Essays & Observations

By Default

I’ve just been offered a book, a very good book, or rather, its intrinsic value aside, what was once a very good book; and I can’t help feeling a keen disappointment, for my own sake, and for the sake of the owner. The truth hurts, and in this case, the truth is going to hurt both of us. And the sad truth is that the book isn’t worth what it once was, and perhaps even more alarmingly, it’s virtually impossible to ascertain what it really is worth today.

Ordinarily, I would be interested in buying this book, not only because it’s a good book, but because many years ago it was a very valuable book, and I have very fond memories of it from those old glory days. And it still is, or ought to be, a desirable book. But that was then, and this is now; and now this book is only a problematic shadow of its former self. Although vaguely familiar, one doesn’t really know what to make of it now. It’s as if it had suffered a horrible accident, and isn’t altogether recognizable as the thing it was. And as it happens, it was in a horrible accident, a crippling pile-up on the internet.

Today, such accidents are as common in the book-world as discounts, and most booksellers have become adept at delivering condolences, if not obsequies over late-lamented books. Invariably when I’m offered books, I’m forced to decline them, not because the books aren’t good books, but because, within the context of the internet, the books are so problematic, or simply redundant, unnecessary, otiose. When you go online, you see that there are more copies of most books than anyone evidently needs, certainly more than enough to satisfy whatever demand exists, and adding another copy of the same book to the long list of copies that are for sale seems utterly futile. Moreover, adding another copy of the book to the virtual pile at a still further reduced price seems to me irresponsible, even suicidal, from a bookselling perspective.
If a collector is not going to be able to sell a book for what it ought to be worth, and I’m not going to be able to buy a book that I can sell, what is the point of our buying and selling?

Being offered a book these days is always a dilemma. Invariably, one has to tell the owner what the book is worth, or rather, how little the book is worth. In my present predicament, I have to tell the owner this: there are nine copies of this book online, if the online listings are accurate and up-to-date. The highest priced copy, which is identical to the lowest priced copy, is approximately $7500.00; actually $7760.50 – it’s priced in pounds sterling and converted into dollars. The lowest priced copy, which the description suggests is exactly the same as the most expensive copy – I realize I’m repeating myself – is priced $2399.99.

Now, what kind of price is that, you ask? Well, it’s the kind of price somebody would come up with who wants to undercut his competition, but who clearly doesn’t want to give too much away; someone who is basing his price not on what he paid for the book, nor on what the book is theoretically worth, but solely on beating the competition, no matter how ridiculously low, or how ridiculously absurd, the price he comes up with appears. For such a person, the objective would appear to be to have the least expensive copy of any book on the internet, even if that means undercutting his nearest competitor by a penny. And yes, I mean a penny, since the next highest/lowest price at which this book is being offered online is $2400.00 even.

Here, for the record, is the humiliating devolutionary spiral to which this poor book has been subjected: 1. $7760.50; 2. $4800.00; 3. $4120.00; 4. $3624.25; 5. $3000.00; 6. $2950.00; 7. $2500.00; 8. $2400.00; and 9. $2399.99. And for what it’s worth – and to show that globalization is a fact where books are concerned – these copies are available from booksellers in the following places: England, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Germany, New York City, New York (Long Island), California, California, and California, respectively.

Even if one throws out the highest and lowest prices as aberrations, the highest owing to the excessively high value of the English pound at present, and the lowest owing to the bloody-mindedness of the bookseller, one can still see very clearly that these books have been priced in relationship to the prices of the other copies online, and with little regard for the value of the book or the feelings of the other booksellers involved. A rugby scrum would be more dignified than this free-for-all.

As it turned out, however, I didn’t have to join the fray. I didn’t buy the book. I had an easy out: condition. The spine was faded, and it lacked the glassine dust jacket and slipcase. The idea of adding a tenth, and inferior, copy of the book to the already excessive supply online was more than I could bear, and I referred the owner to another bookseller. Whether I’m offering the book online, or someone else is, it won’t make any difference, except to the person who bought it.

