Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2006 Issue

eBay Offers Trap Door on the Book Market


Collectors for years could not sell their material efficiently.

By Bruce McKinney

A Needed Way Out

A generation of book owners is looking past weak offers from dealers and limited opportunities selling via traditional auctions, marketing their books, manuscripts and ephemera lot by lot on eBay. The results are inconsistent but encouraging both for sellers and buyers. For sellers it's the chance to control their own destiny, converting market observations into listings, transactions and private client lists. In short order sellers on eBay achieve a working competence to match their commitment to the endeavor. The selling is easy, developing techniques that achieve the best financial outcomes more difficult. For many, selling on eBay is not a career path, just a better option than selling dirt cheap to a dealer or giving the material to a library or Good Will. These sellers will do and be done. A few will find a metier. For buyers who pounce on interesting material as it arrives on the block it's an equally good opportunity: the chance to buy material without substantial mark up. In short, eBay is the emerging cash market and in fact already a very large one.

What sells on eBay?

Everything sells on eBay including old books, manuscripts and ephemera. Transactions tend to be in the $10 to $250 range however which is less a function of value than market experience. In other words bidders consistently buy good material in this price range and come to the market expecting to find more. If your item is significantly more valuable you may exceed their financial capability or force them to forgo other material. In the end they may simply not bid the full value for reasons beyond your listing and the quality of your item. Think of it this way. eBay has a sweet spot. It's huge but clearly distinct from the premium materials that documented auctions specialize in.

Easy to List, Difficult to Achieve High Prices

For sellers eBay provides support although they may not emphasize one fact: it's easy to sell but difficult to get a high price. The description is the key to visibility. How well you prepare it will effect how many people see it. It's true you will be visible in category searches even if your description is thin as gruel but categories are large so your chances of being seen small. In the book category today there are 467,955 listings. You don't want to exclusively depend on bidders finding your speck of sand in that pile so you also need to be highly visible in the term searches which experienced eBayers use to locate gems among the clutter. To do this you need to write thorough descriptions. With each additional descriptive term the chances of showing up in buyer searches increases.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 27:</b> <i>[Sutro Baths] / On the Shore of the Pacific Ocean,</i> designer unknown, 1896. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 27:</b> Osvaldo Ballerio, <i>Biscottini e Amaretti Delser,</i> circa 1900. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 27:</b> Maxfield Parrish, <i>Harper’s Weekly,</i> 1896. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 27:</b> Leonetto Cappiello, <i>Les Parfums de J. Daver Paris,</i> 1903. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 27:</b> Jacob Lawrence, <i>Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture,</i> 1968. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 27:</b> Charles Loupot, <i>Lion Noir, Cirage – Crème,</i> 1949. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 27:</b> <i>Keep Calm and Carry On,</i> designer unknown, 1939. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 27:</b> Walter L. Greene, <i>Adirondack Mountains / Lake Placid,</i> 1930. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 27:</b> Laura Brey, <i>Enlist / On Which Side of the Window Are You?</i> 1917. $1,500 to $2,000.

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