Th age of ebay innocence & The House of Mirth
October 27, 2010 11:11 AM   Subscribe

We’ve just found a moderately rare book on ebay which might make a perfect 50th birthday present for an old friend of my husband’s – but we wonder if we’re ignorantly overlooking something obvious about the item, because of the low starting price?

We know pitifully little about the rare book trade – except that it’s a minefield, even for experts sometimes & it’s very, very unlikely an ignorant buyer might stumble on an internet auction bargain. (That much is bruisingly clear from previous rare books questions.)

Originally, we were looking for a really first rate, annotated (modern) edition of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. The birthday guy was a great friend of my husband’s at school & best man at our wedding & though they’ve drifted far apart over the years (mutual laziness & busy lives, but mainly because we moved permanently to the USA), my husband is flying to London, just for his friend’s big celebration next month. It’s an extremely long overdue reunion.

My husband always remembered his friend’s passion for this novel (which was a bit unusual – the guy is really kind and sweet, but he works in finance!).

So we got all excited for a moment when we found this ebay listing:

Edith Wharton 2 first editions House of Mirth & Xingu.
The House of Mirth. New York, Scribner's, 1905. Wear to spine extremities, otherwise a very good copy.
Xingu. New York, Scribner's, 1906. Former library copy with call numbers, bookplate, stamps, etc. Otherwise a good copy.

There is just over a day to go; the starting price was $9.99, there are now 9 bidders, and the current bid is $50 – and rising. Both are hard covers. The seller is in Connecticut & has a brilliant rating based on tons of sales.

Googling confirms The House of Mirth was published in 1905 by Scribner’s. Not sure if this bit is correct – but it seems as though 140,000 copies (in 3 runs) were published by the end of 1905 alone. The ebay listing reference to “Xingu..” being published in “1906” –looks like an innocent error by the seller. The book came out in 1916, and the title page image (with the listing) appears to show 1916 as year of publication.

Problem is: Alibris is offering a seemingly identical hardcover (described as an “unstated First Edition”) of “House of Mirth, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York: 1905”.
For $750.85.

So, much as we’d love to bid – and go right up to what would be (for us) a generous amount for a gift for a cherished old friend after all these years – say $200-$300? – we feel totally out of our depth. (We also have time to think of something else!)
posted by Jody Tresidder to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It's less to do with the way rare books are priced than it is with the way eBay works. Bids on it are slow right now because there's no pressing reason to make a bid on it. In all likelihood the bidding price will skyrocket as the end of the auction draws near.

That said, if you'd be willing to spend up to 300 on it, then bid up to 300. Chances are you'll get outbid, but there's no harm in trying.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:22 AM on October 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

Condition is a big factor in first-edition sales. This sounds like a perfectly readable and cherishable first of House of Mirth; the Alibris copy may be in finer condition and the seller may be hoping to market it to first-edition investors.

For something that is "wear to spine extremities, otherwise very good" (which actually means "fair" overall, but I think their point is probably "good for reading and cherishing, not so good as an investment for resale"), I would pay no more than $200 except for a real rarity, or something more than 150 years old.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:23 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

If the seller is consistently and highly rated, the listing describes what you're looking for and the photos match up, don't let a low starting bid alarm you. That's a common part of ebay culture.

Good luck! If you do bid, make sure to watch it closely in the last few minutes -- many buyers like to sweep in and outbid the competition right at the end, when there's little time for the other bidders to respond.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 11:24 AM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Aside from being able to verify that these are actual first editions, I imagine the issue with ebay editions will be overall condition, particularly for the Xingu edition, which is ex-library.
posted by kaybdc at 11:26 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Someone can probably elaborate this notion, but in short, auctions and set prices work from different sides of sales.
"In some ways, a price is a disadvantage to the seller, because if the sign says $99, the buyer might think it's a steal. He might have been willing to pay $129. And the seller doesn't get a chance at that extra $30."
Because online sellers relying on set prices are trying to maximize their return on sales, they'll pick the highest price they think they can get in a reasonable amount of time. That is the only price a buyer will see, short of some temporary sale, or discounting of the price.

