The ABA Code (2)

aba_logo_2011As a follow-up to the previous post, let me first of all thank all of those who have been in touch, both publicly and privately, to make a large number of very interesting and some rather  important points.  I am extremely grateful.  To bring everyone up to date, I can now report that after a cordial discussion, the ABA Council has agreed unanimously both to revise and update the Code and to augment and strengthen it.  I have been asked to pick a small team to get down to the detailed line-by-line work, which I am the process of doing.  We have a remit to consult widely both within the trade and outside it, amongst collectors, rare book librarians, etc.

I am not going to attempt here and now to answer all the various points made – only those which seem to me to reflect the more serious misgivings or misunderstandings – but all of them will be given full consideration as we set about redrafting the Code for the twenty-first century.

Moving the portions of the Code which impact only on booksellers’ relations with each other to a separate ‘Trade Courtesies’ section seems not to be controversial, but also including something on the civility ABA members should show to their customers by way of open, honest and courteous dealing (as one of my colleagues put it) would appear to be a popular thought. Some of the comments on expectations of mutual help and collegiality are in fact already covered in the application-form to join the ABA and elsewhere, but it would do no harm to include something in the Code itself – and, although it will remain a Code and not a wishy-washy mission statement, we shall certainly try to redraft it in a more positive way and more explicitly with a view to promoting all things mutually beneficial.

I found some of the comment on buyers of rare books already being adequately protected by general consumer legislation or buyer protection provided by the likes of ABE or eBay somewhat naive.  No amount of this kind of ‘protection’ will help if you don’t know and can’t recognise when the book arrives that the book is not the ‘first edition’ it purports to be, the dust-jacket is wrong, and that the ‘author’s signature’ is a fake – these things will generally only come to light when you try to sell it in years to come.  Of course most (but by no means all) of this kind of misdescription on the cowboy sites is ignorance rather than deliberate deception, but since when has ignorance been any kind of excuse for taking people’s money under false pretences?  As for the thought that these sites “skew commerce protections in favour of buyers over sellers” – this is frankly nonsense: they are skewed in favour of no-one but their corporate owners.  Have you ever tried reporting something listed on these sites which is plainly fraudulent?  Did you even get a reply – let alone any action?  The owners neither know nor care.

Would you get a reply if you reported something like this to the ABA Standards Committee? – Yes, of course you would.  Would you get action? – Yes, of course you would.  The ABA’s disciplinary procedures are all laid out in Appendix A at the end of our Articles and Rules.  Are Disciplinary Panels ever summoned?   Very rarely is there a need, I am pleased to say, but when it comes to it, when there is a case that needs answering, yes, of course they are – and appropriate sanctions applied.  Are there booksellers whose membership has not been renewed? – Yes, indeed there are (although I must make it quite clear that most ex-members have left of their own volition for reasons quite other than disciplinary ones).

The concept of ‘fair and informed’ pricing seems to cause some confusion.  It was never intended to protect or favour sellers over buyers – quite the opposite – let alone to suggest that we were trying to maintain some kind of cartel.  As one of my colleagues noted, “Anyone who seriously thinks us capable of running a cartel should come along to a Council meeting!”  All that was ever meant was that members should be able to justify a price (both when buying and selling) – that our prices should never be ones which we would be embarrassed by, or ashamed of, if closely questioned by our peers. There is obviously a case for rewording this clause to make this completely clear.

The rather casual assumption that ABA members’ prices are higher than those elsewhere is one that in personal experience I have not actually (by and large) found to be true.  Many of my best buys have come from ABA colleagues.  Better copies cost more, of course, and stock-holding booksellers who need to serve a wide clientele and maintain a generous breadth of stock will need to price at a level which allows them consistently to replenish that stock – paying fair prices – rather than come up with the odd lucky bargain once in a blue moon.  Certainly the most egregious examples I come across (almost daily) of people trying it on with outrageous prices are the internet cowboys, not ABA members.

Carefully selected and edited photographs may or may not be helpful, but they are simply no substitute for a proper catalogue description and probably serve only to take transactions outside the scope of the Trade Descriptions Act (1968), but the point about ‘sins of omission’ in descriptions is well made.  This is something which should be addressed in the new Code.  A problem here – although one possibly beyond the scope of the Code – is an over-reliance (among both booksellers and collectors) on unsound bibliographies, generally but not invariably the older ones, those distinguished more by enthusiasm than by bibliographical common sense, which make a fetish of every chance variation between copies and generate alleged ‘issue’ points for which there is no cogent evidence of chronological priority at all.  It can’t be dishonest to ignore these false points.

