Ah, Commerce! The sounds of the hawkers touting the superiority of their goods, the sights of the brightly colored merchandise shining in the sun, the smell of the camels—oh, wait. This isn’t Morocco. How COULD I have become so confused?
Maybe because we’re in eBay, the world’s largest flea market. And a fleabite is a fleabite, no matter what the source of the vermin—whether it be a camel, a badly cleaned oriental rug, or a bookseller with the morals of a 42nd Street watch salesman.
Step Right Up – Everyone’s A Winner
As a Modern Library specialist and Webmaster of ModernLib.com, a Website for Modern Library collectors, I get lots of e-mail from folks looking for leads on ML bargains and how best to find them. eBay would be the perfect place to find bargains if (among other things) you could trust what the listing says. But, of course, you can’t. Eternal vigilance is the price of a great deal (sorry, Mr. Jefferson), especially in a virtual reality viper’s nest.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all—or even most—eBay sellers have larceny in their hearts. The majority of sellers I’ve encountered show no obvious inclinations to robbery or even deceit. Many are professional booksellers of long standing who adhere strenuously to a high code of ethics such as the one at the Independent Online Booksellers Association (http://www.ioba.org/code.html). Why, some of my best friends are…
Of course, the majority of eBay auctioneers are just-plain-folks selling old books from the basement and attic. They don’t describe books completely or accurately, have no clue how to do so, and they can’t be expected to. To these folks, eBay is just an electronic garage sale.
Still, the Internet highways are fraught with marauders when all roads lead to eBay.
Puffery versus Treachery
Here’s a fairly common near-prototype example of an eBay book description. It mixes plain old puffery with outright lies. The book advertised is a 1950’s Modern Library copy of Brothers Karamazov:
This Rare Hardcover Dust Jacket Edition is in excellent condition… This book is very elusive and copies of this scarce book are extremely hard to find. This book is getting harder and harder to find…
The puffery is in “excellent condition.” Looking at the images of the book, it’s VG at best. But as we all know, the seller’s Near Fine is the buyer’s Near Very Good. But that’s OK – few mothers describe their children as average.
The problem in the description lies in touting the title as elusive and scarce. On the surface the claims are absurd because:
- Modern Library was a reprint house and few titles from the 50’s are scarce.
- Karamazov is one of the most commonly reprinted titles in the world, and it certainly is common in the Modern Library.
- At the time of the listing there were six copies of that printing available on eBay alone.
The technique is a common one: Claim everything is unique and see how many sell.
I looked at the other titles this seller had for sale. The same paragraph appeared in nearly all his listings.
We all make mistakes—especially other people. Being a natural troublemaker and the owner of an asbestos suit that I purchased many years ago soon after discovering newsgroups, I always write to sellers pointing out what I believe to be just plain mistakes. And I’m polite about it. After all, most book dealers are certainly not Modern Library experts! So I expect to see errors and omissions, not out of malice but out of ignorance.
Not assuming folks will take my word for it (and why should they? I’m just some guy with an e-mail address—“Excuse me, dude in the next seat in the diner, you wouldn’t happen to know the first edition points for Styron’s The Long March, would you?”), I usually back up my claim with references to expert texts and reliable web sources. Here’s what I include:
- Description of the alleged error
- Statement of why I think it's an error
- If I have it, reference to my source material
- Suggestion(s) for correcting the error
I can’t claim great success in this information campaign. I usually get ignored. Sometimes I get thanked and the listing actually gets changed. Occasionally I'm shown why the error isn't one. And sometimes I get my ancestry questioned coupled with suggestions for things I might do to take up my time rather than bothering honest citizens in the pursuit of commerce.
My favorite response—a common one—runs something like “Hey, thanks for that information, I didn’t know that.” I used to think that meant that the listing would be changed; often it doesn’t mean that at all. When I write back to the seller pointing out that (s)he forgot to change the listing, I’ll be ignored or get the reply “I don’t know how to change the listing because I already have bids.” (And yes, if the listing is for an important book and I’ve got the time I DO write back with a pointer to the eBay instructions telling him how to do it. And no, the listing is usually NOT changed.)
Reputable sellers are always interested in correcting errors. Beyond being the ethical thing to do, it's just good business because it attracts long-term customers. These sellers welcome corrections and will thank you for them. (Well, sometimes they will—and sometimes they'll just fix the error without thanking you. Take what you can get.)
Guarding Against Sleaze
Here’s a list I use to determine if I’m dealing with somebody with whom I need to take extra care.