On the other side is the auction, where the seller is hoping someone will come across the active sale and want to bid higher than the current price. Some people track auctions and don't move until it's closer to closing, hoping to avoid bidding wars that ratchet up the price. Others will toss in a low number, seeing if it sticks.

The opening price has no real relation to the final price the seller wishes to get, beyond some notion of intrinsic value. Just as you saw the $9.99 starting price as a shock, you questioned if there was something wrong with the book, because you're coming from being used to sticker values being set. Would it have been better to start at $45 and only have 3 bids, bumping it up to $50?

The opening value was just to get people interested. They're more likely to keep bidding beyond their threshold if they've gotten in early, versus with a higher value that might have priced them out from the beginning. There's a lot of theory in auctions, some of which comes out on eBay.

As for you and your husband: you could talk to a few used book sellers and find what they think a reasonable selling price would be, leaving out the fact you're bidding on an eBay auction (though they might search around and find it themselves, joining the bidding war if it really is a good deal). In the end, it comes down to how much you feel comfortable paying. Just as a set sales price is a disadvantage, so is a set resale price. If you feel this piece is worth $1,000, then $750 is a steal. If you're only comfortable spending $100, look for something else.

In short: only pay what you feel comfortable paying. If you feel it's beyond your price range, but it's something your husband's friend would really like, you could tell him what you've found, and offer to split the cost with him. Not as exciting as the unknown gift, but still exciting.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:27 AM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am an archivist, not a bookseller, but I would guess that the library stamps might depress the value somewhat. That bears looking into. I'd also want a very good look at that spine before I committed to buy, as well. If it looks like the inner stitching is damaged (like pages are loose), I wouldn't buy it.

It's always possible this is one of those rare bargains, but approach with great suspicion!
posted by backwards compatible at 11:30 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Go to They have several first editions of House of Mirth listed between $40 - $400. Not all of the dealers there are guaranteed 100% trustworthy, but it's a trustworthy enough site that my ex-boss, who is a curator of rare books would use that site in his research to establish values.
posted by kaybdc at 11:31 AM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

backwards compatible, I thought the library stamps were just on Xingu, not on House of Mirth? Or did I misparse the OP?

But, yes, library stamps definitely are a value-lessener.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:33 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

eBay sellers often post low opening bids on their auctions because the seller fees are correspondingly lower. They are confident that bidders will show up in the closing hours of the auction.

Good luck!
posted by vickyverky at 11:35 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I searched on, and it seems like the prices are all over the place.
posted by Namlit at 11:44 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

As vickyverky and others note, book auctions on eBay are often quite low to begin with. I once ran across a 17th-century book that was listed for $25. I bid on it and noted that another bidder immediately countered, so I set an autobid for around $500, which was all I was prepared to pay. In the last hours of the auction the price shot up...I think it might finally have gone for $1500-2000. (This was a few years ago; I'm hazy on the details and can't be bothered to look them up!)

My advice: decide how much you're willing to pay, and then set eBay to automatically raise the bid up to that limit.
posted by brianogilvie at 11:48 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Library stamps are pretty much a value killer for collectibles. However, that doesn't mean that you can't like it as a book in and of itself. I got my Dad a first edition of Stalky and Co for his birthday years ago. The book was lightly foxed (i.e. it had probably been attacked by a fox at some point), missing a cover, and had some other markings. He loved that book as a kid and he didn't give a hoot that it was next to worthless.

Note that not having a dust-jacket also reduces the value of a book, but again, you don't actually have to care (it does mean that you shouldn't pay as much, of course).

I second the recommendation for I've used it a number of times over the years.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 11:55 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I actually have a first edition of a different Wharton novel (one that looks very similar to the ones in the ebay listing--red cover with the same style and color text on the front), and when I was trying to figure out its value (I love Wharton and picked it up for about $15 at a regular used bookstore), I found out that that there are different first editions. The first state (I think that's the right term) is the first few prints of the first edition. These copies may be more expensive than other first editions, especially if they are different (sometimes the edges are gilded, for example, as is mine). So that explains some of the price differences you might see.

