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The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man

A fortnightly column on technology and the web

11 February 2009

12:00 AM

11 February 2009

12:00 AM

Two years ago my father decided to try selling books on the internet. Since he had spent much of my childhood expatiating his theory that computers involved more work than they saved, this was something of a U-turn. But he quickly opened a seller’s account on Amazon where he listed for sale the 1,500 of his books he was least likely to miss before sitting back and waiting for the orders to come in.

Rather to the surprise of his sceptical sons, orders did come in — and have kept on coming. Two years on, along with a few neighbours who are eBay sellers, he has turned the village post office into a hub for global commerce, parcels being sent out every week to almost anywhere. His copy of Birds of the Sudan, for instance, went to someone in Sudan (sensible, really, since my father lives in a part of Wales notoriously light in tropical bird-life).

By allowing people to trade in this way, the internet lets you obtain better prices than by selling through booksellers (who often aren’t interested unless you’re offering a first folio for £10). It works best for unusual titles (so don’t expect much from your Harold Robbins collection) although with smaller, lighter books you do make a profit on the postage charge.  


Yet it’s not only that there’s more to gain; there’s also less to lose. As my father explains, 15 years ago you were reluctant to sell your copy of Birds of the Sudan since, if you later regretted it, you might have to spend months tracking down a replacement. No longer: online book-search sites (such as Amazon, alibris.co.uk and abebooks.com) will find ten available copies in seconds.

This is an important insight, and it applies to more than just books. When so many things are readily available at short notice through the internet, should we attach less importance to owning things? How many of the films in your DVD collection will you watch again? (Has anyone ever rewatched Citizen Kane?) Join lovefilm.com and declutter your shelves instead.

The same applies to property. When prices are stagnant, why do people still want to own a second home? The maintenance costs alone would pay to hire the Hefner mansion. Plus anyone with a passable knowledge of the web can find really interesting places to rent with just a few clicks.

One caveat. Unlike Amazon or eBay, most property rental sites have no established buyer-rating system and photographs can be misleading. My crafty rule-of-thumb is only to rent a property if it’s listed as having broadband installed. That’s nothing to do with the broadband itself (although that’s always a plus) but simply because the presence of broadband in a holiday home is a useful clue that the owners of the property sometimes stay there themselves. It will therefore be cleaner, better equipped and better maintained than houses owned as a money-making racket.

When renting overseas, the presence of broadband also increases the odds that your property is owned by Scandinavians. Not only will it then have attractive contemporary furniture, but there’ll be something better than Bloomberg on the satellite channels once the children have gone to bed.


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