Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Recently, I received an email attaching an article on megalisters from the Sunday New York Times. For those who do not know, megalisters are database managers masquerading as booksellers. They post thousands of books on internet sites like Amazon and Abebooks selling books for as low as one cent hoping to recoup their money on the margins in the shipping. They deal in volume and efficiency. To my book-scout and bookselling friends megalisters are, like book scanners (those who go through used or rare bookstores with an ISBN scanner to find errors in pricing), the scourge of the industry. If the New York Times is reporting on the phenomenon, it must be an epidemic.
The Times article bears a close read since this crisis in the rare / used book industry has an impact not just on Burroughs collectors but on all those interested in digging a little deeper into the Burroughsian. On the surface, megalisters would appear to be a boon to Burroughs fans. How else are you going to get a used copy of the Grove reprints of Naked Lunch for around $2? Way cheaper than half cover price. You always tend to forget the shipping. In this online world, the megalister makes a little profit; the Burroughs fan gets a cheap book. Everybody is happy.
Not so. The used bookstore in your neighborhood is not excited about this phenomenon for one. The basic brick-and-mortar store does not have the sales volume, sales staff, or distribution to make the one cent sale feasible. Nor do they desire such a sale. As the Time article describes, megalisters can be viewed as merely shippers of widgets. The best of the independent bookstores (new or used) are like the diner, coffee shop, corner barbershop, or general store. They are all gathering spots. Bookstores are indispensible parts of the community in which they serve. Being a citizen of the community takes time and effort. It takes a personality and a point of view. This requires an investment, and the customer pays that price. With a megalister you just pay shipping. They are nameless, faceless, and placeless. I do not want to belabor this point here as I have discussed it numerous times elsewhere. (See especially Burroughs and Bookstores.)
Besides — I know, I know. You do not care. You just want the book at the cheapest price and fast. Well, not so fast. The Grove Naked Lunch may be dirt cheap but the economic affect of the megalister is driving up prices for all those wonderful items that you are going to want after Naked Lunch blows your mind. The price of out-of-print non-fiction is going through the roof. As the Times article states, this market is one area in which the used bookstore can compete. For example the article notes that a hard-to-find, out-of-print book on the rock group Badfinger commands high prices in this market. Back when I worked at a used bookstore Pamela Des Barres’ memoir, I’m With the Band, was a quick $50 in paperback since the book went out of print and demand was high. Books like this were the exception not the rule since most of the non-fiction stock in the store (out of print or not) were affordable and priced to move. Increasingly, the astronomical non-fiction title is becoming the norm.
Let’s take Oliver Harris’ William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination. It is not unusual to see this book listed for $100. Blame the megalisters. In many cases, they list a book they do not even have. They mark up the price (say, to $100) and then, if they find a sucker willing to pay it, buy the book elsewhere for a lower price. They operate like middlemen.
Again, so what, you say. I just will not buy that book from that seller. Fine but these unfortunately priced titles have a trickle-down effect. megalisters drive up prices. When I worked at the rare book store, I was dependent in many cases on Abebooks or Addall to set prices. As more booksellers become merely shippers of product and less bookmen and bibliophiles, the dependence on the databases is becoming more pronounced. You can see the vicious circle that develops. Prices get artificially inflated by the megalisters re-listing. Then the unknowledgeable bookseller (be it in a brick and mortar store or with an individual on eBay) sets his price based on these faulty prices. The next thing you know The Secret of Fascination, a key book for any Burroughs fans looking to dig deeper than the text of Naked Lunch itself, becomes impractical to purchase. A basic academic text becomes as high priced as a collectible.
I am a hypocrite, I guess, since I can accept literary magazines as collectibles, but I hesitate to accept academic texts on that level. One reason for that is the fact that literary magazines have a value as an object. Semina makes this clear, but I find the simplicity of mimeograph in C, Fuck You, or Floating Bear as fascinating and an example of print as art. There are exceptions, but academic titles have value as information not as object. They should be disseminated as such.
This is a pet peeve of mine, so let me digress. Academic texts, from the textbook to the scholarly journal article, should be available electronically. I would like to see the academic journal go the way of the phonebook. Get online. Non-academics cannot get easy access to scholarly texts. Try getting an article from JSTOR or MUSE if you are not a professor or a student. Historically, academics do not want to address laymen. This is a big loss to scholarship, particularly for topics thought to be outside the canon. Take the Beats. For years, the foundations of Beat scholarship were laid in zines, like the Moody Street Irregulars, Beat Scene, The Kerouac Connection, Dharma Beat and several others. I would suspect that ground-breaking critical work on the graphic novel was done outside academic publications. Same for cyberpunk or poetry slams.
The culture of academic publishing seems to be changing. In the past decade or so, leading academics like Stephen Greenblatt and Jerome McGann are speaking out with passion and intelligence about the necessity of academic publishing to adapt to the times. A new generation of hipster librarians is bringing McGann’s ideas into the archives. This is a dynamic time for academic scholarship. But there is resistance and fear. The need for peer review does not preclude online, openly available publication of scholarly texts. Academics conservatism clothed in the guise of diligence and thoroughness is stunting the growth of scholarship. Quite simply many in the ivory tower hope to remain sequestered and do not want to address the larger public.
Anyway that is how I see it, particularly when I have to pay $100 for an academic title I want. You can begin to see how the megalisters tie into and feed off of the artificial scarcity generated by the culture of academic publishing. The used book market contributes to making academic texts unavailable and unaffordable for non-academics.
