- by Bruce E. McKinney
The Customer as a God
For many, probably most of the world’s serious booksellers, selling books
is more than having the right material at the right price. It’s essential to have the right customer.
For acquirers, who increasingly are aware of online inventory, it often turns out there are several copies of the same book in varying states and if left to their own devices simply choose the apparent best copy for the money. That judgment will be logical if narrow and possibly ignore other often-invisible factors such as collection appropriateness, other possible copies and editions and collecting trends. This information and perspective is worth a great deal, knowing who has it difficult to access. Anyone can buy books. Building a collection is a more complex challenge, building a successful collection: rare.
For that insight many serious collectors will willingly rely on skilled dealers if they understand who and what they are. The problem of course is that there are thousands of dealers and most, qualified or not, are prepared to be a collector’s Svengali. In the past many such relationships were struck up at bookshops. The world of books was opaque and the doors to the shop sometimes more than just the entry to thousands of books. Occasionally they were also portals to knowledge about collecting that otherwise was difficult to obtain. Today most shops are gone and the geezers who manned them now reading in the mews.
In their place the collector today finds first the listings online and later the reference/research sites where there is more information than was ever earlier available. With this a collector can establish a focus and pursue it with confidence to a point. The point?, the point beyond which prices exceed the collector’s confidence to act independently. From there on, or at least for material beyond a certain price and/or complexity the collector seeks help, declines to purchase or takes a flyer. For those seeking help the problem is that these next generation collectors, the ones most sought after by dealers and for whom a half dozen relationships can make a career, may find it difficult to identify the one or two dealers among the many who are a good fit. It’s a problem for both sides.
The answer or at least part of the answer may lie in two trends taking hold. Collecting, that has been structured by object type, ie. book fairs, book dealer organizations and listing sites selling books and not much else, is becoming subject-centric, that is becoming communities of the like-interested. Listing sites have copies of Shakespeare, a subject centric approach on Shakespeare has nothing but Shakespeare. Such organizations have long existed primarily for the sharing of academic perspective. But as the discovery of more material within subjects is confirmed the subjects themselves are increasingly large enough to support symposia, newsletters and fairs where material can change hands.
And there is another change. The web is reversing the traditional seller/merchant based model that is organized to give the seller efficient access to buyers. In its place, as discussed in the Saturday July 21st edition of the Wall Street Journal in an article on The Customer as a God the author looks ahead to a future that is customer-centric, electronically aggregating vendors and suppliers [and dealers] around the client and the client very efficiently controlling access through filters that include/exclude based on criteria analyzed by the apparently next big thing. In that world the collector theoretically creates their own fair, setting criteria, creating instant cloud databases, selecting online presentations to read, watch or listen to, reading descriptions, placing orders or making bids. In this world the next generation of collector says I’ll have a book fair on Saturday.
Before that happens however vertical organizations, an association of heart surgeons with a yen for the history of their field for example, will create 3 or 4-hour auxiliary electronic events and dealer material fill the stadia with possibilities. How so? Dealers whose online material is managed by a participating aggregator need only opt in and decide whether to be present with stock or available by videophone to discuss items accessible electronically. In this world a dealer may, without exaggeration “I’m exhibiting at three shows today.”
When or whether this comes to pass is another thing. It brings to mind the Saturday Evening Post article in the mid 1950s that showed cars moving down the highway with the driver swiveled to the back to chat. That hasn’t happened yet although Google is now demonstrating self-driving cars.
In the meantime one aspect of the recasting of the relationship between seller and consumer is underway. Vertical organizations will overtake the industry standard horizontal ones because collectors will continue to intensify their focus and be naturally attracted to events that more efficiently than book fairs encompass their interests. Along the way more academics, collectors and dealers will attend and more relationships be established. These events will become multi-day specialist fairs with a combination of academic presentations and commercial opportunities.
Do they already exist? Yes and for many if not most subjects in most states and countries. And how do I find out?
If there are such meetings and symposia information about them is as near as your computer. A Google search for symposium, subject, state and year yields Google-normal multi-million match results that can be pared down with further terms. You are going to find events regularly occurring that are already attracting academics, dealers, collectors and collecting institutions. There are in fact many such meetings. In the field of history on Google a search for history symposium finds 45,200,000, adding quotes narrows the search to a mere 131,000.
Botanists it turns out do a lot of symposing: 1,320,000 matches on Google.
Rare book symposium finds 2,220,000 matches, “rare book” symposium 2,950,000 but don’t ask me why using quotes get more. Rare book symposium 2012 finds 1,540,000. Adding Ulster County brings up an article I wrote a few months back about a dinner I hosted for those interested to discuss the future of collectible books.
So when someone says to you that traffic at book fairs is down, or that sales are soft, on AE we are seeing no decline in interest but we are seeing changing approaches. The next step may be for you to look for a symposium or two to see for your self. If you do I expect you’ll see the roots taking hold in this vertical shift. You won’t see much evidence though of the consumer–centric approach that the Wall Street Journal sees coming. We’re all still learning how to use our iPhones. But our kids? Yes, they’ll probably experience it but possibly never know how exciting it was to go into an old and used bookshop to find some treasures.
Because many areas and subjects will be unspoken for, it's logical that dealers may want to organize symposia to create focused communities around what they believe are worthwhile collecting subjects. It’s logical but also needs to be neutral. Other dealers should not be excluded and no trade affiliations a requirement. The terms for one should be the terms for all.
Links to the WSJ article