Thoughts on the Bookseller-Collector Relationship

NOTE: This post was originally written in March of 2012.

I was recently asked by the president of the Rochester Bibliophile Society to present a talk at their monthly meeting, which took place last night. I thought readers of the blog might be interested in the subject, so below is a transcript of the talk:

Since the advent of the internet, there has been a lot of uproar about the fate of the independent bookstore. Everywhere you look, people are asking, “How will the independents survive?” “Will Kindles and Nooks mean the death of the book?” “How can anyone compete with Amazon?” Increasingly, professional booksellers find themselves competing with everything from giant conglomerate companies with millions of books in inventory, to hobbyists selling out of their homes. Don’t worry, this won’t be a talk about all that – I think the topic has been sufficiently beaten into the ground.

Given the trials facing today’s booksellers, you might be surprised when I say the purpose of this talk is to demonstrate how the internet is hurting book buyers. But that’s what I have set out to do. Along the way we’ll learn a bit about what makes books valuable, why people should collect, and how that’s different than buying to read. A brief history of the book business should
help.

For the majority of the history of the printed word, booksellers were a rare breed of world travelers. They had to be – printing was either expensive, time-consuming, or both, and as a result most works were scarce. Typical customers were nobility or wealthy merchants, and most books were literary, historical, or scientific.

As literacy became more common, things began to shift; the emergence of a mass market led to cheaper books, books geared more towards entertainment than education, and larger print runs. Somewhere along the way was born the curmudgeonly bookseller, complaining about the marginalization of the written word (see Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels for some great passages in this vein).

Fast forward to the era of AB Bookman: it was a candy store menus delivered by mail. Each issue was eagerly awaited, and it proved extremely effective in linking up collectors and booksellers. Meanwhile, book fairs abounded, and shops peppered the nation, rife with interesting ephemera, toothsome tomes, and beautiful bindings.

Good times.

Then the internet came along, and at first it was good, too. Traditional dealers were able to offer their well-chosen stock to millions. Collectors could fill in the gaps in their libraries with relative ease (though at times the prices they paid in eBay’s heyday were outrageous).

Fast forward to today. Borders just closed. Independents are dropping like flies. Barnes & Noble is struggling against Amazon’s ruthless tactics to carve out a bigger and bigger stake of the publishing business, and the e-book has everyone questioning the future of books.

A sad side-effect of these growing pains is the marginalization of the collectible book market. On sites such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Alibris, eBay, etc., new books, used books, and collectible books are piled atop one another without differentiation. It has led to these markets being treated as though they are the same, an unfortunate misunderstanding on a par with
equating fine art galleries to photo processing centers.

Semantics aside, though, why is this such a big problem, and what can we do as buyers and sellers to fix it?

It’s a problem for sellers for a number of reasons, but all of these are reducible to one main factor: context.

Let’s look at it from the perspective of a dealer in collectible books. An example will be useful here, and given the venue of tonight’s talk, I’ll use a modern one: Say I have a review copy of The Help by Kathryn Stockett in fine condition – the best-looking copy you could hope to find. Put this in a glass case at a book fair with a display card containing a brief description, and a price of $250 doesn’t seem unreasonable. A signed copy is probably worth about $500. It has a lot going for it – author’s first novel, adapted to film, relatively small first print run… I am quite justified in asking a high price.

But put these next to the brand new copies offered at huge discounts. The hardcover is still in print, and for hot titles discounts can run as high as 50%. I won’t get into a discussion of the particulars, because a quick internet search will show how cheap new copies, and suitable used copies, are in comparison.

My contention, though, is that this is comparing apples to oranges. It is losing sight of what it means to call something collectible. Furthermore, it is damaging our definition of value. Think for a moment about that. What does it mean for something to be valuable? Generally valuable things are well made, and as a result are not mass-produced. In relative terms, this means they are scarcer.

When speaking of collectibles, valuable items tend to exhibit qualities that are not present in other items that are similar in type. Furniture that is dove-tailed, not stapled; real wood, not particle board; hand-carved, not extruded from a machine. Jewelry that contains precious metals, not materials crafted to emulate them; authentic gemstones, not laboratory-engineered facsimiles.

In the world of books, these factors exist too: edition, condition, format, provenance, literary and historical significance, scarcity, originality and style of binding, etc. The problem is, the marketplace as it exists today is not designed to accentuate these characteristics. By many it is not even viewed as necessary to present them. They are lost in the morass of look-alikes and
impersonators.

What if Sotheby’s began offering box lots of book club science fiction hardcovers? Or Swann’s decided to mix in first editions with facsimile jackets, unauthenticated signatures, and common vintage paperbacks with the material it currently handles? This is not to say that there is not a market for such things, but merely to point out that this market and the collectibles market are, or should be, separate things.

Most online venues do not provide this separation. Some attempt to, but merely make them different columns on what is essentially the same spreadsheet. This may not seem like a big problem, but the definition of value we discussed above tends to be skewed when dealing with simple commodities. ‘Value’ has come to mean ‘paying the lowest possible price’. I don’t know many collectors who would want the cheapest available first edition of The Great Gatsby. Putting two markets with different purposes in front of two types of clientele with different goals must have a subconscious effect on how (and maybe even if) books are bought.

