“I worked very hard to be first,” said Marvin Getman, 70, the longtime Boston based businessman whose company Book & Paper Fairs has hosted book fairs for 40 year. Traditional events were hit hard by the pandemic which shut live events around the world, but Getman moved quickly to fill the void by offering virtual shows. These are online sales venues for book dealers to find buyers for better books and ephemera. By all accounts these events have been well received and financially successful.
In March, when the state of emergency edict shut him down, he’d never thought much about going on line, but, he said, “this looked like the right time. It was really a quick switch. I a wrote synopsis in two days.” His search to find someone to help develop the platform led him to the South African firm Antiquarian Auctions headed by Paul and Tony Mills. By the end of the month they’d joined forces and on June 2rd he was back in business hosting online events renamed Getman’s Virtual Book and Paper Fairs.
Since then he’s presented or licensed eight events drawing an expanding crowd of exhibitors. The platform rapidly gained a strong following in the mid and upper tiers of American (and to a lesser extent international) bookselling. Getman said his existing database, which started with 12,000 emails for buyers and sellers, has grown to over 20,000 and is one reason he could move quickly to fill the void.
“The “virtual experience,” he said, “provides an important connection to the market and an opportunity to showcase certain items. When you do it online there’s a chance for the seller to curate materials that are unique or special.”
That is to say, the emphasis is on a limited selection nicely presented. Participants are allowed 12 to 15 items, with fees for a virtual “booth” ranging from $75 to $225. There is no commission charged and the seller and buyer communicate with each other directly. The fairs are typically multi-day events with specific opening and closing times. Once an item is sold the selling price is removed from public view. As an additional incentive, and to drive closing day traffic, vendors may add an additional three items to their virtual booth.
Response has been strong, in fact so strong that some dealers are now finding they are sold out of attractive stock in the $300 to $3,000 range; and for a few - who have done multiple shows in quick succession, “fair fatigue” has set in.
But there’s no denying that the change has brought new energy to an old game.
Getman, who was nudged to the side when the Amazons and eBays of the world brought hordes of new sellers into bookselling, now finds he’s in demand. He finds it an exciting time to be in business. His virtual events have helped stimulate the segment of the market populated by serious and somewhat upmarket buyers and sellers, that until now lacked a consistent attractive internet venue and strong focused promotion.
“We’re seeing lots of eBay defectors,” he said. “It’s ironic, eBay put my collectibles shows out of business twenty years ago, now I’m picking up the people who are leaving that site.”
Dealers participating in recent virtual fairs not only found the virtual platform accessible and easy to use, but some also found it surprisingly profitable. One bookseller (who asked to remain anonymous) participated in multiple events. The fees were “about $500 and the net around $11,000 after all discounts and other expenses were deducted.”
Not everyone reported such lucrative results, but reviews were uniformly good. Dealers reported the most action came in the first half hour immediately after opening with some receiving multiple offers. Comments were also favorable about adding new stock on the final day.
Vendors said sales were divided among collectors, institutions and transactions with other dealers. Most who spoke with RBH found that there were also follow-on sales during the show as well as sales that came in after the conclusion of the event. Participants also cited the value of advertising, finding new customers and reconnecting with old ones as important benefits.
So far Getman’s most successful event has been the Brooklyn Book Fair in September which featured 226 dealers and did nearly a million dollars worth of business. “I didn’t realize how popular the name ‘Brooklyn’ was,” he said. Brooklyn attracted dealers from all over the world who posted an estimated 3,100 items. On the fourth day of the four-day event another 500 items were offered.
During the first three days of the fair sales amounted to $850,000. On the fourth day, when the additional items were put up, sales increased by another to $100,000.
As for big ticket items, “At this event we finally broke the six figure price barrier,” he said, mentioning one important scientific book in that lofty price range selling within a half hour of opening.
