A Bestiary for the Used Bookseller
Megalisters, Page Hogs, and PODs, Oh My!
For the used or antiquarian bookseller offering books on the various commercial Internet search services, it rapidly becomes apparent that the old rules of bookselling have gone by the boards. Previously, it was customary to actually own the books you were offering for sale. However, the promise of reaping profits by manipulating other people's data was not long confined to just the financial markets.
In the early days of the search services, Relisters appeared. Relisters would list for sale books owned by other dealers, often very unique copies, copying the owner's data, but with a significant enough increase in the sale price that would make it worth while for the Relister to order the book from the original seller, and then sell it to the benighted soul who had purchased the book from him. This re-pricing technique is occasionally referred to in the trade as binary pricing – adding a one to the beginning of a price, or a zero at the end. Thus, adding a one to the price of a $35 book would make it a $135 book, or if one were feeling particularly frisky, adding a zero at the end would make it a $350 book. In both cases this would more than compensate the Relister for the "value added" for their services.
The heyday of the Relister seems to have come and gone quickly, as either savvy booksellers could thwart the process by refusing to sell the book to the Relister, or reasonably alert book buyers would also find the original, less expensive listing, thus bollixing up the whole process for the poor Relister.
A near cousin of the Relister, the Page Hog soon emerged next. The Page Hog would list many copies (or much more likely, a single copy) of one title at a multitude of very slightly different price increments, thus hogging all of the search returns on a single screen. Thus, one searching for a book would see the identical copy of a book lised for $25.99, $25.98, $25.97, and so forth, with perhaps as many as a hundred different variations of the prices, but none much more than a dollar different from any other. The thinking was, one assumes, that the casual searcher would grow weary of looking for a book that was worth essentially the same amount, and then order the book from the Page Hog, as no other, or few other listings would appear in that particular price range.
Changes at the various commercial search databases seem to have abated the depredations of the Page Hog, often by limiting the number of separate entries that they can list of any one title. However, I've observed some Page Hogs gradually slithering back online.
Those selling books Printed On Demand, or PODs, on the other hand, seem here to stay. Essentially a benign technology, POD is a convenient method of printing single copies of a text with digital technology when printing large quantities of an out of print text is not a financially feasible option. This has been a boon to small publishers attempting to keep a deep backlist in print, although the cost per unit of producing a single copy must of necessity be relatively expensive.
However, this has hurt dealers in less common used and out of print titles, who traditionally have been able to charge a premium for uncommon or rare texts. And while this doesn't have a direct effect on those who deal in rare books as objects, it does erode some of the foundation of the rare book trade, and causes considerable disruption to the traditional rare book food chain. The used book dealers who would turn up the occasional rare item to augment their income will have less motivation to pursue their searching, substantially draining the pool of new rarities that enter the market.
Luckily for booksellers, the POD technology is still cumbersome enough to result in relatively expensive single items, the product that it produces is physically unprepossessing, and it still takes more time to print a book than to ship one that is already in stock. For now at least, the damage done to the traditional trade is limited, mostly to those who limit their inventory to scholarly titles. Once the technology becomes less cumbersome, and the results more financially competitive, one might expect even more disruption.
The final hobgoblin in our little horror show is the Megalister. A Megalister lists every book currently in print, usually priced by some multiple of the publisher's listed price, much like his near cousin the Page Hog, in order to be rewarded amply for his ingenuity. The Megalister, who usually doesn't list a physical address or otherwise make it easy to contact them, can thus list literally millions of books, without actually owning any of them.
Curiously, when I recently checked prices online for several hundred in-print poetry books, the same fifteen or so Megalisters would come up on every single search, usually with the variation of this description: "As New. May be ex-library copy or have underlining" (perhaps a little contradictory?), or "condition as pictured" accompanied by a publisher's photograph, or no photograph at all.
My favorite Megalister, who here shall remain nameless, for a while listed a shelf number with every book, perhaps to foster the illusion that they actually had the book on their cozy premises: "Book #1567493. Shelf 2." Presumably Shelf 2 was very large indeed. Most Megalisters don't keep up with what books come into, and go out of print every day, so once can assume that those ordering from them are often frustrated, with both the fulfillment rate, and the condition of the books that they do eventually receive.
Rare Book Review has already covered the phenomena of the charity shops that have disrupted the book trade, and space limits me from discussing the ebook, to many used booksellers the true bogeyman that haunts their nightmares.
So will the out of print bookseller survive? I rather think that much like the protagonist of a cheap horror film, the serious bookseller will be temporarily saved when the monsters eventually slink away due to changing circumstances, only to reemerge in a different guise, just in time for the sequel.
This article first appeared in the August/September 2007 issue of Rare Book Review.