Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
AbeBooks sucks. There, I said it. I have to say I feel a little bit better. I have been denying it for quite some time. Rare booksellers know this and talk among themselves about it; hardcore book collectors suspect it and turn a blind eye. I cannot ignore the obvious any longer.
Do not get me wrong; I still spend an ungodly amount of time on AbeBooks. I search and I search some more. My father spent five to six hours a day on eBay looking at every art listing posted on a daily basis. For me, this obsession with the hunt is in the blood, the DNA. AbeBooks is a pornography site, really — entry upon entry of all those seductive and inviting titles; so many beautiful books to pick and choose from. But like all those databases of porn, most of the thrill is in the search. When was the last time anybody actually watched a porn movie in real time? AbeBooks is all about the latest listing and coming up with various key search combinations to find that mis-categorized book that is hidden in the ether. The endless searching on AbeBooks is an expression of bibliomania. For many the juice of book-collecting is the hunt. Once you have put the book on the shelf, the anguished voice of B.B. King starts playing in the background. I have tried to thwart this post-coitus depression by researching and writing about my books but, to be honest, nothing replaces the high of grasping a book that has eluded you for years on end. The pure rush I felt when I opened the package containing a copy of Jabberwock, a literary magazine from the University of Edinburgh, featuring Burroughs’ “And Start West” from Naked Lunch, is tough to duplicate. Adding to the excitement were the networking, the side-deals, and the research that went into the purchase.
I still pour over AbeBooks, but increasingly, the site is a buzz kill. I have written about the megalisters before. Throw the print-on-demand bullshit and the textbook recyclers on top of the seemingly endless amount of dorks hawking books out of their basement and garage, and the site has become the equivalent the worst aspects of public access TV. It is all cranks and crap. AbeBooks is the QVC of book sites.
AbeBooks is well aware of its decline. This is why there are filters and sub-sites (such as textbooks and rare books, you can also filter out various undesirable hits) available. You can put out requests and want lists, which will be automatically be sent to your email. But even with the filters and want lists, spammers target key words, such as “William Burroughs,” to clog your inbox with irrelevant, copyright-free POD junk. Once upon a time you did not have to be subjected to this. In a more innocent era, you could type “William Burroughs” in the keyword field, search the most recent listings, and get interesting, relevant, and exciting hits.
Now, I am not going to lie to you. I am not a typical Burroughs collector. I have been doing this for close to two decades. As a result, I have become jaded. Seeing a copy of the Ace Junkie has lost its luster to a certain extent. The books and magazines I am looking for are generally tough to find, like Ex 3 out of Tangier in 1964. (To be honest I have little clue as to exactly what it is, since I have never seen it in person, nor seen it offered for sale. There is a grainy, poorly cropped photo of Ex 3 in the indispensible, essential, and irreplaceable Maynard & Miles bibliography. This is the only proof I have that it even exists. Entry C96 seems to suggest that Burroughs himself edited this folder / magazine. Burroughs as editor — think of the never issued Interpol on top of the obscure Ex — proves to be the most mysterious side of el hombre invisible. As for Ex, this Keyer Söze of the Burroughsian still remains at large.)
That said, I still suffer from an incurable disease when it comes to Burroughs. I always get excited when I press that “Find Book” button on AbeBooks. What could possibly come up? As of two to three months ago, a bunch of POD nonsense and overpriced books that are still in print. I have to say that things seem to be getting a little better, but by and large, it seems to me that AbeBooks has steadily declined over the last three years or so. (AbeBooks was founded in 1995.)
When did AbeBooks jump the shark? I can give you the exact date: December 1, 2008. That was when AbeBooks was acquired by Amazon. The press release for the acquisition described AbeBooks as follows: “AbeBooks is an online marketplace for books, with over 110 million primarily used, rare and out-of-print books listed for sale by thousands of independent booksellers from around the world.” Once Amazon got involved, the Amazon ethos worked its way onto AbeBooks. Amazon is not a bookseller; it is an all you can eat buffet, a jack of all trades. They offer everything, and although AbeBooks does not at this time sell toasters, its listings seem to have gotten further and further away from “used, rare and out-of-print” books of the past. In addition, once upon a time, you could expect a certain level of knowledge and professionalism from the booksellers listing on the site. AbeBooks now seemingly sells any type of book from just about anybody — megalisters, POD shillers, and anyone else who pays the AbeBooks fee.
I remember sending a flurry of emails to book collectors and book dealers when Amazon acquired AbeBooks. The general consensus was “There goes the neighborhood.” And neighborhood is the key term here, as in community. On its own site and increasingly on AbeBooks, Amazon attempts to stamp out any direct contact between seller and buyer. Try finding a bookseller’s direct email, mailing address, or phone number. Amazon wants to be the black hole into which all communication (and money) funnels. Amazon just wants to maximize their 20% take on each sale. Nothing surprising about this; all monopolies do.
