Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Seller's Intent — Honesty or Deception?

Last month, I expressed my aggravation about some of the techniques sellers use to try to convince people to buy their books. One reader stated that a seller's intent is most important. This brings up a interesting point. What I see as a seller's intent is not what another person sees as the seller's intent.

Roughly there are three groups of people who sell books. Keep in mind that I am making a broad generalization here. Some people may fit into more than one group.
  1. The first group consists of the people who have no idea what they are doing. They find a book somewhere, list it, and have no idea what they have. These people often have terrible descriptions and unintentionally mislead their buyers. However, they are the ones who often have the really good stuff that is "fresh from the wild." They are a dying breed, and they are what built eBay.

  2. The second group consists of people who tend to greatly overexaggerate the condition of their books. These are the sellers who have the RARE, STUNNING, and PRISTINE books. Some of these sellers are the ones who tell buyers that relatively common books are rare and that books that have yellowed pages are in "as new" condition.

  3. The third group consists of people who prefer the non-emotional approach. Books are described in a way that generally does not make them sound better than they are. At times, these sellers make the books sound worse than what they really are.
A subset of all three groups consists of the people who use "first edition" to describe their books. "First edition" is a misleading term since many people think "first edition" always means "first printing." Some of these people qualify "first edition" with "first printing" or "later printing." Others use "first edition" to mean "first printing." Others do not.

People who use variations of "first edition" and "first printing" sometimes think that people who use the terms in a different fashion are intentionally deceiving buyers. It is impossible to know when the intent is deception.

People who fit into the second and third groups that I mentioned above tend to think that people from the first group are deceiving their buyers on purpose when those people actually have no idea what they are doing.

People who fit into the third group often think that people in the second group are intentionally misleading buyers. In some cases, the sellers are misleading buyers. In other cases, the sellers are just extremely enthusiastic. As I have already stated, the exaggeration and even enthusiasm can be dangerous since many buyers avoid some of these sellers.

I have a specific example of how intent is interpreted differently by different people. I wish I could give more information, but I must be vague.

A certain seller was mentioned somewhere other than this blog in the last couple of years. One person stated how wonderful the seller is. Someone else reported a bad experience with that same seller. The bad experience involved a situation in which the seller did not describe all of the flaws and refused to accept a return or grant a refund of any of the buyer's money. The seller put the blame on the buyer.

I believed the report of a negative experience . I had bought from this seller, and I had had a not-so-great experience. I was disappointed because the seller did not mention the extent of a significant flaw that was not photographed. So, I believed the second person's comments, especially because of another personal experience with this seller that I do not wish to describe. Additionally, I have noticed deceptive tendencies in this seller's descriptions over the years. I wish I could explain, but I cannot reveal that information. Suffice it to say, I believed the negative comments.

At another point in time, both positive and negative opinions of this specific seller were given by other people. The conclusion is that to some people, this seller has the best of intentions, while to other people, this seller does not.

Does this seller have bad intentions? It depends upon who you ask and what your expectations are. The truth is probably somewhere in between the two opposing views.


Kaye Prince said...

I have had experiences similar to yours with all three of the types of sellers you mention. I collect books by L.M. Montgomery (as well as Nancy Drew!) and on occasion I have written to a seller to inform them that their information is wrong or misleading. I always clearly state, however, that I don't think they're being intentionally deceptive (even when I think they are), and a couple of times sellers have written me back thanking me for the information and have changed their listing (these sellers probably fall within your first group).

A couple of times though I have gotten nasty emails back from sellers basically stating that they're right and I'm wrong, and how dare I question their "expertise". I always want to write back something along the lines of 'if you're such an expert than your information wouldn't be wrong', but I don't. I always feel that the sellers who do send nasty responses really are the ones who are intentionally misleading buyers. It's just wrong.

Donna said...

Like Kaye, I have had both positive and negative responses to my comments on misleading listings. Sometimes very positive! One seller, who mistakenly had an error in a listing, was so grateful and has since become a good online buddy. On the other hand, I received a book only yesterday with which I am very disappointed. Because I believe I was intenitonally misled - I had even sent questions beforehand. I was hesitant to buy because this seller is a #2 for sure. Every listing is "VERY RARE!!", which none of them ever are!! But I wanted the book and the bidding was relatively low (probably because other serious buyers know the!). They are professional sellers so I know they are not #1. I won the auction at $27, which would have been a fantastic price for the book, as described. But it has arrived with a crack right through to the spine. Of course, it could have happened in shipping - packing wasn't great. Whatever the reason I am disappointed. I will not buy from this seller again, because I was annoyed with his listings in the first place, but talked myself into participating this one time. I'd rather miss out on books I want, than support sellers who intentionally mislead buyers.

stratomiker said...

