Auction Advice . . .
eBay is a great place to buy genealogy. But it can be a daunting experience, especially for newbies, and if you're not careful you can end up paying a whole lot more for a book than you need to.
Here's some advice for buyers (sellers don't need our help and don't like our advice):
How it works . . .
The First Time: There's nothing like jumping in with both feet. Open eBay in a new window (this will allow you to switch from this page to eBay and back again without closing either page). To open eBay in its own window, right click here, and choose the "open new window" option. If you want to bid on something, you will have to register as a user, but don't register before you've found something worth buying (when you are ready to register click through from this page -- see the link below, under "bidding" -- you'll help support the community of genealogists).
Take some time to explore, first. A good place to start is the big blue oval in the upper right hand corner of eBay's home page (or its equivalent -- eBay has a staff of underemployed web developers who have nothing better to do than change the appearance of eBay's index page). Choose the "new to eBay?" button, or its equivalent.
Done exploring? Let's look for some genealogy.
Finding what you want: There's a lot of genealogy on eBay -- maybe too much -- but it's not always easy to find it all. If you know exactly what you want, you will have an easier time of it, but even then you will need to exercise some care. Suppose, for example, you want a genealogy of the Smith family. When last we tried the eBay search engines (9 March 2001), we typed smith and family in the search box, and got 1,100 items, ninety-nine percent of which had nothing whatsoever to do with genealogy, and most, nothing whatsoever to do with the Smith family. But when we put the two words in quotes -- "smith family" -- we got just sixteen items. Of these, six also had the word genealogy either in the title or the description.
Suppose you don't know exactly what you want, but just want to brouse, and have several hours to spend. You'll find a sub-category for "genealogy" in "Everything Else" (see the "categories" list on the left side of eBay's home page). On 9 March, there were 3,380 items there, but many of them had very little to do with genealogy (T-shirts and baseball caps, for example), and we have yet to find a way to filter out the nonsense when we are browsing by category. Moreover, many of the best genealogies are listed instead is some other eBay category, such as books: antiquarian: rare: history. To illustrate the dimensions of the problem: When we did a search within everything else: genealogy for all items in which the word genealogy appeared in either the title or the description, we came up with 2,093 items. But when we searched all of eBay for items with this word, we got 3,529 items. Conclusion: there's a lot of genealogy on eBay that's not in the everything else: genealogy category. You might be better off searching all of eBay for key words (such as genealogy) either in the title or the title and description
Keep in mind, also, that eBay sellers are not always the brightest folk. A search for geneology (a common misspelling) found 199 items, and we've often found among these some of our best acquisitions.
Advice: Try a variety of search routines until you find one that works for you. With a little experience, you will also find ways of filtering out of the lists some of products that you know you don't want to see.
Bidding: Alright, so you've done some browsing and you've found something you want to buy. Don't bid just yet. There are a few things you have to do first.
You'll need to register. You can open the eBay home page and register or, better yet, you can click the eBay icon below (in which case eBay will give us $4.00 -- Whoopee! -- that will help us underwrite the cost of maintaining this site and others in which we offer free information for genealogists).
Register, but don't use your email address as a user name (think of something else you'll remember). Then open up a "my eBay page" for yourself (click on the "my eBay" link at the very top of most any eBay page).
Now you're ready to bid. Return to the page for the item you want, but wait ...
You don't want to get into a bidding war that will only force prices higher. Sellers love it when you do, but you'll wind up paying more than you might otherwise have to. Besides, you might end up buying something that you really don't want after all. Note the day and time the auction ends (remember the time indicated is in the Pacific time zone, so you will have to make approrpriate adjustments), then ...
On the page for the item you want to buy you will find, to the right, a small icon (binoculars) with a link -- "watch this item" -- next to it. Click on the link and follow through with the requested information (user name and password). This will put a link to the desired item on your "my eBay" page. Here's the point: you don't want to bid on any item until its auction is nearly ended. Any other behavior will only make the item more expensive than it has to be. Besides, the delay will give you time to do some research.
Assuming you've done your research and still want the item (more on this later), the time will have come to place a bid. A few minutes before the end of the auction (you've previously made a note of this, remember?), open your "my eBay" page, and click on the link to the item you want. Now wait. Be patient. Don't bid 'til you have to. You can reload the page from time to time, partly to keep your ISP from bumping you for inactivity, but more importantly to watch the progress of the auction. Meanwhile, open the same page in a second browser window, and do everything you need to do to place a bid, shy of actually placing it. That is: at the bottom of the listing, in the "your maximum bid" box, enter what is really your maximum bid (remember, you have done your research, and so you know how much you are willing to pay for the item). Forget the "minimum bid" amount shown below this box. If you bid only that you will almost certainly lose. Click the "review bid" button and supply the information required on the next screen (user ID and password), but do not click the "place bid" button yet. You are not going to do anything else with this second window until you are ready to place your bid. Now, without closing the second window, return to the first window and continue to follow the progress of the auction until there is only fifteen or twenty seconds left before it closes (longer, perhaps, if you have an especially slow ISP). Then, switch back to the second screen and click the "place bid" button. At this point, you've either won or lost the auction (you won't have time to increase your maximum). If you won, you probably won at a price well below your maximum. If you lost, it doesn't matter, because you probably wouldn't want to pay more than your maximum anyway.
