Good morning bookies! Bright and cool here in Memphis today, very unusual for this time of year. Refreshing, even.
As we discuss the decline and fall of a uniquely American company, Ebay, it’s important to note that the focus will be on how that collapse affects one seller: me. It’s not that I’m more deserving of attention than any other seller out there, it’s that I’m writing this blog and, narcissism aside, I’m aware of precisely how I am affected by the death of the once fabulous market.
Click on today’s blog title for a link to a Barron’s news article on Ebay’s trouble. Along the way there will be links like today’s, outside views of what is going on with the company, other opinions, maybe other blogs, all to put things into perspective. For now, read the short article above as homework and background.
So what does the demise of Ebay and selling books have in common? Simple. For years Ebay has been a place to buy and sell books of all kinds, by the hundreds of thousands. I have sold very common books there and I have sold books so rare they are unique. Just this year I sold a rare book that I researched for more than a week before posting the auction, and could not find one other copy anywhere that had been sold, was for sale, was in a library, nowhere. This was the 1895 edition of a family history that was later reprinted in 1898 and after, but with changes. The 1895 edition was the first one and, so it seems, contained information not found anywhere else. This I turned up in my research. (By the way, that’s what booksellers actually do, they learn why and how certain books are different from others.) Anyway, the book was very badly damaged. It had no spine cover or front cover. The first pages were missing to the title page, although the textblock itself was intact and still bound. Condition was poor. How poor? See for yourself.
So I threw it up on Ebay with a low starting price but a long description on why it was important, how it differed from later editions and why a family member might want it.
Apparently this is a very large family.
There was a bidding war. See, if that had been the 1898 edition, then it would not have been quite as valuable (although it might have sold for more, had the condition been better. But that’s a different issue). Two members of the family from opposite ends of the country, who did not know the other existed, were both trying to buy it. When the auction ended I was able to introduce the two long-lost relatives to each other via email, I had made a nice sale on Ebay, my extensive research had been rewarded (in the end more than 6 hours worth, not to mention the eyedrops to keep me from going blind reading and staring into my monitor all day) and Ebay had made a tidy little fee for themselves. Winners all around. But the key factor in all of this was the product itself. I had scared up a battered, damaged old book, found out its value, marketed that value and made both a sale and a happy customer. The item itself was unique, the transaction was not repeatable.
Ebay in a nutshell, right?
No. Not any more. Ebay does not want those sales anymore. Ebay wants to be a ‘mall.’ That’s right, their new CEO says they want to be a mall. Could you find a unique item like that book in a mall? No, of course not. You can find overpriced clothes and greasy food and lava lamps at a mall, maybe the latest Patricia Cornwell abomination at a tiny bookstore near the exit, but not a rare 1895 geneaological gem that no one knew existed. Nothing so tawdry as a smelly old book. And so Ebay has done their best to run off sellers like me, with our unique and esoteric rarities, in favor of golf clubs or an ipod. Nothing against golf clubs or ipods, they are both useful in their own right (or even together, how long before we see a wedgepod?), but was the world holding its breath waiting for yet another place to buy an ipod? Apparently Ebay thinks so.
And therein lies their demise. They are now content to be just another website. No more cool factor, no more wow moments, just a boringly conventional website that has no character, no soul and no future.