A similar dynamic works in the rare book market. I have explained how listings of the Olympia Press Naked Lunch are deceptive and that buyers should beware when assuming that Burroughs’ masterpiece is really the $5000 book some dealers list it as. Recently I have seen the same phenomenon occurring with Big Table, arguably the key magazine appearance for Burroughs. Collectors: beware of buying Big Table at inflated prices.
Years ago I paid $200 for a complete set and I really overpaid even in today’s market. I was just starting out. The bookseller took pity on my inexperience and threw in a couple parting gifts. For years, $200 was the ceiling for a complete set of the five Big Table issues. A complete set of Big Table is not that hard to come across. Ten thousand copies of the first issue were printed. That is nowhere near the 100,000 copies of some issues of Evergreen Review, but it is a huge print run in the world of the literary magazine. As Royal Books points out, the later issues are tougher to find. Interest in the magazine slipped after the hoopla over Burroughs and lack of funds probably resulted in smaller print runs. In any case, the print runs for the later issues were still relatively large. The internet has made book collectors lazy. Big Table is the perfect example of a run of a magazine that can be pieced together through trades, connections and networking, and digging in bookstores. Big Tables, like Evergreen Reviews, turn up in the weirdest places. I pieced together a complete set for under $50. This is unusual but you should be able to beat $200 by buying individually. Brian Cassidy has a complete set for $150 which is a good price and does all the work for you even though the work is all the fun.
Yet in the last year, it seems the complete Big Table is increasing in price. I have only begun watching it closely in the last few months but I would suspect its increase in value to continue based on listings by Maggs Bros. and Royal Books. Maggs lists the set at over $600. Maggs is not a megalister, but their price has a similar effect to a re-listing. Other booksellers see this listing and set their prices accordingly. Sorry, but other booksellers and ebayers are not in Maggs’ or Royal Books’ league and cannot command those prices. They simply do not serve their clientele. In addition other sellers do not have these stores’ expertise or quality of service. High-end booksellers provide more than just the book. Your purchase comes with provenance, a guarantee of quality and authenticity, expertise as well as what amounts to brand name recognition in the book world. For some collectors, buying with dealers like Royal Books or Maggs is a priceless experience. Great book dealers provide even more. Royal Books’ incredible catalogs or The Dark Page are valuable resources. megalisters do not pass on any of these benefits.
megalisters and the dynamic of internet pricing may in the present market have an effect like the recent mortgage crisis. In the coming years, millions of baby boomers are going to begin to get rid of their possessions, like rare books. In addition in tough times, people turn to their attics, basements, and garages for a little extra cash. Both groups may make use of rare books in order to pay for college tuition or to supplement retirement. In many cases, these books were handed down through families or bought for peanuts before the boom on modern firsts in the last 15 years or so. So these books have sat awaiting the time to sell. In other cases, the books were purchased as investments with an eye to sell. Most people depend on the internet for pricing their collections instead of relying on more reliable and conservative pricing indices like auction results. Few have the time, inclination, or resources to track catalog prices over time. As we have seen, many books online are grossly overvalued by megalisters and the inexperienced. This can lead to people falsely believing they have a small jackpot on their hands.
Other books, like those at Maggs, need to be interpreted correctly. Anybody involved in the rare book business has had the experience of a customer entering your store with a beat-up, unjacketed copy of a book (or even a book-of-the-month-club edition) wondering why it is not worth the highest listed price on Abebooks. Ebayers and megalisters fall into the same trap. The website Bookride has been exposing numerous over-valuations of this nature on ebay and on-line for quite some time. When someone tries to sell his copy of the Olympia Naked Lunch for $5000 or his set of Big Table for $600, he is going to get a rude awakening. Your copy of Big Table probably lacks the condition of Maggs’ copy, the subscription cards or the inserts for example. And most importantly access to the market. Any way you look at it, many internet prices, like the real estate appraisals of the last few years, are leading to inflated values. For the most part, books like Naked Lunch or Big Table would never achieve their highest online value at auction.
Like all collectors, I track the prices listed on Abebooks. For a few years, I kept charts of every copy of certain Burroughs books that came on the market. I admit that I would get all Mr. Burns and rub my hands when a saw a copy of a book listed online at a high price. And my copy was in better condition! Then I worked in a bookstore and saw what books bought and sold for. And I saw on a daily basis people like me drawn to books like moths to a flame. We were and are a sorry lot. It was that experience that ended for good any thoughts that book collecting revolves around anything but a love of books. Money is not the paper than matters.
Despite what I see printed elsewhere, you cannot convince me that book collecting, or at least my collection, is an investment. megalisters and scanners are making book collecting as an investment even more difficult and dicey. My bookshelf is a money pit, like a 40 foot yacht or a sports car. Book collecting is a passion that in most cases goes contrary to sound money management. There is a reason book collecting has for centuries been categorized as bibliomania, a sickness and a form of madness. For Burroughs’ fans, it fits well into the old man’s junk paradigm and is best considered an addiction. Addictions take and do not give. Yet there are exceptions. Congratulations to Eric Shoaf. It is a major accomplishment to have your book collection bought by a University, especially one as immersed in the culture of the book as the University of Virginia. I suspect Nelson Lyon made a nice profit on his collection in 1999. Burroughs made a living off of his addiction to drugs and books. But these are exceptions. Book collecting requires a price. In the words of Nancy Reagan, “Just say no.” Or at least know what you are getting into.