Avoid the Pitfalls . . .
Research: Before you buy anything on eBay, you really do need to do some research. Sometimes (more often than not), item descriptions are less than perfect. If you need more information about a product, don't hesitate to use the "ask seller a question" link on the item description page.
So, you want to buy a genealogy book. What information do you need? At the very least, you should have the information you would typically find in the card catalog of any decent library: the name of the author, compiler, or editor, the full title, the date and place of publication, the size of the book (8vo, 4to, etc.), and the number of pages. You will also want to know the book's condition. Unfortunately, most eBay sellers fail to provide some (or most) of this essential information, so you'll have to ask them for it (Good Luck!).
Probably about eighty percent of the genealogy books offered on eBay are still in print. There are number of sellers who seem to have made a "cottage industry" of selling these books on eBay. Is this a problem? Well... We've often seen books go on eBay for prices that are three or four times the price you'd have to pay if you bought them directly from the publisher. Worst case that we've seen: a poor sap who bid $115 for a book that he could have bought at Barnes and Noble or Amazon.com or directly from the publisher for $18.95.
Lesson: do your research before you place a bid.
How? Case in point. On 26 February 2001, an eBay bidder offered $100 for "Colonial Families of the United States of America," volume 5, by George Norbury Mackenzie. The seller gives us most of the information we need: this is a reprint (1997) of a volume originally published in 1907, but she (it is a she) doesn't tell who published the reprint (in fact, she probably doesn't want us to know). However, if it was reprinted as late as 1997, it's very likely still "in print." It's not too hard to find the publisher, and we very soon discover that the successful bidder could have had the very same volume directly from the publisher for $40. He obviously didn't do his research. But he wasn't alone. There were six competing bidders in the same auction who were also willing to pay more than the publisher would have charged them!
If the book you want is still in print (meaning that publisher still has it in stock, even though he may have printed it several years ago), you can find it at your local book store or your local library in "books in print." Your local book store will probably be happy to order it for you, but chances are you can get it for less if you order it yourself directly from the publisher, and "books in print" will tell you who the publisher is. There is a "books in print" on line (www.bowker.com), but it's a subscription service, and the annual subscription fee is rather high (to say the least)! You can use the telephone: call your local library and ask the librarian to check "books in print" for you.
Alright, so we're lazy. Or we we suffer agoraphobia and refuse to visit our local library or bookstore. Or, the auction ends in a couple of hours and we just don't have time to do any research that we can't do right now on our computer. What do we do?
Most of the people on eBay who sell reprints as a cottage industry get their stock from a very few publishers (Genealogical Publishing Company, Heritage Books, etc), for whom we have provided links here.
In the "case in point" above, we used a common search engine (www.yahoo.com) and typed the full title of the book (all in quotes) in the search box. We got 205 matches, the first of which was the publisher's web site. We clicked the link, and it took us directly to the publisher's description of the book, complete with price and ordering instructions. If our high bidder in the "case in point" auction had spent just five minutes doing exactly this, he would have saved him (or her) self sixty dollars! As we said before, there is no substitute for intelligence.
Speaking of intelligence... Some time ago we found an eBay "cottage industry" seller who gave us glowing descriptions of what he offered, but never told us that they were reprints, and never told us the title or author of the book he was offering. When we asked him to supply the missing information (using eBay's "ask seller a question" option), we were ignored. [Lesson: run for your life!] In every case, however, we were able to identify exactly what he was offering by doing key word searches in the web site of his principal supplier, the Genealogical Publishing Company. We found there information this seller obviously didn't want us to know -- i.e., that we could get the same product from the publisher for even less than his starting price!
It's not too difficult to identify sellers who have a "cottage industry" on eBay. On any page of any item they are offering, there is a number in parenthesis immediately following the seller's trading name. eBay calls this a "rating," but it is actually a count of the number of "positive feedbacks" the seller has received from "happy" (often ignorant) buyers. If the number is in the hundreds or thousands, chances are the seller is trying to make a living by selling stuff on eBay. So, then, click the link on the next line for "view seller's other auctions." If the next page shows that the seller has several dozen (or a few hundred) genealogies currently on sale, you know it's a "cottage industry." Take a look at how much people have bid for a few of these items, then try to find out how much they would have paid to purchased the same items from the publisher or some non-eBay retailer.
Privacy: If you think your eBay transactions are your own business, think again. At the very top of almost any eBay page you will find a link to "Search." There, if you know the eBay "handle" of a bidder, you can soon discover what he or she is bidding on.