NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #130
by Pat Holt

book Friday, February 18, 2000:

BOOKSELLERS ON THE WEB: Part IV
NORMA REPORTS IN

LETTERS

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Well, the whole staff got picked for Jury Duty (we're so unopinionated we got right on), and each day we find ourselves gazing at the American flag above the Judge's desk and remembering the fun of . . . visiting independent bookstores on the Web! Here's the latest installment:

BOOKSELLERS ON THE WEB: Part IV

JOSEPH-BETH BOOKSTORE,
Lexington, Kentucky; Cincinatti Ohio; plus four more locations
http://www.josephbeth.com

You know how sometimes you can feel the history of a store the minute you walk onto the premises? That's the feeling you get clicking onto Joseph-Beth, once a 6500-square-foot store that opened in Lexington at the end of 1986, expanded to 40,000 square feet, then took on a sister store in Cincinnati and THEN added four Davis-Kidd stores in Tennessee (when Karen Davis and Thelma Kidd retired). It's not a searchable site and it doesn't boast a huge database, but pride is everywhere: Describing staff member Janet Koehne's National New Bookseller of the Year Award, the site concludes, "To the wider world she has her 15 minutes, but to us she is legend." Bravo.

And here's a great way for readers to meet new authors online: Courtesy of Nashville Public Radio's host Rebecca Bain, big chunks of author interviews, beautifully edited for print, are reprinted right on the site, offering those thoughtful tidbits authors come up with that listeners take away to ponder for a long time. Richard Russo, for example, suggests that "children do one of two things: they either want to be exactly like their parents, or nothing like their parents, and in both cases they are doomed." (This from his latest book, "Straight Man." ) The staff recommends 12 books (with reviews that are a little too succinct), gives special discounts to teachers and hosts terrific author signings. An appealing photo section shows Nikki Giovanni having a great time with 100 fans at the Lexington Store and John Glenn signing a whopping 1,200 books at the Cincinnati store. We never hear the number of titles available, but the goings-on are compelling.

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NORMA REPORTS IN

Last time we heard from Norma Montgomery (#126), a former word processor who now makes a living buying and selling used books, she took us on a tour of thrift stores where she bought a selection of used books for 25 cents to 2 dollars each.

Here's Norma's report of how she resold these books on eBay, an Internet auction site - and her response to readers who think she's either a "marketeer" or hobbyist who makes used book sales look a lot easier than it is.

NORMA'S REPORT:

I added the Rita Mae Brown "Sneaky Pie" paperback to two I already had and the three-paperback lot went for $9.50. (I was surprised.)

Here's the shocker: I put the little mint paperback on Search-and-Rescue Dogs up all by itself and it sold for $13.50. When the bid leapt up, I double-checked to make sure I'd indicated it was a paperback, and I had indeed.

The hardback copy of "Grapes of Wrath" went for $7.50.

Mary Stewart's "The Wicked Day" sold for $15.50 (it was a first edition).

Paul Theroux's paperback on Britain went for $2.95 to a fellow in Australia who had bought from me before. I now have to calculate international postage. Sigh.

So that's how I earn my living. In addition to the above, there were numerous smaller sales, of course, but this is a good sample of the higher-priced goodies from that batch.

Most of the heavier reference material I traded to a woman who works in the Richmond Schools and for a biotech firm for nifty little sturdy boxes that beakers are mailed in. The reference material will help educate Richmond kids, and the boxes will keep my merchandise secure in the mails.

PAT QUERIES NORMA: Could you tell us about the lesser buys, the unsuccessful auctions, if any?

NORMA: You want me to dispell the notion that everything I put up sells well?

Okay. The hardback, dust jacketed Lucy Maud Montgomery 3-books-in-1-volume sold at openers for a disappointing $2.95. I've gotten higher prices for her paperbacks.

A "lot" of 10 Agatha Christies went for $3.00, and I probably paid $2.00 for them. A "lot" of 8 Erle Stanley Gardners offered at $2.50 did not sell. I will relist. I probably paid $2.00 for them, too.

