Fear and Loathing in Book-ville.

Here’s a thing I have to do. I apologise in advance because it’s long, and it’s probably not the kind of thing people expect me to write about in such detail.

Superficial, remember?

However, it’s a piece I wrote for the Antiquarian Booksellers Association Newsletter in response to another piece written by a fellow member.

A little background;

http://www.abebooks.com (large, modern website of many dealers) contacted ILAB (International League of Antiquarian Booksellers…more august, considerably less well known organisation of many dealers) to propose that ILAB and the other trade organisations be given some space and consideration on their thumping great bookselling site.

Great, you might think.  A horrible idea, some other people might think. A letter was written suggesting the latter, in no uncertain terms, suggesting that the existence of websites like abebooks and amazon was a threat to all forms of bookselling and indeed, culture in general.

I was asked to respond, here is my “tl;dr” answer.

I shall be posting any responses I receive from the trade and elsewhere because this debate, in the UK trade at least, is key to the future of the rare book trade.

My rare book trade, the one I love and intend to keep working in until the last copy of Titus Groan is pulled from my cold, dead hand:

Really? He's going to talk about books and stuff again?

Really? He’s going to talk about books and stuff again?


My response to a recent letter in the ABA Newsletter (which I will have to get permission to print) regarding a proposed strategic alliance with Abebooks, which basically said it was cultural suicide:

“Speaking from under my Devil’s Advocate hat, and equipped as instructed with my long spoon, I have to say that whenever I read something like this it makes me sad, and then more than a little irritated.

Not, I hasten to add because the sentiment is at fault, it isn’t; Amazon are indeed not exactly the best thing to happen to the rare and second-hand book trade. This is an inconvenient truth.

They are however a hazard we invited through wilful ignorance and complacency over a period of nearly 20 years as a trade operating under the new rules of the internet. Now the duty lies more in the direction of staying shipshape and on course, rather than repeating complaints we should have made while we were safe in harbour.

The irritation arises from the fact that still, after the aforementioned nearly two decades, the people representing the upper end of the antiquarian and rare book trade still don’t seem to have any idea how the internet works, nor do they ever seem to conspicuously exhibit any care, respect or consideration for the manner in which their customers wish to purchase books.

Abebooks (as a subsidiary of Amazon or not) are proposing the construction of an ILAB “section” of their exceptionally large and diverse website, with books, content and branding supplied by the community of ILAB dealers. The technical term would probably be “landing page” where those customers who are interested in purchasing books or communicating with ILAB (and thus ABA) dealers can go. There will theoretically be a tailored search representing only ILAB dealers (something we’ve been trying to get for years now), again theoretically articles, blog posts, glossaries and other such content supplied exclusively by what we laughably refer to as the ILAB bookselling community.

I confess; when I first heard all this I was horrified at the impending threat to our culture that such a proposal suggested.

“I will no longer be able to catalogue, photograph, market and sell my books to a wider and more informed customer base in an environment that they are happy and comfortable using.”

I thought, in mounting Lovecraftian unease.

“I will no longer be able to market my books initially via a third party and subsequently directly to the large number of institutions who now purchase exclusively through the abebooks apparatus. I won’t be able to publicise my upcoming printed catalogues via my abebooks homepage either (the homepage with my full contact details on it and a picture of my shop…that abebooks homepage, you know).

Abebooks will not in effect be gathering new customers and passing them on to me through the medium of orders and inquiries! My national and international organisations will be marginalised and invisible amongst the great morass of unqualified, opportunistic dross merchants with which the internet is rife…what will happen to my culture?”

Oh, hang on…yes I will, because my international and national organisations will finally be clearly and openly represented on what is incontrovertibly the largest, most widespread, trusted and successful rare, second-hand and out of print book website on the planet! For free!

Goodness, that’s a relief.

Obviously that little tantrum is going to earn me wagging fingers and wiser heads scoffing and saying “Nothing comes for ‘free’ when you’re dealing with Martians, Orcs, Cylons, the Welsh, Amazon and its subsidiaries young man.”

No, thank you for that, indeed it doesn’t.

