Collecting First Editions: Buying on eBay auctions

There is always a book that you want to add to your collection, and you can always go on eBay, Abebooks or to your favourite bookseller to get the best copy you can afford. But that would just be an ostentatious purchase. The best case is you get a really nice copy, but almost definitely at a huge premium. The worst, you pay an exorbitant price for a lousy book, which happened to me all too frequently as a novice.

Part of the joy of collecting first edition lies in the chase. You patiently wait for the right copy to come up, and you assess it - asking questions to ascertain its provenance and authenticity - before deciding if it is the one. Then you look at the price and decide if the book is worth that much. If it is from professional booksellers, whether online or physical, chances are the asking price will be a huge premium on what the book is really worth. By that, I mean the book's realized value at an auction. So, unless you, for some reasons, must have the book there and then, it is always worthwhile to track it for a while. If the book is overpriced, the bookseller will eventually offer it at a discount. If it is fairly priced, the book will be snap up fairly quickly but all is not lost: you now have a better idea of its market value through the price discovery process, and are better equip to make a more informed purchase the next time.

Every now and then, very fine copies of first editions and other very nice books get auctioned on eBay. Here's how I usually approach such opportunities:
  • The first thing to do is to go through the pictures to determine the authenticity. Go to First Edition Points and Abebooks. First Edition Points is very concise but does not have a wide selection. Abebooks has a much wider selection but the first edition points may be scattered across different sellers' descriptions. If the eBay seller provides only one or two pictures, or if the pictures are fuzzy, message them for more and better ones. If the additional pictures continue to be bad, or the seller is non responsive, that is an immediate alarm. I'll usually avoid such offerings.
  • If the pictures confirm the first edition, go back to Abebooks and check the prices of copies with similar condition. Some eBay sellers have unrealistic expectations as they tend to set very high starting prices. Again, avoid those as they are no bargains. This is most common with books by Robert Frost, especially signed copies.
  • If the starting price is reasonable and you are serious about buying the book, track the lot but don't make a bid. Remember, professional booksellers are constantly scouting online for bargains that they can resell for at least 100% mark up, and lots with high bid counts attract their attention. You don't want to attract more competitors.
  • Take note of the ending time of the lot, and make sure you can access eBay then. The real bidding happens in the last 5 seconds, and you want to make a bid then when all serious bidders make their moves. 
  • Don't be misled by the low highest bid even if it is just one minute to bidding close: the bid tend to jump very quickly in the last seconds. Always put the maximum price you are willing to pay. I once made this mistake on a first edition of Karl Popper's Logik der Forschung. With a minute to go, the highest bid was $400. I thought it was my lucky break, and put up a max bid of $1000 10 seconds before bidding ended. Just 3 seconds later, I was outbid, and the book eventually went for way more and the highest bid increased quickly in the final 5 seconds.
  • Put up your maximum bid 5 seconds before bidding ends, and pray. With some luck, you just bought yourself a great book without overpaying.
  • Finally, have a look at the list of eBay sellers that I avoid
This week, a rather fine copy of Nelson Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm came up on eBay auction. The book is the first National Book Award winner and a good copy at reasonable price is very difficult to find. The bidding ended at 11:33pm and 42 seconds on Nov 21. Eventually 6 bidders made 7 bids, and 5 of them were made in the last 10 seconds, pushing the price from $100 to just over $200. 

Nothing is more heartening to know that you won an auction with 5 different bidders vying for the same book, all in the last seconds. Kinda tells you that they are all professionals, and the book, at least the look of it, attracted the right crowd. Now comes the next level of fun: waiting for the book's arrival and hoping that it is exactly how it looks.