But the five Herriott books (Yorkshire Vets) went for $10.50.

And a 1960 paperback of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" that I paid a quarter for is now at $11.00 and still has a couple of days to go.

Likewise, Orwell's "1984" combined with Huxley's "Brave New World" (both well-read paperbacks for which I paid 50 cents or so) went for $10.00.

The hip-pocket guides to Northern Californa coastline did not sell; I will put them aside to relist when the weather is more conducive to coastal hiking. The "Japanese Flower Arranging" did not sell; I will relist.

The trick with the "lots" is to hit eBay when at least two people happen to want at least one of the books in the lot. If that happens, the bid goes up and up. If it does not happen, the lot sells for openers and I may not make money. The last lot of Agatha Christies I put up went for over a dollar each. This most recent lot for 30 cents each

But who knows in advance? I assure you I did not expect to get $9.25 for the three "Sneaky Pie" mysteries (and it was not even a complete set of them). But you can bet I'll grab any more I see.

I tend not to think of things as "not sold." I think of them as "not sold yet."

I spent $8 this morning at my local Goodwill and came home with 12 very sellable paperbacks (including three Mary Stewart Merlins and a VG+ paperback copy of "Leaves of Grass," which may or may not sell), one sellable hardback (Ruth Rendell), and one sellable VHS (Old Yeller for $2.00).

I am delighted to answer questions about all this. I am as fascinated as anyone else. You should have seen my jaw drop when the "Search-and-Rescue Dogs" paperbacks went into double digits.

I sell a lot of books in the final hours of an auction. One can browse through all books (or narrow the browsing to specific categories, e.g., science-fiction) closing within the next 5 hours. This is where bargain hunters lurk -- they are there to buy good books cheaply that haven't sold but are about to close.

If my books have gone this long without a bid, I consider that my auction itself helps sell at this point. I present clear information on my books, in good-looking format, and my abilities with words help enormously. I can "sell" if I can get them to read my listing, especially if what I'm offering is truly a bargain (and it usually is).

There is one school of eBay thought that says you should initially list high with the thought that someone wants that book and will pay the high openers. If no one wants it at that price, relist cheaper. I'll do this with books of obvious value, and I've always sold them at the higher opening.

A READER RESPONDS:

A friend sent me one of your newsletters because I sell second-hand books on eBay as a sideline. So let me add my two cents. I only sell about 65% of what I list, even though I try to list only the stuff I think will sell. I do very well with non-fiction reference and usually stay away from fiction. I decided to try some of Norma's suggestions re fiction, but it's too soon to know if those old paperback Westerns will really sell....

The down side is that there's a percentage of people who will buy a book but never send in their money - yet I still have to pay eBay for the listing plus a percentage. People send in their check but don't say what book they bought, so I have to e-mail them--or send a letter--to find out the title.

The biggest headache is when someone buys using an e-escrow service. Because then I have to send a book insured and registered, otherwise I have no proof that the book was received by the buyer.

Also, Norma doesn't say what she does about the books that don't sell. Sometimes I relist mine, or end up selling them at flea markets or give them to thrift shops. I haven't calculated how much profit I actually make, but I was wondering about Norma's figures. Does she gross $1100 a month or is that profit?

In any case, Norma makes making a living sound easier than it is.

Sharon Jarvis
Toad Hall

NORMA ANSWERS:

Auctions stay accessible for one full month after they close. So you can go into an auction that's closed for a period of 30 days and, with the click of a mouse and your user name and password, get the email address of all bidders on your auction. You need not "negotiate" anything with eBay. It's there. It's accessible. And it is accessible, with the auction number, for 30 days beyond the initial 30.

Ebay rules are that if a winning bidder does not contact a seller within three days of close of auction, the seller has the right to offer the book to the second highest bidder.

An astute seller will also include terms with her auction: mine are "checks or money orders are accepted and payment is appreciated within 10 days of close of auction." When I email a winner of a winning auction, I pinpoint the terms a bit more: "Payment should be sent within 10 days."

