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.

 

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)

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.

 

May we please have our description back?

Plagiarism has been in the air lately.  Its latest draft blows our way from a recent report in the Guardian about an award-winning poet whose award-winning poem (with many others) turns out to have been written by someone else.  And he wasn’t even the first prize-winning British copy-cat poet this year.

You might expect otherwise, but the latest victim, Canadian poet Colin Morton, is more puzzled than angered by what seems to be a growing trend. Why steal a poem, of all things? Well, there was a prize, but the imposter has had to give it back.  It has not been mentioned whether Morton now gets the prize money instead. He is probably disqualified by some technicality, but I doubt he will complain. Poets are like that.

And besides, in most cases when this sort of thing comes to light the author whose work was cribbed does not actually suffer as a consequence.  If anything, his stature is enhanced and his creative work receives public attention that might never have come to it otherwise. It was, after all, the poem’s previous lack of recognition that made it suitable for theft.  No more.  One can well imagine that it has been read more times during the  last two weeks than during the first 30 years following its publication.   Its author has become, for the moment at least, a celebrity among his peers

All of which I would not have thought worth commenting on if it had not been for a book we almost bought at about the same time.

The book was Les Jardins Precieux by Raymond Charmaison, a copy of which appeared at auction in Paris last week. It is a book we know well.  There is not much to it in the way of text, but the 8 large plates are a tour de force of pochoir color printing. It is a beautiful book that begs for display, or, unfortunately,  for sacrifice to the framer.  If you happen to be in possession of a copy of Hinck & Wall Catalogue # 54 (“Garden History,” copyright 2002) you will find a lengthier and even more enthusiastic description of it at item number 29.  For those who do not have a copy readily at hand I will reproduce our description here:

Edition limited to 300 numbered copies. Illustrated with eight stunning pochoir plates colored by Jean Saudé. Each plate presents a garden view focused on a special garden feature – a yew walk, an oil jar, a berceau, etc. – rendered in the richest colors of the pochoir technique: for example, the “Salle Verte” is a profound green hedge room with a yellow sky and a pool reflecting all the green variation as well as the vibrant color combinations of the flower plantings in the setting; the rose trellis is set against a star-lit, full-mooned midnight blue sky, again with pool reflections and with a rich parterre and border planting colors. These imaginary “Precious Gardens” are a testament to the power of the printed book as a vehicle for transporting the viewer/reader into the garden and a world of dreams. As Henri Régnier observes in the book’s gold-printed preface, “Il contient quelques feuilles avec des lignes and des couleurs, à peine les aurez vous considerées que vous serez transporté dans un pays de lumière et de soliel...” Pierre Corrard, novelist and poet, established his publishing house in 1912 and began working with such noted illustrators of the day as Georges Barbier, Charles Martin and A.E. Marty. After his death his wife, Nicole Corrard, resumed his publishing efforts under the name “Collection Pierre CorrardSuccessive issues of “ALBUM DES MODES ET MANIERES D’AUJOURD’HUI and similar luxury productions made the house’s fame. Much as their luxurious pochoir renderings of fashion designs helped express the artistry of French haute couture during this period, so did the stunning plates of LES JARDINS PRÉCIEUX give graphic expression to the new artistic visions of the “jardins d’artiste.”

It is, I think I can say, a nice book. We had easily sold our first copy and so thought we might like to buy another.   Naturally, before making a bid, we checked on viaLibri to see if any other copies might already be for sale.  We were not surprised to discover that there were.  What did surprise us, however, was how familiar the descriptions sounded.   Ann Marie had written our catalogue description over 10 years ago, but she immediately recognized her own words and comments in the current listings she found online.

Ignoring the framed prints, there were, in fact, two different copies offered for sale, and each of them included significant chunks  that had apparently been copied from our original description. But not all the same chunks. In neither case had we been consumed whole. Instead, we had served more as a banquet at which the two cataloguers had each picked out just those dishes that appealed to them the most.  Some other parts were, on the other hand, completely ignored.  Perhaps those were parts that we still needed to improve.  We were never told. But if you are curious to know the parts which did satisfy the standards of these particular plagiarists you will find them in boldface in the excerpt above.

All this is nothing new.  I probably would not have thought about it further if I had not made this discovery on the same day that I read the story in the Guardian.   At first I looked at the obvious parallels and thought that, in some diluted way, our copied catalogue description might be like a stolen poem.  I quickly realized, however, that it is not.

