Politics & Policy

I Was an eBay Voldemort

All Hallows.

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 DeepDiscount.com, 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 eBay.

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 investment.

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 DeepDiscount.com, 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 rights.

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 DeepDiscount.com 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.

— Will Collier is an aerospace engineer and writer living in metro Atlanta. He is the co-author of The Uncivil War: Alabama vs. Auburn 1981-1994, and blogs at theVodkaPundit and FromTheBleachers.net weblogs.


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