These terms are fairly standard. If this woman waits more than 60 days before determining that she's not getting paid, or even more than 30 days, she's just not cut out for the business. If I don't get payment within three weeks, I follow up to see what's wrong.

I find that eBay is more than a place to post items: eBay wants very much for every transaction to be a positive one. If you have deadbeat buyers, eBay will slap their hands for you. If you don't get paid, eBay will refund your listing and selling fees. If buyers don't come through, the seller has other options if she follows through in a timely and organized fashion.

SHARON ANSWERS NORMA:

I wait a fairly long time to see if people will finally send in a check, then I send them an e-mail reminding them. I suppose I could go to the second bidder, but then I have to negotiate eBay to find that info and they don't keep it forever, so by the time I give up on a buyer, that information is gone. I would have to get it right at the beginning (extra effort, paperwork, etc.) and haven't bothered.

Norma doesn't say what she does about the books that don't sell. Sometimes I relist mine, or end up selling them at flea markets or give them to thrift shops. I haven't calculated how much profit I actually make, but I was wondering about Norma's figures. Does she gross $1100 a month or is that profit?

Sharon J

NORMA: It is true that occasionally someone will bid on an auction and not come through with the payment. However, one need only stipulate in one's auction that, for example, "payment must be sent within 10 days". If not received by then, I email a reminder. If no response, I email that I intend to relist. If no response, I relist. Ebay will refund one's listing fee and selling fees under these circumstances. One need only contact SafeHarbour and report the matter.

And sometimes I do get a check without a book or auction number attached. However, I request name and address when I contact a winner and this information appears on my records. I can rapidly flip through them to match a name and amount with a check. Not matching funds to auctions has never been a problem and this happens only rarely.

I've never encountered an escrow auction, so I can't comment on that.

I can report that at least 70% of what I list sells the first time, and more than half of what I relist sells (and I relist almost everything that does not sell the first time).

The $1400 I made in January was the gross profit.

There are so few books left over that I don't sell, that finding new homes for them is not a problem. Some I take to the neighborhood circulating library, some I take to Goodwill. Others I make into different "lots" and try a new approach to sell them. I create "lots" with one or two hot sellers in them and add a loser or two, and the entire lot sells, often at good prices.

An overwhelming percentage of those who buy from me are quick to respond and quick to pay. And two-thirds of them leave positive feedback, which is a high percentage of feedback return. I've never had a negative or a neutral. Since most people are so nice, it makes it very easy for me to deal with the occasional eBay idiot who is troublesome. If they get too troublesome, SafeHarbour exists for just such matters, although I've not had to use it.

Perhaps a bit wordy, but my experience is just so dissimilar that I felt I had to blather on. The problems she mentions DO exist, but I just don't perceive them as at all important in my eBay dealings.

I'm glad I make it seem "simple." To me, it is simple. It's the easiest, funnest job I've ever had that took 12-15 hours a day.

ANOTHER READER RESPONDS:

I thought your article about eBayer Norma was a cute one - but I would like to point out that, in her small way, she is no more a "real bookseller" than Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble are. She is a marketeer who finds her materials in thrift stores, and knows what there is some demand for - but she is lacking in the real passion for, and knowledge of, books that you extoll in the best independent booksellers (and that most good used booksellers share.)

Even her increase her knowledge was not an increase in awareness of the contents of the books which she was selling, but a better feel for the marketplace. The combination of easy packing and cheap shipping with book rate postage, relative ease in describing items, and the plentiful supply at low cost makes books a good 'product' to sell on a site like ebay. I think it is great that she is able to make a living this way - it shows creativity and ingenuity on her part - but please don't call her a bookseller!

NORMA: In a way, your reader is correct: I'm doing this because it is doable and I had the creativity and ingenuity to latch on to it.

