Do You Like Virtual?

The most interesting phenomenon of the last month or so, at least from a bibliophilic perspective, has been the arrival of a new way to buy and sell books online: virtual book fairs. The idea followed in the wake of the cancellation of multiple traditional physical book fairs as a result of the coronavirus.  By my count there have already been at least seven virtual fairs, beginning with a digital version of the Paris Book Fair opening on April 23 and followed by fairs organised by IOBA, PBFA, Marvin Getman, ABAA, ABA (“Firsts”) and, most recently, the Rose City Virtual Book Fair.

For those who did not join in, the fairs were basically of two types. The first group consisted primarily of  a listing of “exhibitors” with links to PDF catalogues available for browsing.  This replicated the fair lists that are now regularly sent out by many of the dealers as a preview of what they will be offering in their booth at a traditional physical fair. For many dealers the sales generated by these lists often exceed what they receive at the actual event.  In this way the virtual fairs were able to do much to compensate revenue lost when planned-for fairs did not take place.

The second group consisted of books that were aggregated into a joint data base where each exhibitor was able to include a fixed number of items  (12 to 50) that could be searched, sorted and filtered in a variety of ways.  This is not too distant from the group search engines that we are already familiar with, except that here the individual dealers are given much more prominence and are better able to present themselves to potential buyers than in the search engine venues that people are already familiar with.  Buyers were also encouraged to believe that the books that were on offer were all new to the market.  Those who took the time to double-check this on Google, or even viaLibri, often discovered that this was not always the case, but it was for sure that at most of the fairs the sellers made an effort to put some of their best or most unusual items onto their virtual stands.

Most of the data-driven fairs were also interesting because they left the sold items on display, still priced, but flagged to let you know that someone else beat you to it. Unlike traditional fairs, I doubt if there were any books that passed through 2 or 3 virtual stands before the doors first opened to the public.  And given the number of sold stickers I saw at some fairs it is clear that, at those fairs at least, there were many sales taking place. I will admit that I had limited expectations regarding attendance, and the organisers apparently did too.  The ABAA and Firsts fairs were overwhelmed by visitors at their openings,  which in both sites being virtually frozen for at least twenty minutes, if not more.  Whether those visitors waited, came back later, or just gave up, I don’t know. But I think the prospects for future online book fairs are very good.  Several of the sponsors of the recent fairs have announced that they plan to have monthly fairs in the future.

I am very interested in hearing the comments from other buyers and sellers who participated in any of the VBFs that have just taken place.

Did they find them a good way to buy or sell?

Will they show up at future fairs?

Will the old-fashioned  book fairs return to their same prominence after the call for social distancing has been revoked?

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.

COVID-19 And The Rare Book Trade – ILAB Webinar

The ILAB has organised a ZOOM webinar for members of the worldwide book trade to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on their business now and in the future

Lead by a panel of 7 prominent international booksellers,  the event is scheduled for 2pm London time on Thursday April 9 and will be open to everyone via the internet conferencing platform “Zoom.”

Details about the program and how to participate will be found here:

https://ilab.org/articles/rare-book-trade-invited-ilab-webinar

 

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.

 

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 profiled in Business Weekly, demonstrating that the future of paper is still secure.

Business Weekly (“The Voice of Europe’s Innovation Capital – The East of England”) has just published an article about viaLibri.

It always feels a bit odd seeing yourself through the prism of other people’s interests and world view.  This was no exception, but I am not about to complain. I’m always happy when someone takes an interest in what I am doing, especially when they are approaching it from outside the generally biblio-centric universe I usually inhabit.   There was, naturally,  the inevitable interest in identifying the oldest books available, but I was spared having to also identify the most expensive.  Instead, the interviewer was curious to know about what countries the oldest books came from, and where they ended up.  That was actually an interesting question which I might have enjoyed answering at length, but I restrained myself.  Perhaps I will blog about it on another day.

Being interviewed was an interesting experience.  This publication is focused, in particular, on the fast growth, innovation-driven business community that is part of the technology cluster that has developed around Cambridge, England, where we are now based.  The people at the centre of it are working with stuff like genomes,  artificial intelligence and all the impossible to understand inventions that brainy people come up with when they start out doing pure research and then suddenly realize “hey, we could actually make something really useful out of this.”  Writing about all these freshly minted venture-backed technology companies and their more mature science park neighbors is what Business Weekly normally does.  Interviewing me was a bit off their usual beat.

So, as might be expected, the reporter was especially interested in knowing how viaLibri fit in with the well-reported march of disruptive technology as it applies to printed books.  He wondered if the growth of digital media and the reported death of paper might mean there was no future for books.  My opinion, of course, was to the contrary, and I was happy for the opportunity express it to an audience that might be thinking otherwise.

But what pleased me most was the discovery that Business Weekly itself offered irrefutable testimony to the superiority of paper over screen.  Because, you see, it is still a product of the printing press.  Of course, it now also has an online version, but that is a far less satisfactory product, albeit a far cheaper one to produce and distribute.   The article about viaLibri shows this.  In the printed version the article takes up all of page 4 (apart from an advertisement), and includes a large photograph in the middle.  In the photograph I am holding an interesting old book.  It is, moreover, a folio.  (The cheerleaders for ebooks are, of course, silent on the subject of folios).  The version of the article which appears on the website also has its picture, but the constraints of pixel and screen dictated that it had to be cropped.  The picture you see there shows only my head and shoulders.  The book I am holding is nowhere in sight.

Unfortunately, I cannot offer you a link to the printed version. That technology does not yet exist.  However, there is something else that I can link  to which will allow my point to be demonstrated quite well.  In addition to its ink and paper edition Business Weekly also appears in an “epaper” version. This is an exact digital facsimile of the printed version which allows you to “leaf” through its pages to the accompaniment of an annoying scratching/scraping sound.  If you scrape the epaper version of this week’s edition to page 4 you will see an image of the article, with the full photograph, as it also appears in print.  The epaper will show you what the website version has lost.

epaper version of Business Weekly

But you will not be able to actually read the epaper version because the type is much too small.  To make it legible you must zoom in.  That gives you type that is big enough to read, but forces you to scroll all over the page and read the text through what is, essentially, a moveable rectangular peep-hole. It is not a satisfying way to read.  Why? Because Business Weekly is a folio, as any good newspaper should be. epaper only comes in one format: small.  It is inextricably constrained by the dimensions of the screen on which it is displayed.  Folio is out of the question.  For that you need paper, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Which is one of many reasons why I think, for books at least, the future of paper is still secure.