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Between the Covers

our answers

Information about BTC, our history, policies — all your questions answered.

Is eBay a good place to buy and sell antiquarian books?
In our opinion, this is an easy one - no. eBay is a giant flea market, and it is a good place to buy and sell crap, or fleas. If you want to buy and sell crappy antiquarian books, go to eBay. One of our colleagues has referred to eBay as the "vast confluence where greed meets ignorance" and in our opinion he's not far wrong. eBay is however a splendid place to start your collection of forged autographs.

We've seen a number of collectors turn to eBay in recent years, and we can invariably spot the books that they have bought on eBay versus the books they have bought from legitimate antiquarian booksellers, because the books they bought on eBay (or even more problematically, purchased privately after having met the seller on eBay) very often had serious problems which had been hidden from the buyer. eBay has also served as a haven for scam artists who manipulate eBay's feedback system to appear legitimate. That doesn't mean there aren't honest sellers on eBay - of course there are. One good way to determine which is which is to ask the seller for references from other reputable dealers or knowledgeable collectors in his or her field, or whether he or she is a member of the ABAA, or another ILAB-affiliated bookselling organization. The rare book community is fairly small, and if a seller has engaged in suspicious activity in the past, a couple of phone calls are likely to provide a far more accurate picture of a dealer's reputation than a few thousand "positive feedbacks" will.

If you must buy on eBay, and you are very careful, and don't have to rely on the seller to provide the expertise required to determine the authenticity and condition on any individual book, you might be able to get a decent bargain, usually on lower value books. However, on eBay the rule of thumb isn't buyer beware, its buyer beveryware. Another eBay tip is never, ever, ever buy a book from a "Private Auction." Private Auctions are seldom, if ever, as advertised, intended by the seller to "protect the bidder's identity" but are much more often intended by the seller to prevent his previous victims from warning potential new ones about fraudulent listings. Another good rule of thumb for buying in general, from anyone, anywhere is that "you get what you pay for." On eBay "you get what you pay for" is probably a fondly desired, best-case scenario. If a "rare" book looks like an extraordinary bargain to you, there is almost certainly a good reason for it.

Won't I get the most for valuable books by selling at auction?
Not necessarily. While journalists (and auction houses, in their self-promotional materials) never tire of writing about blockbuster items that bring eye-popping prices, the vast number of books that sell at auction sell in the low to middle wholesale prices. Recently an auction house publicized that it obtained the highest price ever for a first edition of The Great Gatsby. In fact the price realized at auction was nowhere close to some private sales we are aware of. While auction houses also like to publicize past auctions where a fairly high percentage of items sell for prices above the low estimate, you will find that if you consign books to an auction house, they will almost always urge that you reserve them at a low wholesale figure, and if you choose not to, they may charge you a chilling buy-back fee. In other words, if you do not accept their low estimate, you will be charged a percentage of the reserve to buy back your own book. Auctions make no money unless your item sells, so they are motivated to sell your book at any price, whilst all the while bragging about items that sell for high prices.

Aside from buy-back fees, and the auction houses' usually substantial commission, there are many other hidden (or at least not advertised) costs as well. Most auction houses charge you insurance fees for your material when it is in their possession; they often charge a photography fee for illustrating your item in a printed catalog; they have been known to charge extraordinary shipping and handling fees for any unsold material, or for storage if you don't promptly retrieve that unsold material. Additionally, the lead time required for auction houses to catalog your material, earmark it for a particular sale, include it in a printed catalog, distribute the catalog, conduct the sale, pay consignors (usually a minimum of 30 - 45 days after a sale) ensures that if your item does sell, you usually won't receive payment for at least several months, and occasionally more than a year. We recently inquired at a major New York auction house, on a collector's behalf, whether they would like to offer a painting that we were not interested in selling, and the auction house responded that they MIGHT be able to fit it into a sale in about eighteen months. The collector declined.

One positive note about auctions. While we wouldn't recommend getting your hopes up about receiving the most for your books, if you don't care what you get per item, you might at least, eventually receive from them a large check if you are selling a large amount of items.

What other book dealers do you recommend?
Huh? Oh, right, other book dealers. In general we recommend dealers who are members of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America, better known as the ABAA (the membership list can be viewed at www.abaa.org), or dealers who are members of national associations that are affiliated with the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, better known as ILAB (their membership list can be viewed at www.ilab-lila.com). Members of these organizations are bound by a Code of Ethics, as well as by traditions and codes of practice and professionalism that have been developed over many decades. If you can't find what you want at Between the Covers, contact us, and we will be happy to recommend other reputable dealers. Just a few of our favorites (or at least those who have been known on occasion to pick up the bar tab and drive us home) are:

Aleph-Bet Books, Inc. - Children's and Illustrated Books.

Biblioctopus - Classics of fiction, presented with inimitable attitude.

Ken Lopez, Bookseller - Modern First Editions, along with extensive selections of Native American, Latin American, Sixties, and Vietnam material.

Royal Books - Modern First Editions, with particular emphasis on Noir and Film Source Material.

Peter L. Stern & Co., Inc. - Modern First Editions, along with extensive selections of Mystery and Sherlockiana.