But to even imagine for one minute that I can do this successfully without having a true passion for books is ludicrous. If this reader were to spend time on the eBay Book Board (the book-related chat room), s/he would soon realize that the people there are indeed booksellers of the finest tradition. And it is from these folks that I have learned my trade.

There are sellers on eBay who deal in books who are clearly marketeers, selling anything and careless in their descriptive accuracy. I've bought books from people like that and I've regretted it. But I'm not them.

My books are honestly presented, carefully and accurately described, very carefully packaged up for mail, and received almost universally with pleasure and the following comment: "better than described." Because I do not have a scanner and cannot show pictures, I must be doubly careful in my verbal descriptions to convey exactly the condition of the book.

It is true that I put up sci-fi and the like for auction because there is a market and the books will sell. But don't "real" booksellers do the same thing?

And when I find a 1920 hardback with a dust jacket in a thrift store, the story of a missionary in the Lebanon, and I research that book online, describe it carefully, and sell it (turning my 50 cents into $7.50), is that really just "marketeering," or is a realization of the value of that book and its desirability for someone else out there who will never stumble into that Goodwill in downtown Richmond?

I do wonder how the correspondent would do if s/he had to sell every book s/he sells on the basis of what s/he could learn about it and the way s/he could describe it. That's what I do.

Frankly, it's easier to stick them on a shelf and hope someone walks in to buy them.

As a woman who reads several hundred books a year, and has done so forever, I reject the notion that I lack passion for books. I am doing this precisely because I have passion for books. A NOTE FROM HOLT: During our tour of the thrift shops I watched Norma pull out more than one book she said"probably won't sell" but determined to pass on to some lucky reader anyway simply because she loved it so much. Mark Helprin's novel, "A Soldier of the Great War," was one of these. Her long-running correspondence with grateful buyers of books on everything from greyhounds to children's stories set in Europe show as much of a bookseller's heartfelt respect for customers as I have ever seen.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Clearly Amazon.com has terrific overhead if it shows gross profit and huge net losses. It makes no sense to gripe about its lack of overhead in cyberspace if Wall Street analysts can find no net profit in the picture. Perhaps Amazon.com should be taxed on its losses? It's not just cyber-economy that's built on clouds: Any investor who's making money from any investment in a company that's continually downsizing and putting humans out of work should wonder about the basis of their handsome investment returns and the nature of today's "economic prosperity" in general. Talk about ethereal.

On another tangent: I am the president of PEN San Miguel, an English-speaking PEN chapter in Mexico. While I appreciate your comments about some un-named PEN chapter hooking up with amazon.com to offer a $10,000 prize (where the money comes from is unspecified in your commentary, and I don't know either), PEN has a strong human rights agenda centered around freedom of expression. Though I am unfamiliar with the parameters of the contest, perhaps it will bring a grand, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to a previously unknown writer. And perhaps in the future, with cyber-help, independent sellers, small PEN chapters (or other organizations) and hopeful writers can get together for even more freedom of expression, with or without cash prizes.

As a publisher and newspaper editor myself, I like "hard copy," but I appreciate all opportunities for expression. Minority groups who previously ran the risk of losing all if they invested in a radio transmitter or a printing press can now safely reach the world with a laptop and the use of a telephone line. My theory is that the cyberworld is a great place to promote cottage industry and self- publication; given the inaccessibility of the new publishing monopolies to all but a best-selling few, self-promotion is where we're headed anyway. Welcome to the self-published, self-promoting masses -- find us and enjoy us on the net, where you will be directed to a hard copy.

Sareda Milosz
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
El Independiente, at http://www.infosma.com

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

I have been reading Holt Uncensored for several months now with great interest, and have finally been provoked to write after reading your comments about the PEN/Amazon.com Short Story Award. By way of background, let me preface this letter by saying I am an aspiring, as-yet-unpublished writer who pays the bills by working full-time in the customer service department of an independent bookseller (in the online division, no less). I am not fond of Amazon.com and would not buy books from them under any circumstances. I read with disgust the transcripts of their depositions of the Amazon bookstore employees and find your observations about Amazon.com's ridiculous business practices alternately insightful, hilarious, and sometimes even terrifying.