I hope this is somewhat useful information.

Anyway, I agree with others: place your max bid at whatever you're comfortable with, but have another plan (like ABEbooks) as a backup. Good luck!
posted by bluedaisy at 12:05 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

If the auction has active bidders, then you can be virtually certain that the final sale price will be quite close to the actual value. I frequently bid on vinyl, and it's not unusual to see a rare piece sit neglected at < $10 for virtually all of the auction length before shooting up to $100+ in the last few hours.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 12:26 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

As bluedaisy points out, the book maybe a first edition but could be a subsequent printing. Obviously, a later printing of a first edition will be worth much less.
posted by TheRaven at 1:51 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ebay early bids tend to be way under value - rare booksellers listed prices on the internet tend to be over-valued. Remember, the booksellers are just putting prices on those books, not what they've actually sold for necessarily. I think 200-300 sounds potentially doable. Good luck with your auction!
posted by smoke at 4:18 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Reviewing everything, if it were me, I'd just buy it from one of the sellers listed on ABEbooks. I've always had good luck with them and there are several listing the same edition in the $50-100 range. When I added that being ABEbooks wasn't an absolute guarantee of the books authenticity, it was strictly as a caveat because I'm not sure that ABEbooks has a more rigorous vetting process than ebay. But I've never had a problem with them, nor do I know of anyone who has.

Also the deal with the ex-library edition isn't just the stamps (although they would decrease the overall value). It's that a book from a lending library is more likely to have condition issues as it will have seen a lot more use (and thus have more normal wear and tear) than a book from someone's private library that is likely to have only been read a few times at most (unless the person was a complete slob or kept the book in a damp basement where it was subject to mold or insects or an overheated attic).

I would look for a seller that gives a description of the condition. Thus far I've found that the books that I've ordered were in the condition described (the last book was a somewhat rare 40 year old architectural monograph and the seller described the dust jacket (often abbreviated dj) as discolored. It was barely discernible and in even better condition than I thought that it would be.
posted by kaybdc at 4:39 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

The point's been made already, but I feel like adding another illustration of why starting prices at auctions don't matter. Virtually everything I've sold on eBay has had a starting price of 99 cents. It looks like a super-duper bargain for whatever wiget I might be unloading, so lots of people bookmark it. If the item is at all unusual then several people will bid early, and having several bids showing on the listing only enhances the item's perceived value. In the end, the stuff I list typically sells for well above the average selling price for similar items. The most expensive thing I sold went for about $1200, from a starting bid of 99 cents.
posted by jon1270 at 5:36 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Genius answers – and an even more genius back up plan.
I knew askme did books well – but these responses are totally staggering.

It wouldn’t have occurred to me in a million years to check Abe Books after I’d already relied on Alibris for a guide price.
I’d never heard of zvab/
I would have remained baffled (and annoyed) by not being able to decode the price fluctuations for various seemingly identical 1905 editions.

I’d done so much inefficient googling about rare books/the significant factors in a title’s publishing history/what absolutely not to buy/the method behind auction prices, I was starting to forget the little I thought I knew about the subject in the first place (which was mostly wrong anyway).

I think we both now know a first edition of The House of Mirth has to be the way to go for my husband’s lovely old friend. (And I think we must include a copy of this thread – he’d love the fun of it.)

Thanks to you all – we can now start debating a maximum bid to enter for the thrill of the auction chase. (Just on the off-chance we get incredibly lucky and manage to secure both the ebay Whartons for under the cost of the chosen Abe listing!). Once we’ve bid, we shall sit on our hands whatever happens in the auction’s final moments tomorrow evening (EST).

(And I also just got my very first antiquarian book trade joke, by Its Never Lurgi: “The book was lightly foxed (i.e. it had probably been attacked by a fox at some point)”. I loved that!