I realize that economies work according to fluctuations of supply and demand, and that the more you have of one thing, the less it is going to be worth. That’s just the way it’s supposed to be: if diamonds were as plentiful and as readily available as some books, they wouldn’t be as expensive as they are. But I’m pretty sure that the average diamond merchant – or antiques dealer, or art dealer, or anyone else who makes their living selling precious artifacts – isn’t as indifferent to upholding the value of his product as the average internet bookseller seems to be.
In fact, I suspect most internet booksellers aren’t interested in value at all; they’re just interested in selling off their books as quickly as possible, at the lowest price they can tolerate. Within the context of the internet, value has become a self-indulgent fiction, a sentimental vestige of days gone by. Today, the only reality is price, and the only realistic price is the most competitive price, the last best price at which some book might find a buyer.

But is this good for bookselling; for book-collecting? Isn’t it, in fact, self-defeating? A book, particularly a good book, or a good set of books, either has a certain value or it doesn’t. But the internet is telling people that there is no consistent, intrinsic value to any book, and that the prices of books on the internet reflect little more than the particular preferences of the booksellers, or the frantic pursuit of the bottom line; that the prices of books are, in effect, just one more of the relativistic absurdities of modern life. Or, as the example I’ve given above implies, the only value lies in the context, in the opportunistic relationship of one copy of a book to another copy of the same book. Within that context, value cannot help but appear random and arbitrary.

It’s a curious thing, at least to me, that it’s possible today to sell generic books – ordinary or even inferior copies of good books – at high prices in certain places, or by certain means, but extremely difficult to sell good copies of good books on the internet at reasonable prices. I assume that the audiences in each case are different, and that the people buying generic books off-line aren’t the same people who are buying good books online. If the former were aware of the internet, or used the internet to look for books, they would discover that they could buy better copies for less on the internet. Context is everything; or as the realtors say, location, location, location. But what does this say, then, about the internet as a place for rare books; or as a means of determining the value of rare books?

The primary difference between online and off-line bookselling and book-collecting seems to be that online there is an immediate context for comparing prices, whereas there is no context for comparing prices in other venues. That is more or less the way it used to be in the days before the internet, when collectors bought books in bookshops or at auction or out of catalogues. Book-collecting in those halcyon days was done in real time, in the moment, the living moment. You had to be there to do it at all. Bookselling on the internet, by comparison, is done in virtual time, as a virtual experience, one that is more than a little abstract, even a little unreal, a bit more like life lived in absentia.

At the same time, there’s a degree of transparency in the online market-place that doesn’t exist elsewhere. You aren’t as likely to be sold a bill of goods. All you have to do is scroll up or down to determine whether the book you’re considering is more or less expensive than other comparable copies. You can’t do that at auction, and at auction, it seems there are still plenty of people prepared to pay two or three times what they might pay elsewhere for a similar book. Although at auction, the number of lots that are being bought-in, despite promises to the contrary, probably rival the unsold items on the internet.

Despite the relative transparency of online bookselling, and the ease of comparison shopping, however, my hunch is that people prefer buying books in more traditional venues, and are becoming disillusioned with online book-collecting. I suspect that collectors looking for good books on the internet are increasingly defeated by the confusion they find there – the plethora of copies, many of which appear to be indistinguishable from each other, and all of which are offered at seemingly random prices. The impression that a typical book search gives is that there is no rhyme or reason to the prices that people are charging for their books on the internet; or that the prices exist solely in relationship to other copies online, and have no basis in any real system of value. And faced with so much confusion, one can easily imagine someone simply saying, “Who wants it?!”

No one wants to pay more than necessary for something; and certainly no one wants to pay the highest price for anything. Everyone wants to believe they’re getting a fair deal, if not a bargain, although more often than not it seems as though people want a bargain or nothing. And the inexorable logic of the internet book search engine caters to precisely this instinct, and inevitably contributes to a devaluation of the books. One has only to notice the fact that the default order for all book searches descends from the lowest price to the highest price; that is, from the cheapest, and probably worst, copy of a book, to the most expensive, and perhaps best, copy of a book. Only by reversing the predetermined order can one find a really good copy of a book. In other words, the order of books on the internet turns the natural order of book-collecting on its head, with the worst coming first, and best coming last.

As things stand, the competitive nature of online search engines will never serve to increase or enhance the value of books, or inspire confidence in the book-collectors who might consider buying them. The online search engines will always drive prices down, by default. And in the mad, desperate dash to the bottom line, booksellers who feel compelled to under-price their books in an effort to break the queue, to get to the head – or tail – of the line, only shoot themselves in the foot, and risk driving themselves out of business.