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Buying Books on the Internet

Following is an essay Helen wrote in 1997. What is amazing is that NOTHING HAS CHANGED SINCE THEN. Except for changing the number of years we have been in business (from 20 to 30) the essay is just as it was ...
Published on 14 Dec. 2009

Helen Younger

Following is an essay Helen wrote in 1997. What is amazing is that NOTHING HAS CHANGED SINCE THEN. Except for changing the number of years we have been in business (from 20 to 30) the essay is just as it was.

Right now, the Internet is the Wild West. Anything goes! The only difference is that there are no sheriff and no posse to round up the bad guys. So book collectors both new and seasoned must be cautious. The use of the Internet to sell rare and collectible books has broken open this once tight knit field and thus has had both beneficial and detrimental effects on dealers and collectors alike. The benefits lie in the contacts that are made between people who would not otherwise have a chance to connect. More collectors and more dealers have access to more books than ever before. The major problem with buying books on the net is NOT that you will send your money and get nothing in return. So far, there have been thankfully few scams in the book world. The problem may be that you will buy a book that is incorrectly described or priced outside the normal range, and in a sense, this is even worse than getting scammed because you might not even be aware that you have a problem.

Please note that this essay is not about "out of print or used books," but about first editions of rare and collectible books. A collectible book can have tremendous value even when it is still in print. (Justifying the exorbitant Internet prices on defective, tattered, ex library copies of common children's books is a challenge that won't be addressed here). Further, since Aleph Bet Books has specialized in the field of children's and illustrated books for 20 [now more than 30] years, that is the field which will be the focus here.


The main factors that make a book collectible are edition, condition, demand, scarcity.


The first edition of a book is the one that usually has the most collectible value. Determining first editions is difficult in the extreme. It is complicated. The rules that apply in other fields of collecting simply do not apply to the children's book field. Guide books that tell you how various publishers denoted first editions over the years frequently DO NOT WORK for children's books. For whatever reason, publishers did not always apply the same method of denoting first editions with their children's books as they did for their adult titles. Since many dealers do not know when these rules do or don't apply, there is a tendency for books to be denoted as firsts when they are not. That is why, aside from buying from an experienced dealer, it is particularly helpful to buy from a specialist.


Of course describing the condition of a book is subjective to some degree. Despite the fact that these books were published for and used by children, the condition of collectible children's books is held to a high standard. Most collectible copies of children's books published after 1935 should have their dust wrappers. It is NOT acceptable for a collectible book to have crayon marks. A collectible book is NOT rebound in modern cloth with library markings.


To state the obvious: a book that everyone wants will sell for a higher price than a book that few people want and there will be fewer copies of this book available because of this. However, scarcity in itself does not imply value. You can have a limited edition of a book that nobody wants and that book will not sell for a high price.


There is absolutely NO substitute for experience. The only way a dealer can accurately determine edition, gauge condition and scarcity and price a book appropriately is by having handled thousands of similar books and more importantly by having compared multiple copies of the same title. This enables the dealer to know which books are rare, which books are never found in fine condition, which books can be expected to be in fine condition etc. This has always been true. When is a bargain not a bargain? When you think you're getting a first edition for 20% less than someone else sells it for, but your first edition is in reality a later printing. With children's books, this happens more often than you think.

Inexperienced book dealers are certainly not a new phenomenon in the book world. Everyone has to start somewhere. Before the Internet, novice book dealers would learn as they went along. Everyone, including experienced book dealers, makes mistakes. Those mistakes are always valuable lessons. Before the Internet, other dealers and experienced collectors would have given the novice feedback and guidance. Newcomers might have gone to a book fair, they might have participated in a seminar. New dealers were aware that they had much to learn. The ease of book selling on the Internet has given rise to a different breed of bookseller one who has no experience or knowledge and who doesn't even know that there is a vast amount to learn. All the new breed of dealer needs to do is go to the computer and there will be millions of descriptions from which to copy. With the flick of finger, these descriptions are simply launched into cyberspace reaching millions of people. The novice Internet dealers are usually not malicious or out to intentionally cheat you. Many are simply ignorant of how much there is to learn and how long it takes to become a competent rare book dealer. Many of these newcomers don't know that they don't know and the isolation and anonymity of the Internet perpetuate the problem. Having access to the information does not insure that the information will be applied properly. What meaning is there to the dealer's statement "This is the only copy we've ever seen" if they've only been in business for a few weeks? A collector has to be aware that the dealer pool on the Internet is like a big bowl of stew. In one spoonful you might be lucky and have a lot of meat and potatoes. In the next, there's nothing but broth. The best thing you can do is to buy from dealers with experience. If you are relying on the dealer to give you accurate information, then it is essential to buy from someone who's been in business long enough to know what they're doing. That's why it is always safe to buy from an ABAA dealer. It's a comfort to know that ABAA dealers are bound by a Code of Ethics and that ABAA dealers must stand behind their descriptions. There are certainly fine dealers who are not ABAA members, but it is one less thing to worry about when you're spending hard earned money with someone not known to you personally.

It is certainly not the intention of this essay to offend, however there's little doubt that it will infuriate some who read it. If it makes even one dealer stop to take a second look before making unfounded claims, or if one collector stops to ask a question before spending hundreds of dollars, then its worth it.

The article is published on Helen Younger's website, and is presented here by permission of the author. Thank you very much.

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