The acknowledgement of the granting of trade discounts between professional colleagues appears to have led to some kind of feeling that booksellers can afford to give a discount to anyone and everyone. This would only be possible if we over-egged all our prices to begin with – a wholly counter-productive policy in these days of internet transparency. The assumption misses several basic points.  Giving a colleague a discount is a professional courtesy – it ceases to be one if you are giving the same discount to anyone else who asks.  But the major point is that the courtesy is fully reciprocal – the cost of doing it is fully counterbalanced over time by the discounts received in return – an arrangement from which our customers naturally benefit and which frequently aids the efficient transfer of the right book to the right collector.  You can judge for yourself who that right collector may turn out to be – the one who responds positively and immediately to an offer saying, “Thank you so much for thinking of me”, or the one who wants to spend a month haggling over the price.

Pre-fair trading at bookfairs (although rarely a frenzy – the extent is exaggerated – more a matter of Dealer A knowing more than Dealer B, or having a customer back home for a book when Dealer B does not) is admittedly something which makes me uncomfortable, especially when the public are being charged for admittance.  The ABA used to try to outlaw it, some dealers decline to take part, but given the cost of exhibiting at major fairs, the exhibitors – especially the larger ones – need to buy well as well as sell. Without it, the major fairs would probably not be staged – and I’m not sure how that would really benefit anyone.  In truth, as someone who tends not to exhibit at fairs, simply to queue up for admittance at opening time along with everyone else, I have never felt particularly disadvantaged. The books I buy would be a great deal more expensive if I had to pay what the exhibitors are paying to be there: a basic stand in a secondary position at Olympia this year will cost £2,190, the largest well over £10,000 – plus all the extras, additional shelving or glass cases, telephone lines, the transport, the accommodation, and all the rest.

I seldom go to auctions these days: telephone bidding, online bidding, undisclosed reserves, staggering ‘premiums’ for services by and large not rendered, exemptions from almost all consumer legislation, and as for the in-house terms and conditions – well, simply compare and contrast the average auction-house conditions with those of the ABA Code – these have all made it difficult to buy to resell in that arena.  But let us be quite clear, improper collusion between dealers is illegal, outlawed variously and serially, albeit somewhat opaquely, by the Auction (Bidding Agreements) Acts (1927 & 1969), the Competition Act (1998), the Enterprise Act (2002) and the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act (2013).  The auction-houses have all the weaponry they need to protect their clients, the vendors, from any fraudulent conspiracy taking place under their gaze and on their premises: they are handsomely paid to do so, and thereafter it is a matter for police and lawyers.

Customer confidentiality and rights to privacy, although covered in large measure by the Data Protection Act (1998) – and although I have never heard of case where these have been infringed by any of my colleagues – are something the Code should address and the revised version will certainly do so.  We shall also look to include something on best practice when dealers are selling on commission or on consignment.  We should probably spell out with greater clarity what happens in the case of transgressions. Many of the clauses will be strengthened.  And there will also probably be more on identifying and indelibly marking such things as facsimile leaves.  But the debate is ongoing – please let me have your further thoughts. As our President points out, “There is little point in having a code of conduct if it doesn’t reflect the concerns of our customers”.

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice first introduced in 1997 (and its recent update), served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute, the National Library of Scotland and at Gresham College and Stationers' Hall. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. Essays on the British map trade are also appearing in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers”, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011. He also contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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1 Response to The ABA Code (2)

  1. James says:

    Well that all seems eminently sensible…
    Your points about consumer protection are apposite. In one sense, what the ABA Code is offering is protection from the necessity of having to enforce one’s consumer protection rights in the first place (a process that is invariably time-consuming, at best).
    With regards to the “fair and informed” pricing clause, I certainly never meant to suggest previously that the ABA does, or could, operate as a cartel, only that the clause could be interpreted as ‘if in doubt, follow every one else’s pricing’….thereby perhaps giving the appearance of un-competitiveness…
    I disagree slightly about ABA’s members’ prices – they are, in general, certainly ‘fair’ (to my judgement) but I think that they are, on average, a little higher than non-ABA booksellers. I exclude here “the most egregious examples” that you mention for the simple reason that many of them do not actually seem to be booksellers, but book-offerers. I have never been able to understand those individuals that list ex-library reprints at asking prices of £1000s – I can only assume that they do so under the belief that ‘no publicity is bad publicity’. Together with the POD operators, they have made ABE virtually un-navigable, which may turn out to be no bad thing in the long run. In any case, I have no issue with paying a reasonable premium for the additional benefits that ABA booksellers can offer so there is no need for anyone to be defensive in this regard.


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