In truth, no one can steal a poem.  Once you have written it and shown it to the world you can always put your name on it and claim it for your own.  And that seems to be true of almost any published work that later comes into the grasp of a plagiarist.  Once the author reclaims his authorship the plagiarist is readily exposed.  An author never loses the ability to republish or recite what is rightfully his.

But I now see that there is an exception…

Once a catalogue description has been copied online it is, for all intents and purposes, no longer available to its creator.  In our case, we can no longer use our description of Les Jardins Precieux.  How could we?  If we tried to catalogue another copy our potential customers would almost certainly do what we did: they would check first to see what other copies were available online.  Doing this they would find two others  described with the same words we were presenting as our own.  Two thirds of our description would appear to be plagiarized from other booksellers.  Any expertise or integrity we might previously have had in our customers eyes would be destroyed.  That is something we dare not risk.

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As I said before, plagiarism is nothing new.   The internet has, however, significantly changed its dynamics, both for the good and the bad.  Much of the commentary about Morton’s stolen poem focused on this.   One the one hand,  the plagiarist is presumed to have found the poems (there were many) by searching online.  This is certainly where the lazy booksellers hunt and trap.  A quick cut and paste and it’s theirs.  They will not always be foolish enough to copy current online listings, but any unlisted item that can be found by Google is regarded as fair game, especially if it doesn’t show up on the first one or two pages of results.

On the other hand, the internet is an equally powerful tool for discovering that copying has taken place.  The first stolen poem discovered in the most recent case was recognized  by its author at an online poetry site.  After that, it only took an hour to find a dozen more.  Obviously, internet search tools make this sort of theft much harder to get away with.  It may mean the end of an era, at least as far as poetry plagiarism is concerned.

It is an encouraging thought, and it inevitably lead me to wonder whether internet search engines might not at some point also bring a similar benefit to antiquarian booksellers.  Unfortunately, I tend to think not, at least as things stand now.   The reason is that, in order for the plagiarists to be easily exposed, the original material that they copy must be easily found.  At present, booksellers do everything they can to keep their descriptions off of the internet once the books are sold.  They do this precisely because they do not want others to copy them.   But the plagiarists will find them anyway, especially if they also once appeared in printed catalogues, as much of the most useful specialist material has always done.  By hiding their intellectual property from easy online discovery the only thing they really accomplish is making it safer for plagiarists  to use their material without fear of exposure.  Hiding material from search engines will become an increasingly futile task as the age of Big Data rolls forward. In the long run, the only protection that will work will be one that makes is it harder and harder for plagiarism to go undetected when it occurs.

Most booksellers claim copyright for their catalogue contents, and a few even threaten legal action against violators.  The law may be on their side, but I have never heard of a bookseller actually taking a plagiarism claim to court.  Copyright is, it seems, a toothless protection.

But I have an idea for something that might actually provide the protection that copyright alone does not.  As you might expect, it involves, once again, the internet.  If that is where the crimes are now being committed, that is where we should put our cops to work.  What I have in mind is a descriptive bibliographic database where booksellers can publish all their copyrighted descriptions in a way that clearly establishes priority and ownership.  It would be a public place where you can claim what is yours.  But it would also be much more than that.  If enough booksellers participated, an open searchable database of this nature would soon constitute a valuable bibliographic reference that collectors, librarians, students and scholars could use for all types of research.  It would make a useful permanent resource out of information that is now mostly ephemeral.  It would also be a magnet for anyone with an interest in old books.  An entry could be freely quoted, but only with complete and unambiguous attribution to the bookseller who was its source.    This wouldn’t make it impossible to plagiarize, but any booksellers who tried to use these descriptions as if they were their own would be soon exposed.  Once established, I would expect the incidence of plagiarism in book cataloguing to decline dramatically, at least among any booksellers who hoped to claim a reputation for expertise and integrity.

And if such a database existed today we would still be able to use our own words to describe our next copy of Les Jardins Precieux.  What Ann Marie had created would once again be hers.

This is my suggestion.  I think it is a good idea.  As it happens, I also have the means to put such a thing in place, but only if I knew that there were others who agreed and were willing to join in.  I am now, as they say “all ears”.