“Brooklyn,” he continued,“had the largest attendance to date with 12,500 unique visitors.” He also noted “an increase in the number of items priced over $1,000 which are selling.” An added draw were the various book related panels and discussion. Though the number of viewers was small by internet standards, they were bigger online than they had when the events were live. All of the videos are still available for viewing on his Youtube channel.
His report on his October event was more modest. There were about 175 dealer booths. Sales were almost $275,000 with about 500 items sold at an average price a little over $500. “I cannot compare it to the special September Brooklyn fair, which broke all records.”
Later in October Jen Johnson of Johnson’s Rare Books and Archives in Los Angeles presented the LA Book Fair, a multi-day virtual event that ran from Thursday through Sunday. Johnson used Getman’s platform under a licensing agreement.
Johnson, also an experienced fair presenter, had hoped to offer a live show, but she was quick to adopt the virtual format. Her show fair dubbed RarebooksLA.com drew a broad mix of exhibitors.
She reported total of 115 participating dealers. We had 6,600 unique visitors to the fair, with $247,082 worth of books sold and another $40,650 items placed on reserve. “The visitor level was triple the amount we see at in-person fairs, but that’s not surprising given that virtual fairs remove barriers such as travel and time. We were very pleased with the turnout for the Rare Books LA Virtual Fair and for all of our panels and discussions. They were a great way for our book community to safely be together until we can all be together again in person.”
Like Getman she also saw the value of augmenting the online merchandise with virtual programming and leaving that programming up on the Rare Books Los Angeles Facebook page after the fair ended.
While Getman did not go into detail on how his licensing agreement works, he mentioned that he currently has six licensees and more signing up. These are organizations or companies who rent his platform for their use or fair. “There is a negotiated fee structure,” he said, describing the ventures as “risk free, no money up front,” and paid on “a percentage basis, which makes it easy for both sides to make money.” He also mentioned that not all of the licensees have been book fairs.
Though everyone who spoke with RBH mentioned that there are other virtual venues including ABAA (Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America), IOBA (Independent Online Booksellers Association), CABS (Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar-Minnesota), and various international platforms, Getman observed that he does not feel he is in competition with the others. Currently his vendor mix is about half ABAA members.
Nor does he appear to fear saturation: “Saturation? I don't think the live ones got saturated. Time will tell.”
On the staffing side, so far it’s just him and the South Africians, though he did add a data analyst. As for making a profit: “I’m getting my investment back and I don’t miss the stress of running a live show.”
“Even when covid ends,” he said, “I don't think virtual is going away.“
Best selling merchandise in his view are “the unique and esoteric.” He noted that “ephemera” as much - or more than books, found a ready market. I see dealers carrying more ephemera,” and that, in his opinion, is “a smart approach to keeping the individual booths, “unique, high value and paper oriented.”
He characterised the successful vendor as,”one who is willing to operate in the “experimental mode;” and advised those who are planning to participate to “put the freshest items out, items that haven’t been shown on other sites. Pick your best at a variety of price points.”
Try it out,” he urged, “ it’s not a very big risk-taking venture.”
Presently his calendar of upcoming events only lists one more show this year, billed as a “Bibliophilic Holiday Gift Fair” in December. The schedule for next year has yet to be announced.
Here are comments from five booksellers who participated in recent Getman virtual events:
Chris Volk - Bookfever.com (IOBA), Ione, CA.
“The virtual event definitely ups the price points,” said Chris Volk, “we’re running out of good stock.” Volk, a long time internet dealer, was very positive. She called the virtual experience “great advertising and a good value.” She said Bookfever.com got a hefty return on the amount invested. She also praised Getman for his contribution to the CABS fair, describing him as a person who “listens to comments, even small ones.”
Her sales were “to collectors, a lot of dealer-to-dealer selling, and a very few library and institutional orders.” As for virtual platforms besides Getman, she mentioned Amsterdam, CABS, IOBA, and ABAA (At most those events anyone from the public can buy, but the sellers have to be members of a group or organization).