- Has an eBay positive feedback rating of less than 99%
eBay folks are reluctant to leave negative feedback for fear of getting negative feedback in return. So if there is negative feedback, there’s reason to be suspicious. Feed the seller's eBay name into Toolhaus eBay Negative Search at http://www.toolhaus.org/cgi-bin/negs and see what comes back—not just in terms of the kinds of complaints people have about the seller, but the responses that the seller gives.
- Accepts payment only by money order, cashier's check, wired funds, or cash
This is a deal-killer for me. If the book turns out to be a dud and you paid cash, you’re stuck with it—and all of the methods listed above are essentially cash. You have no recourse.
- Does not allow returns ("all sales final")
This is another deal-killer on the face of it. The seller won’t stand behind his/her product. Often the listing has a qualifying statement such as “All sales final unless the book is described incorrectly.” But in such listings the terms are generally arguable condition statements, and the seller has the final say about what’s an incorrect description. If the seller doesn’t offer a no-questions-asked return period of at least seven days from the book’s arrival, don’t bid.
- Refuses to answer questions or gives evasive answers
Prima facie Deal Killer # 3. I can’t think of a single reason that a legitimate seller would refuse to answer a question directly. Of course, “I don’t know” is a direct answer and often quite acceptable. This is especially the case when the dealer isn’t a Modern Library specialist. For example, if a seller claims that the book is a first edition and I ask for the points, he/she may only know the obvious one–say, a first edition slug on the copyright page. But determining firsts in Modern Library editions can be fairly complex, so I’ll tell the seller what the points are and ask him/her to verify that the points are there. If the seller doesn’t get back to me, I won’t bid.
- Totally ignores e-mail
I make no exceptions here, no matter how much I want the book. If the dealer won’t contact you before the auction ends, it’s a pretty good bet that you’ll be ignored if you have problems after you send your check. .
- Wants unreasonable shipping charges
A great bargain is no bargain at all if the shipping charges are three times the price of the book. Some eBayers use shipping charges as a profit center. Generally I won’t bid when shipping is high. I check Priority Mail rates for the weight of the book and add $1.50 or $2.00 for packaging and handling. Any non-giant Modern Library book should have charges of around $5.50 to $6.00 tops, less if sent by media mail. If shipping charges and method aren’t listed, always ask before you bid.
- Keeps bidder’s list secret
The chief reasons that sleazy sellers keep bidder’s lists secret is so that you can’t contact other bidders to ask embarrassing questions or to warn them off an obvious scam (eBay’s “auction interference rule” be damned), or so that you can’t see obvious shill bidders.
- Refuses to send additional scans/photo without good reason
Sometimes a book is too cheap for a seller to spend a lot of time on it. I’m not going to ask for extra scans for a five buck book. (I say “extra scans” because I usually ignore listings without scans unless the title is genuinely scarce.) But when the price gets over $20 or so, I won’t buy a book without scans of the front and spine (and sometimes the back).
- Uses stock book photos
A stock photo for a used collectable? I don’t think so.
- Makes absurd claims
Here’s my absolute all-time favorite and incredibly common stupid listing statement: “There is no copyright nor print date so it’s probably a first edition.” Such claims can often be blamed on plain old ignorance rather than skullduggery, but it’s certainly a warning flag.
What an Ideal Modern Library Listing Includes
Sometimes sellers deliberately fudge on their listings knowing that what they have wouldn’t pass muster even as reading copies. But the vast majority of book listings in eBay are incomplete because most sellers aren’t professional booksellers, and many professional booksellers aren’t very good at their jobs. Additionally even the best non-specialist booksellers will have trouble determining the finer points of Modern Library titles. (By the way, sellers who sell a lot of Modern Library titles really need to have a copy of Henry Toledano’s Modern Library Price Guide and should spend some time at the ModernLib Website at http://www.ModernLib.com.) Here are the items I like to see in a Modern Library listing (or that I ask the seller about) before I bid:
- Title and author
Oddly enough, this can actually be tricky: The title on the dust jacket was often different from what appeared on the title page!
- General condition statement based on AB Bookman's Weekly guidelines
Actually, this may be the least important item on the list if clear scans and fault descriptions are present. Condition statements are vestiges of the pre-internet era when listings were one paragraph long with no photographs. In such situations puffery ran rampant (even more than now).
- Clear scans or photos
Scans of the front and spine of the dust jacket or (if no dust jacket) the front and spine of the book are sine qua non for me. There’s really no excuse for not scanning these days: scanners are very cheap to buy, very easy to use, and work very quickly.
