A Guide to Buying and Selling Ephemera: Online and Offline

Written by Jonathan Smalter



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Other articles by Jonathan Smalter

Experienced collectors and dealers know it is ideal to examine items in person before making purchases; but given the brave new world of e-commerce, more often than not this is impossible. Even if the seller has a shop or gallery where the item can be viewed, if it’s already online then insisting on seeing it in person might just mean missing out on a great buy. This post will provide some pointers about images and other visual marketing based on my experience buying and selling material through various online sales venues, and then look at the different factors involved in making purchases offline.

So how can we approximate holding an item in our hands when all we can do is see it on our screens? What information can we gather from online listings that will allow us to make the same sort of educated decision we make when face to face with seller?

1) Read item descriptions carefully, and examine any images provided.

The idea is to construct as complete a picture as possible, to approximate the feeling of having the item in front of you. If you can’t flip the item over, look for a watermark, examine a signature with a magnifying loupe, etc., then the next best thing is to ask questions and request images. When we examine material in person, we are basically asking ourselves a series of questions, and then answering them by looking closely at what is there. The questions are the same when we shop online, we just need to bring the answers to us in a different way.

It’s a bit tougher online, because we need to be able to verbalize each question so we can convey it to the seller or compare it against the information they’ve given. We also need to assess things that are less precise than we might like: What does this seller mean by the word Good (how have they used it in the past? does it seem to jive with the list of flaws they’ve noted?)? When we shop offline, we are following a series of protocols that, with practice, becomes such second nature that we don’t even realize how many things we’re doing all at once. We also don’t need to worry about how the seller would describe the item, because it’s there in front of us.

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If you have questions that you can’t answer by looking at the images and reading the description, request more information. Be specific to avoid needless back and forth. If you need more images, make sure to state what portion of the item you cannot see (e.g., ‘Can you please supply a larger image of the signature?’).

2) Beware of stock images or stolen images

If a seller includes images, make sure they are of the image for sale. Some unscrupulous sellers, particularly on eBay, have been known to acquire images of other examples of their item (usually offered for sale on a different site), and represent these images as photographs of their merchandise. This is another good reason to read descriptions AND review images. Compare these against one another. Are there flaws noted in the description that do not appear in the photograph(s)? Are any other discrepancies evident? Has the image been edited to conceal anything (e.g., edges cropped to hide wear or damage)?

Credit: ABE Books

Certain sites (most notably ABE Books) will insert stock images when an image is not provided by the seller. These are denoted as such under the photo (it will state Stock Image in the caption instead of Seller Image), but this is easy to miss if you are not watching for it.

3) Familiarize yourself with the seller’s return policy

Reputable dealers have reasonable return policies. This means accepting returns within a reasonable time-frame for any reason. In other words, if an item is not what you expected in terms of condition, authenticity, etc., or even if you have simply changed your mind, you should not have trouble sending it back for a refund. If a seller’s return policy is not crystal clear, it is worth asking whether they will send the item(s) on approval.

If you encounter sellers unwilling to work within these terms, it is probably best to avoid them in the future — if they are unwilling to absorb the occasional return as a cost of doing business, where else are they cutting corners?

Many trade organizations require their members to adopt reasonable return policies as part of their code of ethics. If you are dealing with a member of one of these organizations (for example, the ABAA or the IOBA), you can rest assured that such a policy is in place, and that, in the event of a dispute, the organization can provide arbitration on your behalf should a seller prove uncooperative.

If you cannot find specific information about a seller’s return policy, be sure to ask where you can find it in writing If the answer is ‘nowhere’, my recommendation would be to shop elsewhere.


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This is a good start for buying, but what if you are the seller? First, assume that most buyers are going to follow the tips above, and behave accordingly.

A few tips:

1) Describe material as accurately and with as much detail as possible. This can include dimensions of the item, materials used in its production, who published or produced it, why it was made, what techniques were employed in its creation, explanation of its cultural or historical significance, any known provenance, edition (noting the limitation where applicable), condition (both an accurate grade and a description of particular flaws), and any characteristics unique to this example.

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2) Include high quality images, and avoid the following: blurry photographs, poorly framed or insufficiently lit images, photos taken from strange angles, or images containing objects that are not included with the item for sale. These will not do you any favors in selling the item, and may even confuse or mislead potential buyers.