As rare booksellers we represent the one thing that abebooks/amazon et al. do not possess: A massive and impressive body of knowledge regarding books. They have technical know-how, they have marketing theory and teams of PR people. They have Harvard MBA’s and nice suits and rooms full of beanbags and Lego where they all get to hang out and ‘thought rain’ about the future of internet commerce. They don’t know what we know.

Ask them how star ratings guide customer confidence despite having no bearing on the quality, skill or knowledge of the seller so rated, and they can explain it to you at length. Most of them however, no matter how well qualified, wouldn’t know a Belzoni from Babar the Elephant and remain blissfully unaware of what an issue point is, let alone actually having all of the points for Huck Finn in publisher’s sheepskin stored in their heads.

Oh God, doesn't he ever stop?

Oh God, doesn’t he ever stop?

That’s the price, they get to do what booksellers have been doing for centuries…they get to stand next to something really smart and pretend it makes them look smarter.

Looking smarter means more trusted and reliable, on the internet trusted and reliable means more sales and greater customer loyalty. They get to be trusted by proxy, we get to sell books to their customers; they get to take a cut.

A cut by the way, that is still considerably less than the cut one of my fellow ABA dealers will take if he buys a book off me…and he isn’t going to share the name and address of his customer with me.

In addition to this there are 950 ILAB dealers who do not list on Abebooks. 950 of the world’s most reputable rare and antiquarian book-dealers. I am pretty sure that abebooks would welcome them with open arms, but they are going to have to demonstrate their benefit to ILAB first.

Amazon are not going to get anywhere by stopping people from buying books in any form, and they can’t “take over” ILAB or the ABA, because they aren’t for sale.

As booksellers our primary duty is to our customers (remember them?), at its most basic level it is to enable them to buy the books they want. Wherever and however  our customers like buying books, that is where we go and that is how we sell…otherwise they will swiftly become someone else’s customers.

I have customers that will only buy via abebooks, I have customers that will only buy via my website and I have customers that will only buy from print catalogues. That is entirely their choice. It is my job to find them the books they want and then sell them according to their preferences. That is what they pay me to do.

How I want to sell books is pretty much immaterial; as a bookseller I’m the third highest consideration in the equation: first comes the book, then comes the customer, then there’s me.

Will the commission get higher? Yes, probably, that’s how third party websites grow. They will only be able to increase rates if they have commensurate successes to justify it though, which will presumably mean they’re selling more books, more of our books.

Is everything they do calculated to offer them the most advantageous deal? Well, yes, obviously.

Remember the last time someone said they wanted £400 for a book and you said “No, I’m going to offer you £800”?

No, nobody else does either.

Robert Temple apparently stopped selling on Amazon in disgust at their “greed” in 2000. In internet terms that’s the time span between Babbage’s Difference Engine and the IPad.

It is not even superficially the same website it was 13 years ago, neither is abebooks, neither is the entire internet.  The fundamental structure of how people read books, how they buy them and, I’m terribly sorry, how they sell them, has changed radically during that time period.

We are, unfortunately in some cases, the same trade representatives.

I still hear professional ABA book-dealers saying they can’t be bothered to take photographs, I still hear them saying that life is too short to update websites, either their own or third-party, or answer every tiny inquiry that comes their way.  I hear them constantly blame the existence of Print on Demand or ebooks or abebooks or amazon for the decline of the rare book trade. That is a Darwin Award waiting to happen.

Right, if he doesn't stop I'm sending in  a SEAL team.

Right, if he doesn’t stop I’m sending in a SEAL team.

The bookselling internet is now Amazon. That is a fact, incontrovertible, and for the foreseeable future, pretty damn immutable.

A distant second comes abebooks, pretty much the sole representative of the “collectable, books as objects” market on the radar of most normal human beings.

After abebooks we have the long tail of other bookselling sites, some of which are excellent, and some of which are appalling either from the point of view of the sellers, the customers or both.

Nobody knows who Ilab or, the ABA are. Nobody really cares, as yet. They just want the books.

A strategic partnership (not a capitulation, not a seal of approval, not even much of a commitment seeing as everything is opt-in, opt-out) with abebooks to offer a platform for branding and disseminating knowledge of what  Ilab is and who we are, has to be a good idea.