I have sold on eBay since it started and I think the blame for these problems is equally shared by sellers and buyers. I have been selling series books in stores and by mail since 1962, worked with/and for writers, editors, agents and publishers since 1970, so I consider myself knowledgeable. Yet I have been accused of every bad thing possible by buyers, given negs for no reasons at all. And worse. (What could be worse? Well, I wouldn't write about it here.)

If I quoted from fan-guides, those who don't use them criticized me. If I don't quote from them, the guide makers and their fans criticize me. I have a whole file full of harassing emails from guide makers and their cohorts for not using their guide listings, or using instead the correct bibliographical standards for denoting printings. I have over 200 blocked email addresses of people who just had to inform me how my listings are 'wrong', when they had no idea what they were talking about. But, ugh, you can't block the eBay seller-to-seller email function.

If the mail takes too long, I've gotten negs. EBay misleads by claiming that media mail will arrive within 9-12 days. Not always. Even when I refund all costs, which I always do, I still have gotten negs. Especially now that sellers cannot give a negative, buyers use possible-negs as an intimidation tool.

Buyers, new and amateur, often think they know everything about the books, when they really know nothing. Yet they lambast sellers mercilessly and they are completely wrong. I am always amazed at the lack of true bibliographical knowledge amongst series book fans. It's easy to learn on one's own, especially now with search engines, but work in book stores and for publishers for forty years, and for sure you'll know it.

EBay is the biggest venue and their #1 caveat is Buyer Beware. Which really translates into Buyer Educate Yourself. Which so few do. Even though they often think they know it all. #2 obviously should be Seller Beware, because sellers do and will take the brunt of uninformed and often revengeful buyers who lie in order to get refunds so they can get their goods for free. Yes, sellers know that a certain amount of buyers habitually use resolution center cpmplaints to get $$$ back just so they can get goods for free.

I am also a buyer. I still buy at least as much as I sell, if not more. I can honestly say I have not had many bad experiences buying, but I've had a great many selling. So, in my opinion, the buyers are generally worse than the sellers.

Buying and selling collectible goods on the Internet is always going to be risky because there are a whole lot of dishonest people who are going to be involved in it. I believe that one must expect such experiences to occur if they are going to participate.


keeline said...

These days I am mostly a buyer on eBay and I have found things there which are indeed scarce, rare, or unique (e.g. original illustration artwork) but seldom on listings which use those phrases.

Sometimes I see a listing that is so misleading that I have to send a message to the seller. I'm usually pretty gentle about this and try to be informative rather than accusatory. I think most sellers realize that their feedback rating does have value and is worth protecting.

The most common thing for me to write to a seller about is a vast difference in the actual printing date compared to the description. This is occurs often when a cheap publisher reprints a text from the original printing plates that they have purchased from a failing series or publisher. These cheap editions change little except the title page and the quality of the binding, paper, etc. Hence, a World Syndicate or International Fiction Library copy of a Chester K. Steele book is from about 1930 and not 1918 or the year that the copyright message might say.

Imagine if I had a recently-printed paperback copy of the first Harry Potter and I offered it as a first printing that was valuable. It would be wrong to do so. Similarly, if I had some clear stones (cut or raw) and I offered them as diamonds but when someone receive them and found that they were corundum or quartz crystals or chips, I could not feign that since I don't know much about rocks or gems, I shouldn't be held responsible for my sales description. Caveat Emptor is important but it only goes so far.

... to be continued ...

keeline said...

There are several areas of book collecting with guides of one sort or another and frequently multiple guides for significant authors. In the case of Horatio Alger, Jr., there are at least three (Gruber, Gardner, and Bennett in chronological order) and they do not correspond on the descriptions and points of issue for each title. Some collectors have been known to favor the guide that gave their collection the greatest number of first printings.

When multiple guides exist, those who sell books and want to maintain their reputations will give the guide name, edition (if more than one) and relevant identification.

There is a long-standing debate about whether the series book guides and the variations of ads they list constitute "printings" as they might be known to publishers. This is not new. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is almost always seen as a mixed state of the pages when considering all of the points of issue and which would be the theoretical earliest for each potential flaw.

Instead, the guide serves to give a summary of the format details. That the guide also gives a purported priority for these permutations is up to the buyer to determine their importance. Hence something like 1945C-3 in Farah's Guide, 9th Ed would be a preferred citation if that is the resource that was used.