What sold for her were: “Dealers buying for a deal, high end and unique items, not your everyday books. The top action came in the first ten minutes, some with multiple offers. It was crazy.”
She noted that those who think that recent prices realized are heady, “haven’t really looked around. At the Amsterdam fair prices seemed to start at E10,000 and they went up from there. Truly expensive books.”
Elizabeth Svendsen - Walkabout Books (ABAA), Curtis, WA
Svendsen said she had participated in four fairs noting that her sales were almost entirely things that aren’t books, such as ephemera, pamphlets, photo albums, scrapbooks. Commenting on the slower sales at Getman’s October event she said, “I thought the material offered was very good. It may just be a case of buyers running out of energy to browse so many virtual fairs. Also, in my experience October is also usually just a slow month for online book sales.” An ABAA member, she plans to do the ABAA’s virtual Boston Fair in November where she will be allowed to display up to 50 items and restock up to ten. She termed the virtual shows “a valued source of income. (They are) reliable, easy to do and produced new customers.” Like others she did quite a few sales to other dealers, and presently has a bit of “fair fatigue.”
Ten Pound Island Book Co., Gloucester, MA, specialists in Nautical Books
“It’s been fun doing these virtual book fairs,” commented Ten Pound Island Books in a recent blog. “They bring the promise of big sales numbers, new customers, and an abundance of fresh material that ‘real’ book fairs deliver, with little of the physical labor, less cost, and much less anxiety. But by now their limitations have become obvious.
“I don’t know about you, but when I’m tending my virtual booth, answering questions or filling a photo request, packing and shipping the occasional sale, selecting and cataloging stock for the next VBF (virtual book fair), not to mention attempting to shop the fair myself, I can’t do much else. I recently realized, to my shock and shame, that I hadn’t issued a catalog since August.”
John F. Kuenzig, Bookseller (ABAA) important books in Science, Technology and Engineering, Topsfield, MA
“We've exhibited at nine virtual fairs and shopped three more,” wrote Kuenzig in an email. “On average we're selling 10%-15% of each booth.
“Marvin Getman's design is the design to beat - intuitive, easy to navigate, fast.
“Advantages: fast to shop and easy to "load in" once you have the cataloging done. Far greater exposure to customers than local or regional fairs. Cashflow.
Disadvantages: Too expensive for long term. Too few items exposed. The economics leads to "high spot" culture which isn't sustainable for most mid-level dealers. Since the goal is all new material each time, (the result is) fair fatigue for some of us, and taking a break necessary for those who don't have a lot of backstock (too many fairs, too close together).
Predictions: Will fill a useful role for many dealers looking to efficiently sell to the next tier. Many lower end dealers will drop out as it becomes obvious that economics don't work for their material. (Virtual fairs are a) good supplement to in-person fairs when they come back. Competition and lots of people jumping on the VBF platform bandwagon will create viability issues as dealers have to choose where to go. He suspects that, “Dealers who have the ability will migrate to their own catalogs as their customer base solidifies.”
His sales were “evenly split among dealer, retail, and institutional. I've picked up a half dozen new clients over nine VBFs, some "back" to the fold having not heard from them in some time.”
Steven A. Showfer, Showfer Books, CABS, Novi, MI
“I tried one of the fairs and did quite well. It may have been beginner’s luck, but I sold five items in the first 10 minutes of the fair, all to other dealers and nothing else the entire weekend. I think I did OK, because my items were both scarce and well priced to allow dealers to make a profit.”
Showfer said there were other copies of African American cookbooks he sold, “but they were priced substantially higher. I picked them up for a very reasonable price so I still made a good profit.”
“I sold a 1st Edition 1st state copy of Ernest Hemingway Farewell to Arms for over $1,000 that was clearly underpriced. I received six inquiries. In the end I still made a profit so it’s OK, but the buyer got a steal. There was a second copy in someone else’s booth for many times my price. It was in worse condition and did not sell.”
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