I realise that this means I’m not a “serious bookseller”, nor are most of my colleagues, but I have no problem selling my books on abebooks (or even Amazon, should it become a more efficient venue for books-as-objects, which it certainly doesn’t seem to be at present), every time I sell a book on one of these demonic, greedy, underserving venues, I gain a customer. The customer then receives my catalogues if he or she desires, they receive email updates about what new stock I have, they receive invitations to bookfairs and they are constantly encouraged to ask questions, proffer lists of wants and a whole host of other services that are exactly the same ones I’d be offering if they’d walked into the shop, turned up at a stand at a bookfair or inquired through my website. How the customer reaches me and whether or not I have to pay for the contact is far less important than the fact that I am then in a position to provide him or her with a book, and a service, they want.

I am in total agreement that the rare book trade needs its own representation on the internet. I’m a little mystified as to how we go about establishing this whilst pretending the rest of the internet doesn’t exist or by entering into a probably fruitless bout of “La-La-La, not listening!” with the parts of it that we do grudgingly acknowledge. In order to build a solid representative base, we need people to know who we are and what we do, in the short term at least getting an established organisation with a vested interest and far larger resources to assist in this, wouldn’t seem to be the worst plan anyone has ever had.

The culture of bookselling is undergoing enormous change.

The culture of reading and enjoying books, however, is thriving. Kindles, e-books and their ilk work, and are enthusiastically adopted because they are a really good idea.

If anything (and certainly if a quick waltz across Tumblr and Pinterest are anything to go by) the proliferation of e-books is pushing readers, most notably the younger generation (Remember them? They’re also referred to as “The Future.”) towards a new and really quite ardent appreciation of books-as-objects. We need to make it an easy and pleasurable experience for the book collectors of the future to obtain their decorated cloth copies of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. We cannot, I’m afraid, do that by skulking in the background and complaining that things aren’t going our way. We have a trade to revitalise, standards to maintain and books to sell. We can’t win a battle by refusing to fight.”

Bored! Bored! Bored!

Bored! Bored! Bored!

About bibliodeviant

This is the journal of Jonathan Kearns Rare Books & Curiosities, and all who sail in her. Information, updates, rantings, musings and pretty pictures related (loosely I would imagine) to the world of rare and antiquarian books will be brought to you by a number of different personalities, some of whom cohabit in the same person's head. We welcome queries, comments and contributions of virtually any description, and in return we will attempt to rein in our multitudinous personality disorders and deliver wonders and joys beyond compare. At least that's the plan. View all posts by bibliodeviant

13 responses to “Fear and Loathing in Book-ville.

  • dantemathers

    Poor old head of the nail – it’s getting well and truly hit again!

  • James

    Seems like a win/win/win idea to me. As a punter I get irritated by the amount of PODs and other rubbish clogging up ABE, but it is still the first place I go to research purchases. I often then actually buy via the vendor’s website (if they have one), especially if they are charging an ABE-related premium over their shop price (Messrs Rota, Jonkers etc). I go to Mr Temple’s site too when I think of it, which is almost never…As for Canute’s Books, Toppling-by-the-Sea, how will they be doing in a decade or so?

    • bibliodeviant

      That’s the major problem. Whether or not I am annoyed is immaterial, what actually matters is that such behaviour actively contributes to the death of the small bookshop. If they could be encouraged to adopt decent internet selling practices and strategies, it would give them a new, sustainable revenue stream…rather than depending on passive bookselling.

  • James

    Yep. To be honest, it’s hard to think of a retail sector more naturally suited to the internet. I have ordered books from shops that I never knew existed and could never hope to visit (and, even if I could, probably wouldn’t be able to find the one book in their stock that I actually needed).

  • Brooke S. Palmieri

    First: I think that as far as trade-wide strategy goes, this is a very practical & valuable argument you’ve made. ESPECIALLY because one of the problems you’ve highlighted is how reluctant folks have been to participate in online commerce (until recently) – and in this case it’s REALLY important not to have to re-invent the wheel, and to use Amazon would mean not having to re-invent the wheel NOR the Bentley.

