The Swami Speaks
By Bruce McKinney
Change is the order of the day not only in politics but also in book selling; the reactions and responses just as emotional and visceral. For those who became booksellers to avoid the froth there is plenty of heckling to make you wonder if you chose the right profession. The pastoral expectations of a life among books, for some time, have been giving way to an emerging market along the lines of the Chicago stock yards.
For fully ten years the world of books has been shifting online. With this transfer has come awareness of the vastly larger quantities of many books and editions that "are out there." This in turn has brought a recalibration of rarity that increasingly looks not only at availability but interest.
It has created an emerging worldwide and increasingly visible inventory that is easy to see and everyday understood by more people. It has forced dealers to decide whether to price material according to what a specific individual will pay or to what the market says it is worth. Just a few years ago it was unlikely collectors were seeing the larger picture. Today many more are, the evidence of this is in the volume of material moving through eBay and traditional auctions. Buyers of all persuasions increasingly trust competitive bidding more than asking prices and so are bidding rather than outright buying.
The disconnect between the old market of prix fix and the new market of demand established prices has been possible only because collectors have been slow to grasp the emerging transparency of the market. This has left the dealer to decide how much to disclose, a difficult decision with no right answer. Sellers of course have the right to obtain the best price and so do buyers. If one side is asleep the other will prevail but these days few collectors are entirely unaware of their options. For years the dealer knew much more but the gap is quickly closing and it's increasingly common for collector knowledge to decisively trump dealer awareness.
For collectors with some awareness of the extensive market information now available this has meant acquiring access to the tools that empower bidders. Of course to acquire or access them you need to know what they are and while some dealers have embraced such tools as part of the emerging future of bookselling and collecting and share this information with their clients, others have responded in anger, disbelief and frustration. Ultimately, it is the collector who must be satisfied and they are embracing such tools.
With eBay and auction houses playing increasing roles in the exchange of books, manuscripts and ephemera the logical next step is for dealers to edge into the auction market themselves. Traditionally, this would have been verboten. Booksellers sold at retail prices they set, and a bidding process would have undermined the logic of their pricing. However, the overwhelming number of listings and increasing buyer preference for market derived prices is making this necessary. Better to adapt to a new pricing strategy than be left behind.
This is not to say we expect dealers to stop selling by traditional means. They will not and should not. What we expect to see is their offering some items through a bid and ask process. The first such offerings are likely to be their slowest-moving inventory. That said, we expect to see one or more of the bookseller organizations lead the way to organizing a booksellers' auction site. With the high commissions of other auctions, both online and traditional, plus the tendency for books to get lost among the hundreds of items they sell, a bookseller run online auction just for books appears the logical next step. If such a step is logical, then it probably will happen.