Saturday, July 21, 2007

I Was an eBay Voldemort

Funny essay I found regarding the Harry Potter craze.

I Was an eBay Voldemort

By Will Collier

Wednesday evening, Atlanta - It all started about 24 hours ago, when I
found a plain cardboard box on my doorstep. I was surprised to see my
name on the label, as I wasn't expecting anything this week. My surprise
increased exponentially when I opened the package to find a copy of
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows within.

With no disrespect meant to J. K. Rowling's innumerable devotees, I'm
not a particularly big Harry Potter fan. But I'd read two or three of
the early books, and being as susceptible as the next guy to the hype
for the last book in the series, I placed an order a few weeks ago at, the store that was offering the lowest price.
Ironically, I didn't even spring for expedited shipping.

The first thing I thought upon seeing the book was, "Boy, somebody
screwed up." Hallows is famously scheduled for release at midnight on
July 21, more than four days after my copy arrived.

As you've probably guessed by now, my second thought was, "Hey, this
thing's probably worth more than 18 bucks between now and then." It was
a matter of minutes from that thought to taking a blurry digital photo
of the book propped up against my computer and composing a brief ad on

To be perfectly honest, I only half expected to actually sell anything.
I didn't want to take some kid's lunch money, so I intentionally set the
reserve price at $175, well beyond the book budget for any sane
parent's child. On a total whim, I also put up a "Buy It Now" option at an
astronomical $250, figuring I might find either an adult Potter geek
overwhelmed by the desire to be "first!" or perhaps a media organization
looking for an advance copy.

Keep that last bit in mind. It'll come up again.

The ad didn't get much notice that evening, but when I got up this
morning, an e-mail was waiting from a nice fellow offering me $175 if
I'd cancel the auction right then and sell him Hallows, off the books,
as it were. eBay hates this kind of thing - it robs them of their
sale-end fees - but it happens all the time.

I almost took him up on it. $157 is a pretty darn good profit on an $18

But hey, I thought, if this guy is willing to pay that much, somebody
else might go for the whole thing. And besides, canceling the auction
would negate the other reason why I put the book up for sale in the
first place: I figured it'd be fun to watch.

So off I went to work, and as far as I can tell, the ad didn't get much
notice during the morning. At lunchtime, I found a number of e-mails
from people who were apparently interested, but didn't really believe
that I had a copy for sale (there were also a few from folks who thought
I was nuts for trying to get three figures for a book that'll be worth
less than $20 in three days).

Fortunately, my house is short distance from work, so I grabbed a copy
of today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution, drove home, and snapped a
couple of pictures with Hallows in view of the date and headline (VICK
INDICTED). I posted the pictures to my ad, and went back to work.

Then things started to get weird.

No sooner had I clocked a couple of hours of vacation time to make up
for my Potter errand-running than my desk phone rang. A
pleasant-sounding woman introduced herself as being with Scholastic
Books, and my jaw hit the desk at something approaching supersonic
speed. She said, "We understand you have received a copy of the new
Harry Potter book from, are you a Harry Potter fan?"

To say that I freaked would be a bit of an understatement. My desk phone
number isn't published anywhere - how the hell did they find me? I hung
up without responding, and now I regret it. I should have at least
chatted with her.

After I've had a chance to think about it, I assume now that
DeepDiscount was pressured into turning over contact information on the
people who received early copies of Hallows. At least that's my best
guess - I'm not discounting the possibility that Ms. Rowling did a
little conjuring when she heard about the eBay ad.

The newspaper pictures were what really set off the firestorm this
afternoon. After I'd provided proof that I actually had the book, today,
the e-mails started flying: questions about shipping and questions about
whether I were actually a minion of the Dark Lord ran about 50-50 each.
By about 2 P.M., the ad got its first bid, for $123. A few minutes later, my
e-mail buzzed again with the notice that the "Buy It Now" had been accepted
for $250 plus shipping.

I'm not ashamed to say that I blurted out, "CHING!"

To my great amusement, I soon found out that the buyer was Robin Lenz,
the managing editor of Publisher's Weekly. According to an e-mail from
Lenz, "I'm the person who shelled out the big bucks for you early copy
of Harry Potter. I'm an editor at Publishers Weekly and we're writing an
article on early shipping, the embargo, spoilers, etc. -this is huge news
in the publishing industry. (and if there's is any way you could ship it
today, I'd pay extra)."

Well, this was great stuff. Not only did I make a very nice profit, I
got the best of all possible outcomes: Instead of taking a desperate
Harry Potter fan to the cleaners, I got to fleece a media organization.
I will sleep with a profoundly clean conscience.

The story wasn't quite over after I dropped the book off at FedEx, of
course. The Associated Press ran a story about the book's release,
noted my ad, and falsely claimed that I'd declined to respond to a query.
That's a lie: Even as I write this an hour or so after the AP's story, I
have not been contacted by them in any way-and if they actually try
they're going to get hung up on; lie about me and you lose interview

I've already seen a few snippy pieces in the press about the eBay sale.
That's fine, people can say whatever they want. There's no law against
scalping books, and as far as moral issues, I don't feel any guilt.

I could have done a lot worse than selling a book, folks. I could have
read the last chapter and posted what I found there at VodkaPundit, a
high-readership weblog where I guest-blog from time to time. Even
worse, I could have done what some floor-flushing nerd with too much time on
his hands did earlier this week, and posted actual pages scanned from
the book.

That's not cool. As I told a Publisher's Weekly reporter who interviewed
me a few minutes ago, that would have been like somebody walking out
of a theater in 1980 and telling a then-eleven-year-old me that Darth
Vader was Luke's father. Un. Cool. I didn't do that. I wouldn't do that.

But I did have a heck of a fun 24 hours. For that, and for the nice
dinner I'm now obliged to go and buy my wife, Ms. Rowling and both have my sincere thanks.

Oh, and I ordered another copy for myself from DeepDiscount. I doubt
I'll see it before next week, but I do like to give my business to
companies that provide good service.

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