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Shoshana's note: I am constantly mindful that the "viewpoint" of Biblio is skewed toward the dealer. But I am also mindful of the large audience of collectors that we have on this list. Thus, I asked Gene Freeman, a collector of much experiene and wisdom, to right about price guides with an eye toward the needs of the collector.

I once had a collector tell me that she purchased books based on her needs and paid whatever she felt comfortable paying, rather than what the market value was. Two years later, and a few reference books later, she told me she was now able to purchase many more books of importance to her collection since she could knowledgeably *bargain* with the booksellers she frequented.

Gene's comments lead me to realize that we (dealers and collectors) are probably using the same guides, and require the same amount of expertise. As you read this fine piece that follows, I hope you will jot down your questions and observations and share them with the list.

Thank you Gene, for this fine article.

Maybe its the collectors perspective, that may be a little different than that of a dealer, that led Shoshana to ask me discuss this topic. I admit to selling a few books in my life,in addition to text books I sold back to the student book store. The few books I did sell were either part of auction lots that contained books I did not want, or I bought the books on a whim. I did make a very good profit on them all and also wish I had them all back. The very good profit part is good if you are a dealer, wanting them back to keep is bad. Every experienced collector knows they buy at retail and, if they sell a book, it will be at wholesale. Obviously, the dealer must do the opposite.

I certainly offer no more authority on pricing books than experience as a collector, and someone who knows other collectors and dealers. The successful dealer is usually very good at buying books and knows people who will buy what is purchased. My thoughts on the subject of pricing books, though somewhat random, follows.

Price guides that record actual sales seem to me more useful than those that forecast what a book should be worth in several years. Auction records are good because they reflect realized prices but need to be used with caution on very rare books because a single sale could be an anomaly. Annual records of sales allow trends to be seen, and there certainly are trends in book collecting. If you're dealing in OP books, Books in Print, from the publication date of the book, may be the only realistic price guide.

Book fairs are important because they provide a chance to compare prices and learn the importance of condition, provenance, association, display on sales. Most dealers tell me that at fairs about seventy percent of their sales are to dealers and the rest to collectors and institutions. Regular visits to other book shops are also important. Many years ago, Bertram Smith told me about half the sales at his book store were to dealers. I know several other very successful book dealers that tell me the same thing. Pricing strategy must recognize the market being addressed.

The market is the people who buy the type of book you sell. A general used book store is most likely to sell to someone who wants to save some money over new book prices. If you don't know the in-print retail price and price above the new book price you're going to have a lot of one visit customers who are looking for used books to save money. Modern first collectors probably believe that books are an investment so they look for pristine signed copies, and special editions. If you are going to specialize in these you need to buy from the publishers as much as possible because from other dealers will limit your profit margins unless you have waiting customers for the material. Rare books are sold to institutions and people who collect in fairly narrow areas and can afford to pay premium prices because they don't find what they collect very often.

The used book buyer probably doesn't think about mark-up, but most high volume dealers I know in this area mark up about 100%. Modern first dealers tend to be the big users of price guides and price according the guides rather than marking up from the purchase price. If you buy from the limited edition and "press-book" publishers they can help explain what establishes the market that seems to best move their material. Experience collectors know that limitation notices and other artificial claims of "manufactured rarity" are not necessarily true and weigh prices accordingly.

Most collectors expect the book dealer to stay in business and help them form their collection, and they know a fair profit is needed. If a collector believes he has been cheated, whether by an honest error, the dealer paying too much for a resale, or because of the dealer's greed, he won't go back. Most people feel they have been cheated when they see the same book offered by several dealers at a much lower price. Novice collectors and novice dealers are dangerous combinations because neither knows what they are doing. The dealer that began as a collector and knows their material is much more likely to keep his customers than the dealer who enters the book business because they like books and bought a large library at auction or purchased a book store from a dealer's widow.

Knowing about books is the key to pricing and price guides may help but are generally not intended to replace bibliographies. Good bibliographies allow you to correctly identify editions, establish the importance of a book, and help you learn about a books rarity by giving locations of copies. For older books it is a good idea to visit libraries that have large holdings of the type of material you want to sell and learn what the real thing looks like. Many valuable old books have been forged, or facsimiles made, without any internal statement that the book is a copy, and unless you have seen the real thing bibliographies and price guides are often of no help. It was unfortunately once fairly common for forged title pages to be made, and then placed in later editions of important books and sold as firsts. Some of these were done by individuals and sold to unsuspecting dealers and some by crooked dealers, but the result is the same, they're still in the market. If you sell one of these as the real thing because you honestly thought it was genuine, you can still be in big trouble, legally and with an irate customer.

I have purchased a fair number of books at auction, and from individuals, and know buying is often the hardest part of the book business. I get about half the books I bid on at auctions, not so much from buying no matter what the price, but by using specialist dealers to do the buying for me when I really want the book. The auctioneer and most of the other bidders know who is bidding for stock,and who has a live customer, and the bid goes accordingly. Dealers often use specialist dealers to buy for them at auction and its generally a good idea, even with the added commission. When I buy from individuals who want bids rather than setting their own price, I offer half the last auction record of a similar copy or an average if all the records are different. This seems to work, particularly when I ask them to get the last auction record themselves from the library.

In summary:

  1. Know your material, you are responsible for what you sell. Misdescribing a book loses the customer's confidence, and the word gets around.

  2. Pay a fair price for what you buy and take a fair markup. If you got a bargain, pass it on. You'll have a customer who will be back. The percent of markup should be related to how long you expect it to take to sell the book. If you know your customers its often better to quickly sell a book than to price it at a place your customer will shop around before the purchase decision. If you don't have steady customers for a particular type of book than pricing at a synthesis of price guide and auction records can convince a new customer who does know the type of book that you know something about the subject too. This may sound paradoxical but I know its true.

  3. Learn about the impact of condition on what you sell. People who collect books on a particular subject may not be as concerned about condition as the collector of modern firsts who want their books in "as new" condition. You can expect the one to pay a premium for condition, the other for rarity only. Damaged or defective books are generally of little interest to anyone.

  4. If you use price guides learn something about the basis of their price listings. Access to the CD-ROM version of the auction records seems essential if you are dealing in rare books. Books like Zempel and Verkler that use a mix of auction and dealer catalog records seem to me more likely to reflect the real world than those based on projections selected dealer catalogs only. A few price guides give so little bibliographical detail that you can't really be sure of the edition or state of the listed book.

  5. On-line records,such as Interloc, Booksearch, and dealer lists provide a rapid way to get estimates.

  6. Read specialist dealer catalogs. Even if you don't want to issue your own catalogs, go through your stock and see how you would list and describe your books. A good description can help sell a book. Not everyone knows the importance of a particular book, and whether the description is in a catalog, or in conversation with a customer, the display of accurate knowledge wins confidence and trust. People will believe a book is accurately priced if they know the seller understands the stock offered for sale.
Gene Freeman
FAX (714) 542-8814

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Last Updated: December 29, 1996
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