- Description of all faults
Here’s AB Bookman's Weekly guidelines come into play. Listed faults must include tears, folds, chips to the dust jacket (front, spine, and back), browning, foxing, underlines, highlighting, loose pages, stains, warping, ex-library indications, integrity of the block in the boards, and so on
- Copyright date if present
Many Modern Library titles came in two or more editions. For example, Don Quixote had different translators, The Mayor of Casterbridge had introductions written by different people, and several of the short story anthologies had their contents change while the titles remained the same.
- Date of the printing
This can be really tricky. Sometimes the only way to hone in on the correct date is to use the catalogs that often appeared on the inverse of the dust jacket and at the back of the book. (ModernLib provides dating keys to solve this problem.)
- Description of the binding type
There are nearly 20 distinct Modern Library binding styles. Different styles were used during specific periods, including one that was used for just a single year.
- Whether the book and dust jacket match
This is another tricky area in Modern Library collecting that most sellers don’t know about. A potential bidder should supply the points and ask the seller to verify their presence.
- Number of titles listed in the dust jacket catalog
The number usually appears at the top of the inverse of the dust jacket in a statement such as “Which of these <XXX> outstanding books do you want to read?” where <XXX> is the number of titles available in the Modern Library series on the date of the printing of that particular copy. This is often a key first edition point.
- Statement saying if the printing is a first or later
This may be the trickiest point of all. Many first editions carried statements identifying them as such, but around 10% of titles in the series—most of them published between 1959 and 1965—carried no such statement. To make matters worse, titles printed by offset lithography (all titles after 1965 going into the 1980s “revival” period and about six earlier titles) retained their First Edition slugs in later printings. Once again, the Toledano Guide and the ModernLib Website are your best friends here.
- If a buckram or a paperback, the number on the spine
Both college paperbacks (T series) and quality paperbacks (P series) had numbers on the spine. Buckrams, all of which were issued with no dust jackets, were supposed to have the number of the title at the bottom of the spine and the words “Buckram Reinforced” above it. (Some printings lacked the statement and number but had the distinctive binding.)
- If a paperback, description of the type
College Series, numbered series, and so on.
Buyers Can Be Unethical Too
“But Wait,” you say, “What about unscrupulous buyers?” Well, there certainly are such people. Sellers don’t have an exclusive on unethical behavior. Buyers can cheat by not paying for the books they receive, by claiming they didn’t receive the book, or by sending back for a refund a different book than the one they received. Here are some ways that I protect myself against these common buyer scams:
- Don’t ship until the check has cleared
I accept money orders, cashier’s checks, and personal checks. Sometimes I accept PayPal (although I don’t like to because of the cut they take—the eBay hit is high enough as it is). If I don’t know the buyer I wait until the check clears before shipping the book.
- Unobtrusively mark the book and dust jacket
Sometimes the buyer wants to return the book. I want to make sure that the book I get back is the book I sent. So I make the lightest possible pencil mark in a non-obvious place on the back of the dust jacket and on a specific page in the book and make sure the marks are there when the book is returned.
- Make and keep scans of the book and DJ’s front, spine, and back
I make 300 DPI scans and keep them until my warranty period expires (generally 10 days after the book is delivered). This is a further check in case the book is returned: I compare the scans against the book and DJ.
- Don’t send a refund until the book is returned
If the book I get back is the one I sent, I send a refund the same day.
- Always use Delivery Confirmation
As a small timer who doesn’t sell that many books and who doesn’t do it often, I always use USPS for deliveries. I’ve never had one go astray. But to protect myself I always use Delivery Confirmation.
How I Gathered my Experiences
Sometimes I act in sleazy ways myself. A seller might advertise a book as a first edition but the dust jacket or binding photos don’t match what a first in that title should be, so I write to the seller asking for the first edition points even if I already know that I don’t want the book. If the seller makes stuff up, I know to put him on my kill list and exclude him from future searches. You might claim that this is sort of unethical on my part in that I have no intention of bidding on the book—I’m just playing Net Cop and in some ways wasting the seller’s time.
Unethical? Maybe – but this is eBay. I’m just trying to fit in.
Scot Kamins has been an eBay buyer and seller since 1997 and an avid Modern Library collector since 1993. In 1996 he started a Website for Modern Library collectors. Receiving hundreds of hits daily, www.ModernLib.com has become the de rigueur place for hip MLers to hang out and to get ML information. You can write to Scot at Kamins@ModernLib.com to discuss his questionable ethics or to ask questions about the Modern Library.