The world of book collecting has evolved over the last decade or so as the Internet has had ever greater impact on supply and demand. Various websites and services have emerged that help the dealer and the collector in various ways, and in the process have upended markets and destroyed the "value" of most books, or rather, exposed the fact that there are many more copies of certain books than there are readers+collectors+dealers combined.
For these common editions, prices have effectively gone to zero - a penny on Amazon, the minimum $1 (US) for listings on ABEBooks.com. I can only assume that sellers hope to make a sliver of profit on the shipping.
But what about the more scarce titles that are not in abundant supply? Titles and editions that a collector may have run across once a decade in a dealer catalog or at a book fair in years past, will sometimes show up every few months online, as dealers list their stock - often not even knowing what they have or why collectors might be interested. For most titles that fall into this "scarce" category, it is merely a matter of having a price limit and knowing where to look. Even for a title as rare as Songs For The Philologists, of which only fourteen copies are speculated to survive, there is one available for sale right now if you have the money.
As a collector myself, paying top dollar for something that clearly no-one else is willing to pay (that Songs has been available online for over a year now, and I am sure most online Tolkien collectors have run across it at least once and obviously not bought it) is not a wise use of my money, and frankly not fun. Finding that scarce title within my budget and beating all the other collectors to it is a part of the thrill of the hunt!
We recently had a particular scarce title show up on ABEBooks, and multiple members here all tried to buy it. How the actual sale went down is a different story (and as incomplete, as far as I know - we still don't know who ended up with the book) but regardless, the frenzy itself sparked my interest in figuring out how the system works and how to take advantage of it - in this case, ABEBooks want notifications.
As a hyper-collector myself (for the definition of which, I leave this website as evidence), it is important for me to stay on top of the marketplace I am interested in. ABEBooks offers a useful tool, where any account holder can register a "want" - I can define any number of parameters such as author, title, description keywords, date ranges, condition, presence of dustjacket, etc. Then, whenever a seller uploads a book that matches my criteria, I receive an email telling me that the book is available and giving me a link to go purchase the book immediately if I am so inclined.
Sounds great! On April 16th at 7:48 PM, I received a want notification from ABEBooks telling me that a copy of A Spring Harvest was available and at a great price. I immediately (as in, within seconds) tried to purchase the book, but was disappointed to see that it was already sold according to ABEBooks.com. These things happen, and sometimes I win the race. It wasn't until other people started posting here in the TCG forums about also missing out and a conversation started, that it became clear that some of us had received our notifications almost two hours earlier (corrected for timezone differences, yes). What was going on?!
With many thanks to the community here and the data they provided along with answers from ABEBooks technical staff and a few weeks of research myself, I have been able to draw the following conclusions about the behavior of ABEBooks wants and give hints for bettering your odds to those of you for whom an hour or two difference is critical.
When you create a want at ABEBooks, it assigns that want a number identifier. I just created a want today (May 31st) and it was assigned the Want ID of A505070632. All wants start with the letter A, and then a large number (in this case slightly over 505 million). These Want ID numbers are created sequentially as new wants are submitted to the system. One would think that this means that there are over 505 million wants in their database, but there is a large gap in the number sequence (unconfirmed by ABEBooks but obvious from external analysis). From the original numbering scheme (apparently starting at A1) the largest want I have in my personal list is somewhere just over 20 million. Then the numbering jumps to 500 million and goes up from there. From this, I estimate that there are somewhere less than 30 million wants currently in their system - including deleted wants since numbers are not re-used, so the actual active want count is probably much less than that.
Looking at the chart above, you can see that for this particular book that matched wants, there were three different batches of emails sent out - one at approximately 6 PM, one around 6:45, and the third at 7:48 PM. I was one of those in the third batch. Clearly, having a lower Want ID is better if you are competing with other collectors.
I ran multiple tests with identical search criteria, one with a Want ID around 20 million, one with a Want ID around 504 million. In every case, there was at least 45 minutes difference, and sometimes over an hour difference in when the two email notifications showed up. With the help of the TCG community, I was able to confirm that the exact criteria in a want does not matter (some matched by author name, some by title, some with dates, some not, etc.), just the Want ID.
Note that ABEBooks does allow you to create and/or change your Want ID to anything you like. However, this does not modify the A# assigned by ABEBooks, and has no effect on when your notification may be sent. If you have changed the default Want ID and want to know what your A# is, go to abebooks.com, click on "My Account" then find the "My Wants" link (which is http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/WantMaintList?ph=2 ) then look in the "Update this Want" or "Delete this Want" links below the want you are interested in - the link will look like .../WantMaintUpdatePL?wantId=50xxxxxxx&searchType=...
The main lesson I have learned from this analysis, that can hopefully help out you fellow collectors the most is this - you can modify a want at any time, and not lose your A# priority. Never delete an old want! Save that low A# for a future book you are looking for, and jump closer to the head of the email queue for notifications. I have done this multiple times now in the process of testing out the system and investigating various theories and have had no issues at all.
For those of you just getting started on ABEBooks, perhaps you can bribe a fellow collector to set up an email filter and forward you emails for one of their low A# wants they are not using - I can just imagine a secondary economy of renting Want IDs to those of us crazy enough to want to get into that first batch of emails!
Many thanks to those of you who provided data for me in this analysis, it was much appreciated! May you all get copies of A Spring Harvest at a great price sometime soon!