    Second: We have an obligation to advocate to still wider circles of potential readers/collectors about what we do, and working with Amazon would help there as well, without a doubt.

    But Third: It’s not for everyone. Folks that want to should be able to opt out. For all the good work your very practical argument could do, there’s something to be said for the staying power of impracticality. Staying power, because it’s stubborn. And that something to be said: is that in this case it has a politics.

    Like, I don’t want to blog for Amazon, or make sure my Eusebius outranks a Printed-On-Demand Eusebius, because that’s not going to change their horrible labor practices, etc. (http://www.upworthy.com/the-truth-behind-amazons-success-theyre-kinda-evil). I’m all for changing the system from the inside, but that’s not happening in this partnership, this is us humanizing Amazon at no additional cost and only very superficially. If I wanted to work in PR I would have.

    But this comes back to why your article is ‘valuable’ and even the ‘correct’ approach: because what I’m asking here is for a book trade that not only engages with politics but the politics of the internet, which are as weird & un equal as any earlier people’s history might point out. So if it were me I’d opt out!

    • Brooke S. Palmieri

      Eh, sorry to be a whiny liberal, but I kinda picked this job because there’s space to be a whiny liberal in it…

      • bibliodeviant

        As always Miss Palmieri, I apocryphally Voltaire all of your points. It’s not whiny liberalism to want the option to opt out. I also want that option, I have little respect for Amazon’s East India Company trading practices (although that analogy drives home the point that they are nothing new) and I find the gradual movement towards the idea that it’s all inevitable and we will be subsumed very frustrating. There is a lot to be said for stubborness and impracticality, if I were less stubborn and more practical I wouldn’t be a 42 year old shop boy (not that I feel like being much else)…but there’s also something to be said for aggressively defending that which you love. If you don’t engage with internet politics, as you so rightly point out, then you have no power on the internet, and the internet is where the power resides because the internet is where the people live. Small shops and businesses disappear because they are treating the internet and its selling platforms as an enemy, when in fact they are just something to take advantage of and use to ensure that the book trade continues to be culturally relevant. If abebooks were a book runner who occasionally got greedy, everyone would shrug and say “He needs taking down a peg or two occasionally, but he sells for us.” and there’d be no further fuss, if abebooks was a venue like Biblion used to be, which basically rented out shelf space in a desirable venue…we’d say they were pricey, but they sell books to customers we can’t otherwise service. The maximum cost from an abebooks sale is still less of a burden on the smaller margin bookseller than the mandatory 20% to a dealer would be. The ease with which they enable you to sell books is encouraging new, smaller and more independant dealers to list their stock and integrate themselves into the bookselling community. The nature of the internet (which is not suitable for all books, or all bookdealers…my point is get yourself in the fight and make an informed decision…don’t stand there whining “why can’t it be like it was…”) is that all selling is comparison selling. If you are not in the list, you can’t be part of the comparison and you are part of the problem, not part of the ongoing solution. Also, you are awesome and I hope you had a fantastic birthday! 🙂

  • James

    Well sure, yes, everyone should be free to choose the extent to which they are ethical compromised….
    I would also imagine that a business (like Sokol) that stocks limited quantities of high-value early printed books would have less use for “comparison selling”. As would a shop selling only £2 paperbacks. Otherwise one has to think of ABE as an agent – perhaps a greedy and not entirely pleasant agent, but one that gets you punters in serious quantities.

    • bibliodeviant

      Indeed, although the comparison is as much to do with profile and image as much as inventory. Currently abebooks falls into the category of not too greedy, not too unpleasant…is that the Goldilocks zone of internet marketplaces?

  • Chez-Blob

    Why such an exciting & radical pseudonyme (bibliodeviant) for someone with such a conventional mindset ? But he does make sense damn-it!

    • bibliodeviant

      Haha! It’s always nice to add a new descriptor to my mindset! In my opinion the selling of rare books should without doubt be a more imaginative and adventurous endeavour…I’m afraid I think the rare book trade has left it too late to go radical..and could only benefit from being dragged into the new conventional. In this country at least. 😦

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