Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fumbling with thoughts on the internet

Thinking about the internet, and how an excess of anything devalues it.

This started because Robin Bougie shared an article on Facebook about how comic book prices have depreciated in recent years. It's an interesting piece of writing - but it doesn't really delve as deeply as it might into the role the internet has played in this devaluation.

I remember, some twenty years ago - when I was working occasionally, then as now, in used book and record stores, and always keeping an eye open when thrifting for books and records of value - that there were price guides to rare books and records that the store owners and I would frequently consult to determine the price of items. That was in the age of the hypermodern first edition - books that were only ten or fifteen years old were fetching collectors' prices; since these guides were too hefty to carry, I remember phoning Tim Carson, the bookdealer I sometimes work for, to look up various books, including some relatively recent ones, in case they were worth money ("I'm at a Salvation Army and there's a first US of a Carl Hiassen and William Montalbano collaboration called Powder Burn for one dollar... could you look it up?"). There were, in fact, quite a few copies of many such books in existence, but not so many that you were likely to find them in a bookstore near you. Things like Abebooks, eBay, Amazon and so forth didn't exist to give you instant access to hundreds of copies of any given book worldwide, so it didn't matter if those hundreds of copies existed; when you encountered one in your local used and antiquarian bookstore, if it was a book you truly cared about, wanted in your collection, the price you were willing to pay would be based on your sense of the likelihood of stumbling across that particular item ever again; and the price the bookseller would be asking - based itself on price guides drawn on research about what people had paid for the book in the past, at bookstores and auctions and so forth - would reflect the same conditions. A lot of not-really-that-rare books got treated like they were rare, because people simply didn't have easy access to them.

The internet changed all that radically: scarcity value still applies, but a lot of things once considered scarce, simply aren't.

One book I remember in particular - not because it's a particularly good example of hypermodernity, but because I found it at a Value Village and bought and sold it for a nice profit - was the UK hardcover first edition of Dick Francis' Odds Against, published in 1965. As I recall, at the time I bought it, the Ahearn price guide listed its value, in nice shape, at $250; I sold it to a bookdealer for something like $85, and he in turn sold it himself to a collector for quite a bit more than that. The total number of copies of that book hasn't changed since that time (the late 1990s) - it's not like more copies of it were discovered in a storage locker, or such, making a scarce item commonplace. But the phenomenon of the the internet has made access to the existing copies in bookstores worldwide so much better that said storage locker scenario might as well be the case: because suddenly - if you go on Abebooks, for instance - there are literally fifty copies of that very edition of the book for you to choose from. Some are signed; some are in near fine condition; some are ex-library and damaged. The prices reflect a crazy range (running from $25 to $1000), with lots of copies in collectible condition for under $200. With so many to choose from, of course the copies that actually do sell of the book are going to be the ones at the lower end of the pricing spectrum. One dealer lists a "fine" copy of the book for $1000; another lists the same book in the same shape for $600. Which will you buy? And if someone is selling a "near fine plus" copy for $177 - as is also the case - only very, very rich collectors indeed are going to even consider the higher prices.

So the internet naturally creates  a race to the bottom in pricing. (Some dealers online hold out to sell things at inflated prices, but they very rarely make money that way, given the nature of the game now; if I still had that Odds Against, I'd be putting it online for $150 or less, if I really wanted to sell it). There's more to it than that, too - ways in which the entire idea of being a collector is undermined by the internet.  People who see that there are fifty copies or more of a given book available may well feel skeptical about investing any money in the book at all, if they're hoping to re-sell it at a later date. After all, the value of Odds Against should have gone up in the twenty years between my buying and selling it and my writing this! Prior to the advent of the internet - I remember reading in an introduction to one of those price guides - books were actually a pretty stable investment, with prices for antiquarian books generally only appreciating over time, but nowadays, anyone considering books as an investment should be treading very cautiously. Truly rare items, mind you, remain truly valuable - if anything, prices have gone up, as we have better understanding of just how scarce certain things are (since they never turn up on eBay, say) - but how many books and records out there are truly rare? Even scarce items like the Hartmut Geerken book on Sun Ra, Omniverse - which was only published in a run of about 500 copies, some twenty-five years ago, and for years was nowhere to be found online - have steadily started to make their way internet-ward, as people realize that they can get money for it. Again, some sellers ambitiously insist on charging inflated prices - there are copies at fixed price sites selling for $900-$1500 - but I've seen copies go on actual auction for under $200, when they're allowed to sell that way; it's just a matter of patience and luck, if you truly want the book...  

The thing that I wonder, though - the thing that prompts this writing - actually has nothing to do with e-commerce. If the internet, by making a vast wealth of merchandise previously thought collectible easily available, has led to a general depreciation in values... what about less tangible forms of cultural property: ideas, language, opinions, criticism? Suddenly everyone with an opinion about anything can start a blog, can put their ideas into the world. Some of this is very useful - I'd rather read about horror movies, for example, on fan sites and blogs than from jobbing critics; and obviously I have my own investment in blogging. And certainly there are ways in which people still profit from what gets put online. But surely the plethora of information out there - the sheer availability of text - brings its value down? Why consult experts or newspapers or reference books when there's Google and Wikipedia? (Sure, Wikipedia entries are filled with errors, but guess what? So are books by experts, and they're a lot slower to get revised or updated). Why pay someone to explain something to you that you can learn all you need to know about the topic online? Why buy a cookbook, when there's thousands of recipes to be had for free? Why buy a field guide to birds, say - or a price guide to books - when you can look up any bird or book you encounter on your iPhone? Why buy a dictionary and haul it around, when you have so many gadgets that will do the work for you electronically?
For someone with an investment in the idea of doing work in the field of culture - someone who occasionally gets paid for writing and teaching, as well as working in book and record stores - these are personally pressing questions. It's hard to get at the real fear, here, but I have this disturbing apprehension that we have not yet begun to see how much the internet is going to change the face of human culture. Bookstores, DVD and CD retailers and distributors, newspapers and magazines... to the extent these exist in the future, surely they'll be the stuff of nostalgia, of novelty, or else will exist in the service of the poor - for people who don't have access to computers, say. (Already thrift stores are filled with the relics and rubble of another age - VHS tapes, reference books, cassettes - but you still see people buying that stuff, not because they care about its value as an artifact but because they're still living in an analog world, still primarily consume culture that way...). And as for ideas, language, opinions? Soon enough, everything but the truly insightful, truly provocative, truly rare is going to be just more noise - funny animals, celebrity outrages, and blather.

1 comment:

David M. said...

Why do anything? It's all been done before. Any thought you might have right now has already been thought a hundred times over. There's no money in whatever it is you want to do. And if you try to do something, a hostile swarm will sting you to figurative death and beyond. I'll have to cut it short; I'm rehearsing for my Christmas show.