This becomes particularly important when the jacket and book are far outside the combinations generally seen and noted in the guide. One SF dealer took books to shows with 1940s and 1950s white-spine DJs on 1930s books. This sort of mismatch is easy to spot based on the ads and representing these books as the issued combination is wrong, whether the seller made the swap or not. As soon as the seller has been informed of the discrepancy, selling the item without noting the problem opens them up to fraud charges.

The seller classes we are discussing here seldom will have the guides that collectors use. However, they can be detectives themselves and loo at the advertisements to better estimate the printing dates of the book and jacket. It is certainly possible to look up the publication years of the advertised books online in most cases with a bit of effort.

As we know here, the copyright page is nest to worthless in determining the vintage of the book without additional corroboration with the format and ads. The beginning sellers don't know this. They see an early copyright date and stop thinking.

Sometimes I think it would be helpful to create a web system to help people estimate the vintage of their books based on the ad listings. It would not correlate with the guides but merely see if the advertising pages are from a given year.

Kaye, as one who also collects LMM, it's good to see another "kindred spirit" on these blog comments.

James Keeline

stratomiker said...

James says: The seller classes we are discussing here seldom will have the guides that collectors use.

********Exactly. Why would professional booksellers use amateur guides slapped together by a college student and a computer programmer? These guides are viewed as a joke amongst most professional book people.

Those printings numbers the student and programmer made up are NOT listed in the books. The publisher did not give those printing numbers, the guide-makers did. And you think it's 'fraud' if the seller doesn't use them?

I think it's fraud to use them, because they are not correct (from the publisher) and they CHANGE with every new edition of whatever particular guide. What is an A-1 printing in one edition is often an A-2 or A-3 (and so on) in the next.

The concept that the whole book world should be required to use guides made by a college student and a computer programmer is absurd. True bibliographers themselves don't even attempt to make them because they know you cannot do it with any correctness for books that do not have 'edition' or 'printing' stated or coded within.

Buyers who do not understand this (because they are not educated about bibliographical standards) who accuse sellers of fraud because they do not use fan-made guides are themselves the perpetrators of the fraud.

The focus on the dishonesty of sellers on eBay is a result of amateurs who think they know it all, when they have had no education other than the speculations of other amateurs. Buyers need to reserve their comments to sellers until they have learned that these guides are only 'opinions' and not the correct way to denote the edition or printing of a book.

James states that one series has three guides that do not agree on conclusions. They are three different opinions, none correct.

Of course, there are obvious conclusions like he mentioned, such as original publishers vs. later ones, but the multitude of criticism I get is not about that. It is about not using the Faroouk and Karen Carpenter guides. Which I don't use because they are not 'correct'. And when I get these arrogant criticisms to my own email, I block them, knowing I am dealing with a resntful amateur to whom I choose not to sell.

Unfortunately, I cannot block the eBay member-to-member email function, through which certain buyers love to harass sellers who do not list books the way they think they ought to be listed.

Of course I have received nice messages, to which I have responded likewise. But most of them are bossy, I-know-better-than-thou messages about what it says in the faux guides and that I should use that information.

The bottom line is that eBay does not require quoting from any guide, and if you know basic bibliographical standards, you don't need a guide.


keeline said...

All bibliographies are tentative until new discoveries are made.

What the series book bibliographies do well is summarize advertisements and format details. This fosters clear communication among the people who use them.

A "professional" can be someone who makes an income from their endeavors. The term can also be used to describe someone who has advanced knowledge and ethics. As with the "first edition" definitions, though one definition applies, the other may not. Skilled people may not make an income and not all who make an income know what they are doing.

With series books (and many other areas of book collecting) often those who collect them know more than those who happen to be selling them.


beautifulshell said...

If collectors left everything up to the publishers to define (which they don't seem too inclined to do in great detail), wouldn't that take some of the fun out of collecting? Rudeness is obviously never okay, but if someone collects something as defined in Farrah's (or whatever) guide, I can't really blame them for wanting to know whether an item fits the description.

Kaye Prince said...

I definitely don't think the buyers are always correct and that sellers should just roll over and do whatever buyers would like, but there are a number of buyers out there who are very knowledgeable about the books they're collecting, and not necessarily from using any sort of guide but rather from years of experience.

I don't think there's anything wrong with a buyer contacting a seller when they think a mistake has been made. Sometimes these are just small mistakes made in error (I recently contacted a seller whose listing was for Anne of Green Gables, but the picture was of Anne of Avonlea. I contacted the seller and he immediately changed the picture stating that he must have uploaded the wrong one and thanking me for catching it), but other times they are much bigger mistakes that can impact a buyer and their collection. Some collectors are new and will take what a seller writes at face-value; they should not be penalized because they are a new collector.

