  Books in this circumstance have been known to reach prices in the millions.

When this happens to a rare but insignificant book it may be good for a snicker or a chuckle, but in the end it is probably harmless.   What robo pricing does at other end of the scale, however, is much more significant and, increasingly, pervasive.   This is because the algorithms are really designed to drive prices down rather than up. They are meant to find the price at which an item is most likely to sell, and that price is almost always the lowest price. When there are hundreds, or even just dozens of identical copies available it is a clear sign that the supply of that book greatly exceeds the demand.   In that case, the successful algorithm will be the one that prices a copy at the lowest possible price.  If multiple sellers are using similar algorithms  then it is likely the price will drop to a penny, or whatever is set as the minimum price for that particular site.

The issue of profit may be irrelevant in this case.  It is probably more a question of minimizing final costs.  Once a book has been purchased, entered into the system, and determined to be too common to sell, it then becomes a question of cutting the bookseller’s loss.  Does it produce the least loss to cull and pulp it, indefinitely allocate a section of finite shelf space for it, or sell it in return for 1p + postage + the email address and personal details of someone now known to buy second-hand books.  In many cases it will be the one penny sale.   This is probably the kind of decision a machine can make much better than a human.

Fortunately, hardly any of us ever have to deal with books of that sort.  But there are books that fall somewhere between the two extremes described above, and it is with these that the robo pricers expose a new reality that most of us will need to understand and, in a some cases, adapt to.

In the past, the price of a given book, usually pencilled onto the fly leaf,  was set by the seller at a carefully considered figure he believed one of his potential customers might eventually be induced to pay for it.  At the point of sale, in most cases, only one copy and one price would be involved in the decision to purchase.   Unless sold to another customer, the book that was refused one day would almost always have the same price two weeks, two months or two years later.  This is the way most retail products have traditionally been priced, and second-hand booksellers were no exception.  The arrival of the internet  changed this in at least one important respect:  the seller, for the first time, had easy access to the prices and other details of all the copies being offered by his competitors at that moment  and could set his own price on that basis.

There had always been something that you could call a “marketplace” for old books, but before the internet it operated in a dense fog.    Some historical information about the prices of books existed in auction records, price guides and in the proprietary memories of booksellers.  Generally accessible information about current availability and prices, however, did not exist.  There was no real marketplace where public knowledge of current prices and supply was available to all participants.   By making that information available in real time the internet changed  the “marketplace” for rare and second-hand books from a metaphor to a reality.

We are all now dealing with the enormous disruption that results from this.  Our accustomed ability to operate as free traders outside the pricing forces of an open marketplace is continuously challenged and reduced.  Only the portion of the book trade that deals in genuinely rare books escapes these pressures.

It would be merciful to leave the story there and not look further ahead, but the subject I started with cannot really be closed without noting one further aspect in which algorithmic pricing significantly alters the business of selling books: commoditisation.  Algorithms can set their prices dynamically.  The idea that you pencil a price into a book and then leave it there until it’s sold may soon become a quaint anachronism.   And when a book price can change dynamically on the basis of all the other prices that are also continuously changing it creates a pricing process where the acquired knowledge of booksellers is, ultimately, unnecessary, if not useless.  In that circumstance the book becomes a commodity plain and simple.  As with any commodity exchange, the market sets the price and the human participants are only there to record the transactions, collect the money and arrange delivery.  On the product side, Amazon has, of course, been treating books as commodities in this respect from it’s very beginning.  When dynamic pricing engines come to set the price of a given ISBN or ASIN in an open online marketplace then the transformation, for that book at least, is complete.

Our one consolation is that this commoditisation, if it does indeed take place, will most likely be restricted to books that have ISBN numbers and always have at least a few similar copies for sale online.  I suspect that there are very few ABA members who derive a major portion of their income from online sales of books like these.   They can be thankful that they do not.  But for the portion of the online book trade that does not regularly handle rare or pre-ISBN books the future may not be so bright.

(Updated July 16, 2018)