A Brief Update on the field of books, manuscripts, maps and ephemera

- by Bruce E. McKinney


Not long ago, dealers, using their own websites, databases, printed catalogues and eCatalogues have had a relatively strong market position with shows as the variable component.  For at least the next year however, electronic book fairs must do their best to replace the sales and community building ethos that traditional in person 1- to 3 day fairs have provided. That’s asking a lot.  The other two principal components look healthy.  Auctions are generating increasing sales, by lots and dollars, as verified through our data analysis.  The listing sites also appear to be healthy.  How the listing sites and auctions are dividing the balance of the pie is an interesting speculation.


Auctions are holding up, the volume of lots and percentage of lots sold are strong.  Dealers are innovating, moving with unusual alacrity responding to offers and possibilities. Collectors are committed, even animated.  There are suggestions of strength amid uncertainty.


This said, the online listing world looks at first glance a bit disorganized these days as some sellers post the same material to different sites, often at different prices.  ILAB resolves this issue nicely, by providing the different prices by seller on different sites.  That’s very good.  The principal reason offers vary between different sites is because some  of the different sites charge different commissions.  Logically, prices will be the same on all sites and many sellers do this.  But others don’t.  As well, while listed prices may be uniform, timed offers on different sites sometimes vary.  Prices can seem to move around like an image on a funhouse mirror.  But this said, Alibris and Abe look solid too.  The variations show up when you run Google searches where it appears to be the law of the jungle.


eBay is another case altogether.  They encourage high list prices and promote a series of discounts.  While there are some appealing deals on eBay I found recently it telling that eBay had 4 items in my category while Biblio and Abe had more than 40.  For me, searches within a date range save time.  On eBay I can’t find that necessary tool.


As an exercise I recently tried to acquire the narrow category of material I was searching.  Abe and Biblio were offering deep selections and I set up a list of 22 purchases, bought about 14 through Abe’s checkout while I contacted and completed transactions with 3 or 4 of the other sellers, all of whom had more, but unlisted, material and/or further discounts.  Both sites were very effective.


So, my fingers are crossed that the new electronic book fairs will pick up some of the slack for the field.  The other elements of the field look rock solid so find us a vaccine!