Alright, so we’ve established that there are some challenges faced by today’s booksellers. The average book buyer might say, “Who cares?” Perhaps understandably so; after all, why should customers worry about what goes on in the back rooms of book shops, or in the warehouses and offices of online sales outfits? Well, it turns out that some of the same factors cause problems for buyers, too.

Strangely, the problem we face in this brave new world of bookselling is the sheer quantity of books. Though the tools we have for sorting through information are more powerful than they ever have been, they are still not equal to the task of parsing the data. Anyone who has done an ABE Books search for a particular title knows what I mean – “Why is it returning book club editions when I searched for firsts? Why do these copies come up when I ask for signed copies?”

In today’s world, if it isn’t listed for sale online, it is assumed that it doesn’t exist. So what is the natural tendency? Well, to list everything for sale online of course. Everything. And that means that all the library copies and rebound school editions of classics are there to gum up the works when we search for collectibles, or even just for copies in gift-worthy condition. There are ways
to get around it all, but at this point you need to be quite the search ninja. Even then, all the improperly described copies still clog the page – you can’t read through them all, so it’s sink or skim.

Keep in mind, these are the difficulties faced when a buyer knows exactly what he is looking for. I can’t imagine what a nuisance it must be to browse just to see what’s out there. Returning to the above example… there are currently over 400 hardcover copies of The Help available for sale online through various venues. That’s a lot of skimming. I’ll return to this point later when I talk about booksellers as curators.

Now, what about the truly rare books, the extremely scarce collectible paper, the near-mythical ephemera? Say, for example, a first English edition of Euclid’s Elements, or a signed letter written by Dante? This, at least in my opinion, is where the bottom falls out — online stops being the place to shop. Even were I to assume that everything online is authentic (an assumption we
all recognize as foolhardy), the probability that I would be the one to locate and buy something this scarce is remote. Chances are, it will be listed for sale and sold before I even hear of it. More about this later as well, when I discuss catalogs and book fairs.

So we have established several things. Common books are easy to find, and generally quite affordable, provided that one’s only criterion is the title. More unusual and specialized material is available online as well, as well as quite a lot of material in great condition, but these factors often make the right copy a headache to track down. The nature of the purchasing process is also quite impersonal and detached. The copy one chooses to buy is based on some
amalgamation of considerations that includes price, condition, convenience, and an educated guess on reliability based on feedback ratings, fulfillment rates, etc. Who we buy from becomes a consideration on par with the presence of a dust jacket; sometimes it is a complete afterthought. Loyalty is so last century. After all, why should I be loyal when I can save a few bucks?

For the general reader, this seems like a step in the right direction. Availability has increased, price has decreased, in many cases precipitously. But for anyone shopping based on more stringent standards, the buying process is often rather difficult. We have recreated online the disaster that is the poorly organized book shop. Innumerable volumes are scattered everywhere, the visibility is poor, one must lift whole stacks of books to get at anything, and one’s confidence in hastily scrawled designations such as ‘first edition’ or ‘very scarce’ is shaken. It’s overwhelming, confusing, and even downright maddening. If this were a suspense film, we would be at the part where the world starts spinning, we are bombarded with creepy imagery, and there is disembodied laughter as the hero cries out in despair.

Alright, things are getting a little gloomy here, so at this point I think I owe it to everyone to start providing some solutions to the problems I’ve listed. Happily, there is a lot of good news for all the collectors out there.

First of all, print catalogs and traditional book fairs are alive and well. In fact, many very successful and reputable dealers report that the largest percentage of their business comes from catalog sales and transactions at book fairs. I know, based on all of the above it sounds far-fetched, but I have the stats to back it up.

Second, these are both places you can find the items that are so difficult to track down online.

I know what you’re thinking. Won’t the books in these catalogs and at these fairs just be stuff I can find online anyway? No; most successful dealers, and certainly those specializing in particular subject areas, save their best material for fairs and catalogs, only listing it online when all their best customers have already had a chance to see it. In short, if you’re out of the loop, you’re out of luck, or at the very least you’re at the back of the line.

Fairs also involve a lot of dealer-to-dealer business. Who are dealers buying all those books for? Well, if you’ve played your cards right, the answer is you. The more purchases you make through catalogs and at book fairs, the likelier it is that dealers will contact you when that one unbelievable item you’ve been wanting comes along.

Some of you might say, “But wait, that dealer is just going to mark the book up, so I’ll have to pay more for it.” Not so. Traditional dealers offer one another discounts to facilitate these sorts of sales. Say I buy a book for you at a fair in Boston. I get my discount, present the book to you and charge you that dealer’s original price. I pocket the difference for my time, the other dealer makes his sale, you get your book. Everyone’s happy.

Forgive me, I may be telling you all things you already know. But I think that it’s important to discuss these particulars, because the truth is that many customers don’t know about any of what goes on behind the scenes. And this may be why the way consumers shop for books mystifies the traditional dealers in the trade.