Nancy Drew books can definitely be harder to pinpoint in terms of editions than other books, but there are some (such as LMM) that are much easier (although still have their own problems). I recently wrote to a seller who had a copy of Anne of Ingleside on eBay; they stated it was a first edition from 1939. This was obviously not the case from first glance (it had a dist jacket from the 40s that I actually own myself). I wrote to the seller and pointed them to a few websites (including one run by the Archives of Canada and UPEI) that showed that their edition was from 1940s. The seller did not change their listing and was very rude about it. This kind of behaviour is definitely intentionally deceptive because they have been pointed to the proper information and resources.

To James: Hi! It's lovely to meet you. I'm glad I'm not the only one who collects both LMM and ND!

Kathleen said...

I tend to be enthusiastic but my buyers certainly tend to agree with me and I am sincere. I just love the ND artwork- Tandy in particular.

And I probably should not say this but I cannot recall not issuing a refund. ;o)

At any rate, there is some serious fraud going on at Ebay. The powers-that-be could not care any less.

There is a woman selling a copy of Jack Klugman's book which is a tribute to his "Odd Couple" co-star Tony Randall who died within the last decade.

It is autographed by Jack Klugman and Tony Randall which is utterly impossible as Tony had passed away before the book was even written!! (As I said, it was meant as a tribute).


I knew Tony Randall from when I worked as an usherette in high school at a local dinner theatre. He was a terrifically brilliant man with a marvelous sense of humor.

I have two autographed playbills. I compared the signatures as there exists the remote possibility that this is an authentic autograph written on a bookplate and pasted into the copy.

That autograph is a phony!

This same seller has sold books supposedly autographed by former Beatle George Harrison. The book sold for mega-bucks.

There are 412 autographed books listed from this buyer and posted right now.

I reported it to Ebay.

I am certain you can guess their typically characteristic response!

On first editions vs. first printings, I understand the difference but most people do not. That is why I list only a first edition, first printing as a first edition.

If I were to do otherwise, I would explain it in the listing as that would be an opportunity to educate buyers who typically are very eager to learn which is one reason why my listings are so long (aside from the fact that I am incapable of writing anything short).

Paula said...

One thing that aggravated me awhile back was a lot of books that I purchased from a professional bookseller on ebay. This seller had only one small picture of the front covers of all 10 Nancy Drew yellow spine picture cover books. They were all described as Very Good condition, and no flaws were noted. I normally wouldn’t bid on such an item, as I would want to see the books up close in pictures or read a more detailed description. However, since this was a professional, I thought that I could trust his description of the condition and that he would note significant flaws if there were any. Not!

About half of the books were in good/very good condition but the other half were poor to fair, with some very obvious significant flaws. I'm talking the brown board showing through and coming apart on the corners, holes actually through the front cover on one, as if it was used as a dart board, etc.

I had purchased the books for about $2.50 each, so I guess you could say that I really paid $5.00 a piece for the books that were really worth something. This isn't really bad, but the books were later printings and it was more than I would normally pay for rather ordinary books. And I was really bothered by the fact that this professional did such a poor job of describing his books. As an amateur, I go out of my way to be sure the buyer knows the condition of any books I sell, even though sometimes my descriptions make the book sound worse than it is.

Anyway, I thought that this seller knew better, I felt a bit ripped off, and so I wrote to him, describing in detail the problems of each poor/fair condition book. I said I was satisfied with the other books and hoped he would work with me to resolve the issue. His response was unapologetic and quite unfriendly - clearly he thought I was one of those buyers was trying to get something for nothing. He didn’t accept any responsibility, saying he has employees who rate the books for him, and that he would fire the person if the books were overrated. He said he was sorry I wasn’t satisfied, he had to see the books himself to determine their condition (even though I had offered to send him pictures), and to return all the books for a full refund. What really alienated me was that he further said I might be expecting too much in terms of condition for books sold on ebay, as books on ebay are generally not collectible condition, and he referred me to his website where he sells collectible books. So this tells me his definition of “very good” on ebay is not the same as his “very good” on his own website. Sorry – this is not professional behavior IMO. Not someone I want to deal with. I felt bad that perhaps someone would get fired as a result (or was this a ploy?), but I repacked the books and returned them. Upon receiving the books back, the seller did warm up in his communications, promptly gave me a full refund, and even sent me money to cover the cost of postage to return the books. But the damage was done. I will never buy from this seller again – I completely skip over his items. I know I gave him positive feedback because he did resolve the issue, but I was not about to ignore the poor description considering the situation. So sellers need to be careful not to have a chip on your shoulder even if you have had some bad experiences, because you will end up alienating good customers too.