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I tend to prefer using a small camera, because I find this allows greater versatility. For example, I can produce images of a single document employing the same process I use to photograph an archive of several dozen letters. For many items a scanner will work fine, though, so if that is easier for you, do it that way. There is not just one right way to produce these images, so experiment, ask advice, and choose what works for the types of items you sell and the system you have in place.

3) Take the time to do a little extra work on images. I use Photoshop to remove the background and create a drop shadow, which I think makes my images ‘pop’ a bit more. I also overlay larger images of signatures when an item is signed. If a book, photo album, or magazine contains particularly interesting or colorful illustrations, I include a few of those in addition to the main image. Highlighting the strengths of your items can increase the chance that they will sell, or help them sell for more money, and additional images will probably also lead to fewer questions before the sale.

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But of course, I started this post by saying that, if at all possible, one should strive to hunt down items ‘in the field’. All of the above notwithstanding, my preferred method of purchase is in-person transactions, especially for valuable material, and it’s not just because I’m a bit old-fashioned.

Being able to evaluate items by handling them and having a conversation with the seller in person will help you learn trade terminology, appreciate nuances of condition that are difficult to verbalize, glean information about the item that may not have been specifically referenced or visible in an online sale listing for the item, and familiarize yourself with the look and feel of materials used in its production.

The more items you see and touch, the better you will become at determining what to purchase and what to leave behind, how common or scarce various things are, what might be a reasonable price for a certain sort of item, who may be likely to acquire material in your collecting area, whose prices tend to be a bargain, who is often on the high side, and who is willing to negotiate.

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In many ways it is like learning a language, though this particular language involves all the senses. The quickest way to do that is to immerse oneself in the environment where that language is spoken, to see and touch and smell, and to remember. Part of the reason we are so drawn to printed material is because of the tactile immediacy of it. These are objects we can reach out and touch. We can find them and rescue them from being forgotten. We can give them a place of pride in our home and know that we own something special.


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If you are a seller with a physical location, if you exhibit at trade shows and book fairs, or even if you have a spot at an antique mall or a flea market, make sure to keep the above ‘buying in person’ tips in mind. Think about ways you can leverage the value of your items as objects. Creatively decorative displays can go a long way towards selling things that might otherwise have been passed over. Some items are notoriously difficult to display, but the important point to remember in all cases is that buyers need to be able to see it and interact with it easily.

If a customer cannot reach something, or they are afraid to touch it for fear of damaging it, you probably just lost a sale.

Protect fragile items with archival covers (for more details about these, see the Archival Materials section of my post from last month), and if the front side of an item has visual appeal, put it on a display stand so it grabs more attention. Devising an artful or unique layout for a set of books, an archive of letters, or a collection of photographs could be the difference between eyes settling on them or people walking right past.

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Be talkative. Since you probably did a bit of research to determine an asking price, and you have experience selling this sort of material, you know a lot about the items you are selling. It is likely that the majority of potential customers will not, and if they do they will probably still be interested in chatting about a share interest. Conversation is also the best way to glean information about why a customer is interested in particular subject matter, which is better than simply knowing that they are interested. Often it is possible to make great recommendations as a result of one or two minutes of talking. Regardless of whether that leads to more sales, a customer leaving with a sense that they have made a personal connection (rather than just completing a business transaction) can only work in your favor.

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If you really want to put some icing on the cake, upgrade your checkout process to include custom printed bags, or wrap items up nicely (brown paper with twine has a nice classic feel to it) and stamp the package with your business information. Making a purchase an experience is important, so do your best to make it a good one. If you want to give this a try, make sure the process is streamlined: waiting an extra ten minutes at checkout is not anyone’s idea of a good experience. Make sure your materials properly match your merchandise and are easily ready-to-hand, and be prepared to chat a bit as you bag or wrap items. Sharing a bit of trivia about the item(s) is a good rule of thumb, where possible, but if you find yourself drawing a blank, asking a question is just as good. The more you learn about your customers, the better you will be at finding material that interests them, which benefits everyone.


Until next time, happy hunting!


Jonathan Smalter owns Yesterday’s Muse Books, located at 32 West Main Street in Webster, and online at www.yesterdaysmuse.com. His bookstore has been in operation for ten years, and he has nearly twenty years of experience in the book trade. He is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America and the Independent Online Booksellers Association.