Such practices strike at the very heart and soul of rare book collecting, which consists of open communication, developing personal relationships, and community building. Amazon and AbeBooks might present a smiling face and open arms but they are less a neighborhood than, dare I say it, a concentration camp. Clearly I have gone too far. Hyperbole shades into the ridiculous, even the offensive. Did I mention that Big Brother definitely is watching? Amazon monitors all communication on its site. As a seller you better not contact a buyer through back channels lest you find yourself in The Ministry of Love. Have you seen any trace of Bibliofind, another rare book site acquired by Amazon? The word is that Amazon will acquire Alibris in the near future. Look for AbeBooks to be schlupped into the Amazon site or, more likely, to be quietly disappeared. Alibris, if acquired, will meet the same fate. Make no mistake about it: Amazon despises rare books as well as poetry and anything else that can be labeled as art or literature with capital letters. Reason being, these categories are not primarily concerned with monetary profit, but with intellectual capital. Of course this is also profitable but it is not a part of Amazon’s business model to exploit the use of information. Do not worry. Google will squeeze every dollar out of this philosopher’s stone. In the meantime, Amazon will actively destroy the communities that the rare book market engenders as a threat to pure profit. It is all about the exchange of cash. The shakedown rules not the shaking of hands.
This culture has seeped into AbeBooks. Its bookseller rating system is a case in point. This five-star rating merely tracks orders filled. Nothing about customer satisfaction, bookseller knowledge or service, nothing about accuracy of descriptions or quality of packaging, nothing about whether or not the dealer offers a good bang for the buck or is expensive. In effect, nothing about the true business of bookselling, which is the building of personal relationships and the offering of personalized service. Furthermore, the average Mom and Pop bookseller does not have the staff on hand to keep diligent track of their listings on the five or six independently operating book sites out there. As a result, previously sold books remain on these sites. The book sites offer no help on this end, either. For example, AbeBooks does not offer to delete sold books from its site once a sale is made. Clearly it could do so electronically after each sale, but it has no problem (and in fact requires) running customer credit cards for booksellers on top of requesting a 5 percent fee for this “service,” even though a bookseller can negotiate a lower rate (such as 2.5%) with its own bank.
What are the serious book collector and bookseller to do? Where do we go from here? I have heard some good things about Biblio, but again they have opened the door to megalisters, which may bring in listing fee revenue but it will turn off rare book customers. Perhaps we should go back to where I started. Over a decade ago, I used to search the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA) listing religiously. Then I stopped and searched AbeBooks instead. Recently I went back to the ABAA database and lo and behold all my old friends were there: Between the Covers, Jeff Maser, Derringer Books, Skyline Books, Ken Lopez, Second Story Books, Royal Books, Brian Cassidy, Lorne Bair. These are the guys I buy from and, more importantly, these are the guys I trust and share information with. With ABAA members, I know they know their shit: the books will be as described and according to certain principles, the books will be shipped properly, they will have the titles I want and need, and they will have information about those titles. And believe it or not they will be intelligently priced. Do I sincerely believe this? I am not so sure, but I will tell you this: by and large when I see a completely ridiculous price on AbeBooks, i.e., a price I personally know is ungrounded in, and unfounded by, past sales and values, the book is not listed by an ABAA member. Let me be clear here, there are ridiculous prices by ABAA members, but usually they are trying to establish a market or set a price, and I can respect that. There is reasoning and research behind those decisions. They are not pulling prices out of their ass: “This book is old so it must be expensive.”
It is unclear to me how up-to-date the ABAA book listings are. Does every listing to AbeBooks automatically go to the ABAA site? If so, the ABAA site is not a bad place to go. If you search “William Burroughs” through the ABAA listing, slightly over 800 listings appear. AbeBooks comes up with over 12000+. For the serious Burroughs collector, are there over 800 relevant listings on AbeBooks? And how many of those listings come from ABAA members? In my opinion, it would behoove ABAA members to seriously promote the ABAA website and their ABAA affiliation. Maybe booksellers already do this. I am a sure thing, an easy mark. Booksellers do not have to market to me. But I hope they make clear to new collectors just how important the ABAA label behind a bookseller’s name is and just what that acronym means. The ABAA label is worth its weight in gold and is the gold standard. Take my word for it; it can be a costly lesson to learn. I know.
I’ll tell you I am at a crossroads. Just weeks ago I bought a book off of AbeBooks from a non-ABAA member and I was very happy with it. The book was packaged well and shipped on time; the condition was great. But such transactions are getting few and far between. Again, I am looking for really tough-to-find books. But even so it seems to me that beginning booksellers would be better served by shopping away from AbeBooks. Nothing is more daunting and confusing then trying to buy the Grove Press first edition of Naked Lunch off of AbeBooks. Search “Naked Lunch” and “first edition” on AbeBooks and you come up with over 200 hits — and let me tell you it is scary out there. The listings are full of all types of pretenders, posers and ne’er-do-wells. If you are a novice to the game, best bet is you are going to get played. So head on over to the ABAA website and try your luck: 37 hits plus the company is nicer and more refined. Or better yet call a bookseller listed on the ABAA page. More expensive to be sure, but you get what you pay for. At least with an ABAA dealer, you are, generally, going to get the best.
It seems that booksellers are slowly getting off the AbeBooks grid. Enough is enough. For as long as I can remember Beatbooks out of London sold off of its own website and from print catalogs. Between the Covers seems to be slowly putting more and more books exclusively on its own website. Division Leap, which just moved its brick-and-mortar location from Harlem to Portland, Oregon, is not re-upping with AbeBooks. They are now selling on their own site and from print catalogs. I just got set up with alerts from them for all their new posts on key items like mimeos. My first alert came in a week ago and everything looked interesting to me and in my area of interest. Adam and Kate at Division Leap are two of the young guns in the rare book industry. They are setting up a gallery, publishing their own work and that of others, printing a magazine, and beefing up their print catalogs. Sounds like the days of old. Think Eighth Street Bookshop, Peace Eye, and Am Here. Maybe the old guard should take note of the traditions they have left behind because, increasingly, AbeBooks is old news and bad information.