But I am going to submit to the short story contest. In fact, I am going to work feverishly, night and day, to come up with the best short story of which I am humanly capable, and I fervently hope to win. Why would I support this behemoth that is crushing independent booksellers right and left and stinking up the Internet by paving the path of dot-commerce? Two reasons: money and credentials. Allow me to elucidate.

I have submitted many short stories over the years, to many contests and publications, and believe me it's a chore these days finding a magazine that pays a decent wage for stories. (Never mind websites -- most of them don't even pay.) I would one day (very soon) like to make a living solely as a writer, but that seems less and less possible unless I have an Ivy League credential to my name. The top fiction magazines offer $5,000 per story, but they only publish 20 or so stories a year and the competition is fierce -- I have to fight against Harvard and Iowa graduate students, not to mention established writers.

In other words, $10,000 is an enormous chunk of change for unpublished short story writers. Only a website as... (I was going to write "profitable," but we all know that's a joke. How about "frugal"?) Only a website as frugal and well-funded as Amazon.com could ante up a prize that large and enticing. I can pay a lot of bills with $10,000. I could work part-time instead of full-time, and spend the rest of my week doing more writing, plus I would now have a sterling credential to my name since PEN is supporting the contest.

How can I stomach taking money from Amazon.com? Well, it works along the same lines as the Robin Hood "found drug money" principle, wherein if one stumbles upon a cache of drug money (in theory) one should spend it on a worthwhile cause despite its ill-gotten means. Sure, the $10,000 was garnered at the expense of independent booksellers -- it is, essentially, blood money, in that respect -- but if it ends up supporting a freelance writer who desperately needs it, well, who can argue with that? (I have a feeling I'm about to find out the hard way.)

Furthermore, there is no entry fee (a rarity for contests), which means I'm not directly giving money to Amazon.com. Some might feel that by entering such a contest I am inadvertently supporting the website that has wreaked so much havoc for so many independent booksellers, but I don't agree. In essence, I feel like the best revenge is taking money from a monstrosity like Amazon.com and using it to support independents -- since a large share of that money would, no doubt, end up being spent on books, all of which I purchase from the independents.

This is my long-winded way of disagreeing with your negative approach to the contest. Just as PBS programs accept "generous" grants from questionable corporations, I feel starving, struggling writers have every right to take money from the dot-com tyrants; if nothing else, I like to think of it as Amazon.com's (admittedly meager) way of giving back to the artistic community from which it has taken so much. Are they exploiting us? That's one way to look at it; I prefer to think that I'm exploiting them.

A Very Hungry Writer

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re the "Nonzero" book and theorizing by Robert Wright: the idea of a biological factor in "reciprocal altruism" has long been debated among biologists. Richard Dawkins, one of the best-known "bad boys" in the field, has postulated that cooperation is really just one more way of getting what we want (food and sex, mainly, in a historical sense). It's the old philosophical conundrum of whether there can really be true altruism, in that even any warm fuzzy feeling we get from doing good is a payback of some kind.

But here's the important point: In the modern world, Dawkins and others guess, any kindness and altruism which is not about basic survival and reproduction - nowadays, the struggle is more commonly about cash - is actually a "meme," or culturally nurtured "gene." It's a pessimistic point of view but one that seems to hold a lot of water under capitalism. Fragile "memes" break down easily when money is at stake. Look at how once-common manners and kindnesses become rare in the rush of modern life. Business, for all its posturing about being "socially conscious" or "green" or whatever, will usually quickly turn "red in tooth and claw" when profits are threatened. And that seems to hold true for the book biz too.

PS: Re Senator Barbara Boxer and her anti-Internet tax position: The Pacific Sun, which is the Marin County weekly where Senator Boxer got her start as a journalist a couple of decades back, last week editorialized that she was completely wrong on the Internet tax issue. That paper, like me and most people I know around here, are big Boxer boosters - but not on this!

