Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2004 Issue

There's Money in Misspellings

Ebaypitts

A search under eBay's “books” category finds 10 “Pittsburg” items, 9 of which are misspellings.



By Michael Stillman

Can you spell Pittsburgh? Tucson? Manhattan? Lots of people can’t. They didn’t believe their fourth grade teacher when she said this was an important skill. Everyone will understand what city you’re describing when you write “Pittsburg” even if you leave off the final, silent “h.” Who cares?

Well, besides your fourth grade teacher, there’s a group of people prowling the deep recesses of eBay and they care a lot about your lousy spelling. In fact, they’re making money at your expense. This dirty little secret of eBay listings has received a fair amount of publicity lately, so we’re not telling anything out of school, but in case you missed it, here goes. Some people have trouble with their spelling, a misfortune that may help you find bargains on places like eBay by being a little sharper, or at least, a little more careful than they are.

This is how it works. Some seller has a wonderful and valuable old Pittsburgh imprint. Knowing that Pittsburgh collectors will undoubtedly want this book, the seller makes sure to include the name “Pittsburgh” in the book’s description, maybe even in the title. This will assure that any collectors cruising eBay for rare Pittsburgh items will find his listing. The problem is the seller is not a Pittsburgher or Pittsburghite or whatever people from Pittsburgh are called. So, without checking the spelling, he describes the book as a “rare and valuable Pittsburg imprint.” Now we can see the problem. None of those Pittsburgh collectors regularly searching eBay keywords for “Pittsburgh” will ever see this offer. It is invisible to them.

Meanwhile, a few clever vultures are circling above, watching for those weak spellers. A Pittsburgh vulture, aware that many people do not know that there’s an “h” at the end of their fair city, searches for Pittsburgh without the “h,” that is, the misspelling. Voila. There it is. “Pittsburg.” He’s ready for the kill. To put it another way, he’s ready to place an unchallenged low bid. He’s unchallenged because most Pittsburgh collectors, blinded by the misspelling, aren’t aware the item exists. The vulture’s low bid goes unchallenged, even though one of those other collectors would have been willing to pay more. He buys it for a bargain price.

If he’s a Pittsburgh collector himself, he has just made a coup for his collection. However, with a fairly common misspelling like this one, the chances are he’s a vulture with a list of misspellings he follows. He buys low and turns around and sells the same item on eBay after listing it under the right spelling. Now the real Pittsburgh collectors find it, bid up the price, and the vulture makes a nice middleman profit based solely on one contribution, spelling the word correctly. And, neither the original seller nor the ultimate buyer is any wiser, though the seller is a big time loser in this game. Now you know why Miss Spelling in fourth grade insisted it was important you learn to spell.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> A Rare 3-rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machine. $70,000 to $90,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Important collection of correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and Bruno Rossi. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Walt Whitman Autograph manuscript containing his thoughts on death. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> David Roberts. <i>Holy Land</i>. Six volumes. 1842-1849. First edition. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Extensive collection of Ray Bradbury's primary works, most signed or inscribed. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Peter Force. Declaration of Independence. $12,000 to $18,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Steinbeck. <i>Grapes of Wrath</i>. A fine copy of the first edition. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Lewis & Clark. <i>Travels to the Source of the Missouri River</i>... First English edition, extra-illustrated. 1814. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Manuscript document signed by Nuno de Guzman relating to Hernan Cortes, 1528. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> “Nos los inquisidores..." The first book in English printed West of the Mississippi. [1787]. $5,000 to $8,000.

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