walkitout (walkitout) wrote,
walkitout
walkitout

The original megalister

Once upon a time, I worked for an online bookseller. It was a while ago. I won't name them here.

The online bookseller decided to get in the business of selling used books, not just new books. The catalog had kind of gotten about as big as it could easily get selling new books and the bookseller could jack its numbers up for PR purposes by selling used, specifically OOP. I'm not sure if I'm allowed to tell how we did this, but let's say it involved purchasing a bunch of data from the Library of C. and listing it in the catalog.

At this point in the life of this online bookseller, virtually no books were stocked. Orders were placed, then the bookseller got them from the distributor, sent them to the customer and then used the money for growth purposes (because the distributor didn't expect to be paid for, like, weeks. Kind of amazing.). So it wasn't _that_ much of a stretch to imagine listing used books and fulfilling them after the order was placed. Orders were fulfilled by calling all the used bookstores around town (and then further) to see if anyone had it, getting it from that bookstore, and shipping it off to the customer at a hefty markup. The OOP/used listings didn't have pricing on them. We told you we'd get back to you with what that price would be. In that sense, we were acting like a no-upfront-fee book search service.

There were some problems with this rollout. I was a complete asshole because I predicted there would be problems (and they wouldn't be in my area, altho to be fair, there was this problem with correctly displaying the year of publication, because the Library of C. gave it to us as a two digit field and it wasn't always obvious how to interpret that) and then when there were a variety of problems, I held that over people's heads until I left the company. Because I Am Not A Nice Person.

After rollout, there was a list of frequently requested used books that we were completely unable to fulfill -- at any price -- floating around. When I heard that this thing existed, I asked where _The Big U_, by Neal Stephenson was on the list, and got a somewhat flabbergasted look in response. I think it was #2. I bugged the author about it at a University Book Store sponsored event sometime after that (I think we just asked him flat out what it would take to get him to agree to republication, because it was definitely authorial intransigence that was keeping it OOP at that point. I believe S., who was with me, suggested dancing girls.). Eventually, someone dangled enough data and money in front of him, it was republished, and I was forced to agree with the author that it probably wasn't worth reading -- but I was extremely happy I had a chance to buy it new and learn that in the traditional way: by reading it.

This is all by way of providing a little background with which I read this:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/14/books/review/Sussman-t.html

With the exception of the Badfinger book (which continues to be rare), everything else is available for cheap in any format: including kindle.

What goes around, comes around. As soon as that horde of megalisters followed in the footsteps of the original megalister (of course _at_ the original megalister), the original megalister had the data needed to make sure the customers got what they so clearly wanted. Which is what markets are supposed to do, but does tend to make it awful hard on these petty capitalists, trying to find a niche.

I feel really weird, reading IOBA pieces about how "evil" scrapers are for listing books they don't have, fulfilling them later at a huge markup. We did that, and my complaint was always that we still weren't making enough to justify the activity. Looks like a whole lot of people have to learn over and over and over again that the logistics of used books are so awful that there is no markup sufficient to make money in that business. Also, it sort of makes my former employer feel like a weird ponzi scheme, collecting money on everyone else trying all the same not-very-successful money-making-schemes we tried first. Of course, whenever something works, they totally take it over and wipe out all the little guys -- and they don't have all the costs of experimenting.
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