Steve Heilig

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Did Herb Greenberg really write "tow the line?" As for "reciprocal altruism" (re the book "Nonzero"), this is old news that goes back at least as far as Shaftesbury's "Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times" (1711).

Wayne Douglass

Holt responds: The reason I find "reciprocal altruism" so fascinating is its role beyond capitalism in the "open source" movement that found such a perfect birthplace on the Internet. Here are people contributing their ideas and opinions - first to software engineers, then to start-up companies and now to any old maverick columnist - just to be a part of something constructive. Take capitalism away! Take Barbara Boxer to the showers! People on the Internet are practicing "reciprocal altruism" without expectation of return, and how great to hear the concept goes back (officially) to 1711!

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Perhaps your readers would like to know one way I introduce students to independent bookstores: As a community college teacher, I take my students on field trips to the two independents in our town. They meet the owners (and the owner's cat!), discover the joy of used and remaindered books, and, freed from work and childcare, are like the proverbial kids in a candy store. (They are offered student discounts as well!) All of us adults have an obligation to share this experience with the next generation, I believe.

And a query: I need a one page on-line rap sheet on Amazon.com which I can email or fax to the zillions of otherwise enlightened folks who mention it constantly in person and on the radio. It seems to me that if such a sheet could be assembled, it would be a great help for those of us who know enough to hate it but can't give bulleted reasons why (including the anti-gay lawsuit). Can you or another reader help?

Lauren Coodley

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Yes, it's depressing, this Amazon business and the tax business and the threatened species, aka the small merchant, for it's not only bookstores America is losing. Alas. If there is any good news in the growth of online business (and of course there is a lot more) we might consider:

One of my grown children and several grandchildren have written more words since getting e-mail than they did in all the years of their previous time on this earth. Nothing forces us to shape our ideas with the precision of writing. Certainly not talking, or have you not been to a cocktail party recently? Precision? Emails? Okay. But it's a start. Come 3000 they may be reading Dickens.

Hank Haines
Murfreesboro, Tennessee

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

I must respond to Linda Maloney, who wrote

"If downtown merchants really want to make people want to shop there, they should think of positive ways to do it, rather than just trying to hurt their opponents (a lose/lose scenario). Example: how about free parking?! (Now there's a really utopian idea.)"

That's not utopian -- it's horribly dystopian.

All over America, cities choke on auto fumes, asthma soars, and the urban centers die because things are spread over vast acreage to accommodate all that "free" parking. Pedestrians give up in terror and despair and the care, feeding, and storage of cars absorbs ever more tax revenue -- so even the 20% of us who can't drive subsidize the "free parking" and roads for the folks who kill hundreds of us yearly.

People have pointed out that the concept of "Free Gas" would strike most people as nuts -- should bookstores provide free gas to their customers? Of course not ... yet gas is every bit as essential to the shopping trip as the parking. We've just become so used to this idea that the space to park a $40,000 2-ton sport brutality vehicle is and by God should be free and that every 150 lb. person needs that 4000 pound behemoth to pick up a 2 lb. book and a 1 lb. video.

The bookstores we need -- independent, locally based, community-connected -- need sufficient density of people nearby who care about the store and who get something from it and who give back to it -- not just by their purchases, but also by their participation. Low-density carburban sprawl makes this impossible and means that only "big box" retailers who can draw from a much larger area (of car-driving customers) can survive.

The cancer that is big box bookselling is both caused and aggravated by carburban car-culture. Without all the hidden subsidies to the auto, these stores could not have the huge footprints they do (both physical and economic) and the little guys -- real booksellers, who sell books instead of "free" parking -- would have a chance.

If you want to help real bookstores, let's end the sales tax on books and start taxing gas until its use reflects its total costs. For a good analysis of that, see "The Elephant in the Living Room" by Hart and Spivak, Jane Holtz Kay's excellent "Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back," or the very short and excellent "The Car and the City" by Alan Durning. John Gear
Vancouver, Washington