I am so very grateful. Thank you so much.
Now to keep arguing with my husband. (He is getting totally carried away with the notion of winning…)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 5:41 PM on October 27, 2010

Just one more suggestion for your bid. I would wait until the last possible moment (minutes till the auction closes) and at that time bid the largest value you would possibly spend. Do not bid your max early, or even try to have the current highest bid. This just gives the field a greater chance to out bid you - and does not advantage you at all.

My first experience with Ebay was very frustrating because I assumed it should function like a "real-life" auction where people bid against each other throughout the auction. When this happens, the buyer (and Ebay) certainly benefits but it is to the detriment of the bidders. The auctions which progress as two or more bidders slowly bid up the price by adding $5 to the previous bid of the other often overprice the item. This certainly can be seen in some "commodity" items like for example a camera lens where seemingly identical items can go for very different prices. I've seen a lens go from $10 to $400 all in the last minute of an auction.

Another way of saying this, if you bid early and there are other interested buyers you will typically either end up paying your maximum or losing the item. If you wait, you have the potential of catching the other interested buyers off guard by out bidding them at the last minute.
posted by NoDef at 7:14 PM on October 27, 2010

Also check The bookshop I work at uses it to check prices on a number of different sites at once.

Watch out for duplicate listings, though.
posted by bibliogrrl at 7:25 PM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

NoDef offers one method, but the other is to bid the maximum amount you feel comfortable and let it be. Don't check the page for progress, rely only on the emails you get from eBay, telling you that you have been outbid or you have won. Otherwise, you start re-evaluating how much you want something, and how much you can really spend on it. $300 is a good value, but why not $350? What if the other top bidder is only willing to pay $360? Then try $370! Pretty soon, you're beyond what you were originally willing to spend, and you feel like a sap with a book that is overpriced (for you).

Of course, you could drop your maximum bid in the last hours/minutes with the same one-time hit strategy, and you might keep the price lower. Or other people could be playing the same tactic, and have a higher threshold than you. At least if you lose this auction, you have other options.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:20 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Of course, you could drop your maximum bid in the last hours/minutes with the same one-time hit strategy, and you might keep the price lower.

filthy light thief,
After almost too much discussion with my husband (I'm not kidding, he has actually gone slightly nuts:)), that's what I'm favoring (for this evening.)

Otherwise, you start re-evaluating how much you want something, and how much you can really spend on it.

That's my weakness - which doesn't matter so much when it's a pair of hard-to-find jeans for around $20. I know that I get a bit flustered (and abandon my usual caution) right at the end of an auction.
I'm actually excited about what might happen later....if I can bridle my partner!
posted by Jody Tresidder at 9:37 AM on October 28, 2010

Hah, I understand completely. Luckily for me and my wife, auctioneering is left up to me, so all debates are internal. I've overpaid a few times, and have re-evaluated what I want, and how much I really should be paying, and I've watched a number of surprisingly low opening bids skyrocket beyond what I'd ever consider paying (and I've even seen the same item sell the next day for a fraction of the previous day's final price). There can be a rush to bidding, so be careful. Having two people involved can be good, to temper the mood, or can be bad in that it can elevate the excitement around winning. Have fun!
posted by filthy light thief at 9:44 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ebay update: we are now the giddily proud (and poorer) owners of BOTH the wonderful Whartons for $260.

Our absolute max WAS set in stone at $250 (the listed price we were willing to pay for our preferred Abe's Books fallback choice).

Then my husband couldn't stand it when we were topped (the same rival was dogging us all the way) and - we absolute, absolute max of $275 in the final 55 seconds - the dust settled, the books were ours -and we both felt slightly ill.

(That's a joke! - we were delighted & and it was just the most enormous fun.)

So that's a perfect 50th birthday gift, we hope, for the London friend my husband will be seeing again after all these years. And we have an Edith Wharton (which I've never read) to cherish too! Again - thanks for all the brilliant- and ultimately nerve-stiffening - advice - (which I shall print out to go in with the card).
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:33 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

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