30% of Abebook Buyers on half.com Have their Orders Cancelled!

Boy, am I a sucker. I ordered Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books from half.com for $2.00. I ordered it from Abebooks-half Three days later I receive an email from Abebooks-half saying the order was cancelled because it’s out of stock. Half.com recommended another copy of the book to be sold (for $5 instead of $3).

I went to the book page on the half.com website and found that Abebooks-half is NOT out of stock for this book. In fact, they have four separate listings for the same book with a different (i.e., higher) pricetag. If they wanted to, they could have easily sent me one of the three used copies of the book. They just didn’t want to.

That is the problem with aftermarket sales. Bookstores claim to sell individual copies of books, but in fact they often possess multiple copies. They want variable pricing without the obligation to deliver. How would you like it if the supermarket sells 12 packs of Coke for a dollar, but only for one copy (the rest will cost $5)? This is just unethical behavior, no ifs, ands or buts.

(A friend of mine points out that abebooks is a clearinghouse for individual sellers. Fine. It’s a clearinghouse with a 30% failure rate. If some booksellers are aggregating sales from multiple sellers, that is an additional reason to eschew these clearinghouses in favor of individual sellers who are actually concerned about their reputation).

There is another issue. Both amazon.com and half.com have a rating system which is really lenient on lackadaisical book sellers. If you look at the half.com feedback page, you see that Abebooks-half received 10% negative ratings–all with basically the same complaint! I looked at that last 50 comments; 15 Out of the Last 50 Feedback Comments for Orders Indicate that their order was cancelled! Yet, they are ranked with a Red Star, which indicates a favorable rating on half/ebay. Both Amazon and half.com use formulas that factor nonresponse rates as positive ratings–something I don’t think you can assume at all.

A few months ago I was dealing with an Amazon.com used bookseller who had a 4.5 dependability rating. Sounds fine. Except that this seller hadn’t mailed anybody anything in over three weeks (and his comment page was full of nastygrams from people).

When buying books online, you need to exercise lots of caution with used books, even with those that seem to be a business. Already online bookstores like Abebooks are using single-copy prices instead and doing the bait-and-switch at their discretion. Most sellers are doing an ok job, and in fact the majority of my transactions are processed without problems. But this Abebooks episode gives reason to pause.

My bookseller friend Mike makes this very intelligent remark:

You know, this Amazon system is ideal for those it was designed for: private sellers like me, not big stores and clearinghouses. When someone buys my item, it’s instantly delisted. It’s assumed I’m not also selling it elsewhere. In the event that I had my own store and sold something, I’d have to instantly go online and delist it, but I’d be always terrified that somebody was ordering it at just that moment!

But sub-contracting stores or clearinghouses, or even private stores with other outlets besides the listings, they aren’t the intended sellers for such situations. Abebooks is ALREADY an Amazon-type model themselves–they should have no business listing on other sites. These sites aren’t structured to account for that.

Update: Anirvan from bookfinder writes about this issue.

Here’s an online excerpt of Gabriel Zaid’s book

In the eyes of the media, it is not the book, but rather the social events that celebrate it, that is significant. Books are judged worthy of attention not based on literary merit but in a manner similar to a wedding, an official ceremony, or the launch of a new product. No matter how wonderful a work might be, if its release does not generate sufficient noise, or buzz, the press is not interested. On the other hand, a mediocre title that is presented by those with the money and influence to make it a social event will have no trouble getting coverage.

It is possible that the media noise a book attracts reflects the actual word-of-mouth opinions of readers, but not necessarily. Media noise is usually positive. One sector of the cultural apparatus will usually prefer not to draw attention to the mistakes of another sector. More significantly, media noise does not require people to read. However it gets started — through a crony, because of promotional efforts, or by chance — the buzz will reverberate from one media outlet to another. How does a newspaper determine the relative importance of writers? It simply looks at how much space they are each given in other newspapers, how much attention they get on the radio and on television, their standing in the cultural apparatus, and what is said on jacket flaps and in press releases. In good-press heaven, whatever makes noise gets to make more; whatever doesn’t, stays silent.

Cultural journalism has become an extension of entertainment journalism, and it is served up in the same package of “soft news.” It is quicker to interview a writer than to read his or her books. It is more titillating to publish a bit of gossip or a photo of someone at a dinner party than to discuss seriously the literary virtues of someone’s work. And it is through such news items that the public can stay up to date and have material befitting an educated person at a gathering of the like-minded. But the reading of literature is strictly optional.