Alice Springer at the Friends of the Seattle Public Library spoke with me last week as 21 items the Friends had posted on eBay were grinding toward their conclusion. The sale had come to my attention when the Queen Anne Neighborhood News Blog mentioned it in my Google newsfeed under rare books. I had written an article about the San Francisco Friends a month earlier, about their very successful program of converting donations into cash using a variety of strategies; book fairs, used book shops, online and eBay listings. Here was a chance to see what another library was doing and in particular what they were doing on eBay, a particularly tough marketplace and not one for the faint hearted.
The material the Seattle Friends posted was 21 items most of which have ISBN numbers and therefore are capital C common. Such items tend to have competing copies for sale on Abe Books, in fact thousands in total for the items listed. eBay auctions, in my experience, tend to be for special, not necessarily valuable, but somewhat uncommon material and with few exceptions this wasn’t what was offered. Twenty of the 21 items had a starting price [with no reserves] of $9.95. The other item was mysteriously priced to start at $54.95 and in fact sold for $63.00. The sixteen items that sold brought $445.26.
The material was eclectic. Okay, it was more random than eclectic and few people in the book business sell that way. They focus and they concentrate because they know browsers, if they see one item they like, may look at other listings from the same seller. When the material is eclectic it is almost always a bad sign.
For the Friends of the Seattle Public Library there is also some good news. Few people have seen this experiment and the number of lots listed by the seller’s name  say both that this seller is new and doesn’t yet know how best to succeed on eBay. The Seattle Friends will figure it out.
Here are a few suggestions.
Just like the big guys do each sale should have a focus. If the subject is games it should be all games. It the focus is books signed by their authors every copy should be signed. If the subject is Seattle and local history every book should be relevant. If at some point you offer more valuable material such sales should occur at predictable times and be promoted. To the layman auctions may seem to occur randomly but in fact there are regular and deep patterns.
If the library can reach out to area professional booksellers they can provide valuable insight. One of the inside point men at San Francisco Friends’ selling operations today was once a book dealer.
The opportunity for the Seattle Friends is enormous. The bottom has fallen out of the low end of the trade, now weakened to a point where large-scale library operations employing volunteer labor have real advantages for handling and reselling such material. In truth such material has fewer places to go and many, and I suspect most, people reject the idea of simply throwing their books away. So they will welcome the chance to donate them and libraries around the world will have the opportunity to do well by doing good.
So take heart Seattle. The tide is coming in. To quote Kermit, it’s not easy being green but in time the program will generate some serious money.
Here's a link to their website:
Here’s a link to their recent sale: