Friday, November 16, 2018
Why the net is not a good guide to book prices
Readers who spend any time in charity bookshops will quite often hear the manager or volunteers explain, when a customer queries a price, that they “value” their collectible books “using the internet”. In practice, this probably means consulting one or more of two or three well-known listing sites.
This is usually presented as if it were a serious, reasonable practice and a clinching argument. And of course it's understandable that busy volunteers will turn to what seems to be a handy ready reckoner. But it always makes me groan inwardly and I've seen or heard other collectors express similar dismay. Because it doesn’t take very much thought to see that this approach doesn’t work at all.
Let’s first dismiss any argument that the books should be cheaper because they’ve been donated. No: people gave the books to help the charity and it’s the charity’s job to make as much money as they can from them for their cause. (Conversely however, the charity shouldn’t expect readers to pay more for a book just because they are a charity. If people want to donate, they donate. That’s a separate matter.)
It equally doesn’t work to argue that the books in a charity shop should be cheaper because the charity gets certain privileges—lower business rates, tax relief etc. Again, these policies are designed to make the most of the income for their worthy cause and are entirely separate to the question of book pricing.
We’ll also set aside the question of the condition of books. It is true that many amateur booksellers, and this includes charity shop volunteers, don’t seem to grasp the great difference this makes to the value of a book. They see, for example, a book in Very Good condition priced at £25 and think they can ask the same for it in Good or even Fair or Poor condition. Or they just don’t look closely enough and miss defects, such as missing pages, which make the book virtually valueless.
This is indeed one good reason why some charity bookshop pricing can be what is euphemistically described as “ambitious”, but we will suppose generously for the present that the volunteer “valuer” is indeed comparing a book in front of them and a book on the internet of similar quality.
No, the real reasons that charity bookshops (or indeed anyone else) should not price books using the internet (or at least not without a lot of discernment) are all strictly business-related. We might identify at least four reasons why this approach doesn’t work.
The first is that if I can buy a book from the internet at a similar price to yours, why should I get it from you? Yes, I’ve got to pay postage on an internet book, but I’ve also got costs in coming to your shop – petrol and parking fees, or train or bus fares. So your shop is not offering me any enticement. What’s your added value, your selling point?
The second, and strongest, reason ought to be obvious, but apparently isn’t. Any book listed on the internet is an unsold book. All right, yes, it might have been only recently listed, but that’s a marginal point. The fact is that this is a book that has not sold at that price. So if you want your copy to sell, you’ve got to go below it.
Some might argue that actually you’ve got to go quite a way below it. If no-one will buy a book at £20, will they at £19 or £18? Maybe, but probably not. You might have to go to, say, £16 before you see a difference. The market price of any book listed for a while on the net is, we might reasonably argue, at least 15-20% below that internet price.
A third reason not to rely on internet book prices is that some of them appear to be highly speculative. Indeed, it’s even been suggested (possibly a bit tongue-in-cheek) that some money laundering is done in this way. A book is listed at a ludicrous price: a buyer pays it; shady money is transferred in a seemingly innocuous transaction. Who could possibly suspect second-hand bookselling of involvement with dark money? It’s also been explained that certain algorithms may push book prices up to vast amounts, with some well-publicised examples of not especially collectible works soaring into four figures solely owing to the inner workings of these calculations.
But the fourth reason is a more subtle point that shouldn’t be dismissed because of that. It’s about mood and ambience and customer behaviour. Internet book-buying is largely impersonal. Click, click, click, wait for the book. May never use that bookseller again. Wouldn’t know them if I saw them. But a physical bookshop is a different experience. I might be local, and you might want me to pop in often. Or I might be a visitor and you might want me to tell everyone about the lovely bookshop I found. So, do you want me to think “sheesh, these prices are high, what a rip-off” or “ooh, these are very fair prices”?
And indeed I may not actually spend any less if your prices are lower. Why? Well, if I go into a bookshop and the prices are all quite high, I am straightaway put on my guard and not in a mood to buy. I might grudgingly get one, if I really want it. Whereas if the prices are moderate, I lower my guard and start assembling a pile. I might actually end up spending more than if I’d just bought one expensive book. But even if I spend the same, the point is that I’m happier, and I’ll come back.
The practice, incidentally, is by no means confined to charity bookshops. I've had several experiences in ordinary secondhand bookshops when a book was unpriced (and even once or twice when it was!) when the proprietor has turned to the net to “value” a book.
But for the reasons given above, the net should only be used as the broadest sort of guide for valuing a book, and will never be a substitute for judgement, experience and commercial acumen.