To quote an overused phrase, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” We dealers don’t understand why customers put up with the frustrations of buying books online, and customers don’t understand why traditional dealers refuse to sell hardcovers for a penny. It’s not anyone’s fault. Both groups are just trying to treat the book market the same way they used
to before the internet existed, and the waters are muddied enough that neither side realizes it doesn’t need to be this way.

Again, there is a solution. We can talk to one another – we have the technology. I promise it won’t hurt that much. You will probably learn something, you’ll probably end up teaching a few things, too, and you might even make a few friends. Birds of a feather, right?

Now, I mentioned catalogs before and then sort of trailed off into a bunch of talk about book fairs. Never could resist a good tangent. Catalogs are your pipeline for learning more about the area you want to read or collect in. Their purpose is to present the best of the best, and they are usually focused by topic or some other distinguishing characteristic. And book fairs are great
places to get them. Find the booksellers who deal in the types of books you enjoy, and get on their mailing lists. Again, the worst that could happen is you will learn a lot, and end up with a few valuable books.

So, if these are the most effective ways to obtain the best books, why doesn’t everyone shop this way? I think it has a lot to do with the way society is arranged these days. Most things are geared towards instant gratification – movies on demand; DVR; Google; fast food; Facebook & Twitter, video chat. It makes us feel that if we need to wait for something, there must be something wrong with it.

Think about that tendency, and you’ll realize it goes counter to the whole idea of collecting. Collecting is about the excitement of not having everything you want yet, and being able to enjoy the process of gathering it. The reason we collect is not to have the things, possession is quite secondary to the whole activity. And that’s exactly what collecting is, an activity, maybe even a lifestyle. It is the domain of those passionate enough to invest time and money in the curation of a private library, one that represents their interests, and reflects their personality.

Think about the books you have in your personal collection at home. My bet is you know the story of how you acquired many of the volumes, why you bought them, and maybe even how much you paid.

I’ve noticed something interesting in my own buying exploits. If I purchase books at a house call, from another shop, at a book fair, or across the counter in my store, I am likely to remember where I got it, sometimes years later. But if I got it through an online auction, or from another seller on ABE, and you ask me a month later, I might not have a clue where it came from. That tells me something.

I mentioned the word ‘curation’ a moment ago, and I’d like to expand on that a bit. It ties in with a larger belief of mine about the trade:

Booksellers do not sell books.

I think this is a critical concept to understand, and one that goes unrecognized by the vast majority of people, even the majority of readers. It seems counterintuitive on the surface: of course they must sell books – that’s what their shops are lined with, not toothbrushes! Well, turns out that’s just an illusion, or at most a convenient coincidence.

What booksellers really sell is knowledge, in several varieties. First, they sell their knowledge of what books are worth owning (I say owning rather than reading because some books are worth purchasing simply because of unique format, cultural significance, or some other factor not related to the text). Now, ‘what books are worth owning’ sounds like a simple enough phrase,
but a lot goes into this. Remember the curmudgeonly bookseller from earlier? He has some opinions on what makes the grade. Whatever the criteria a particular bookseller uses, these are the sieve through which everything passes, and as a result his inventory becomes a sort of tapestry, composed of all the various literary threads he deems significant. He has curated a vast library, weeding out the inferior, ignoring the insignificant, and filtering out all sorts of other nonsense. You’ll know when you’re browsing a well-chosen collection, because a picture larger than any of the individual volumes begins to coalesce in the mind, giving you a sense of the import of each work, how it contributes to the structure of the whole. Why it is worth having. I spoke earlier of the tendency to list absolutely everything for sale online, and why it was harmful to the browser. A good bookseller helps us avoid this pitfall altogether.

Booksellers also sell their knowledge of editions – the variations available of certain titles, the relative priority of these, and the reasoning underpinning those considerations. Why is an 1891 Charles Webster reprint of Huckleberry Finn worth only $150, when an 1884 first edition, published by the same firm, is worth thousands? As a bookseller, my answer had better not be, “That’s what it says on ABE Books.”

Booksellers sell knowledge of the book trade’s history: How many times has this book been available for sale in the past 30 years? What prices has it realized at auction or in a retail situation? Are these prices on the rise, or no? How does condition affect all of this? These are valuable details, and ones not readily available to the general public.

Booksellers sell peace of mind – buying from a reputable source is important when it comes to confidence in the authenticity of signatures, the designation of edition, etc. I can’t count the number of stories I have heard, firsthand and otherwise, of customers recounting the deal they got on a first edition on eBay, only to be gently corrected and given the upsetting news that
they’d been ripped off.

Last, but certainly not least (in fact, this may be one of the more important ones), booksellers sell time. Your time. The time you would have spent doing everything they do for you. As we discussed, this is often a significant amount of time, and it is often not time enjoyably spent, but frustrating, bang-your-head-against-the-wall-because-you-just-want-to-be-able-to-find-it sort of
time. And sometimes it still results in being among the deceived or misled, when the book that arrives is a book club edition, or missing the jacket, or the signature is clearly just a printed facsimile.

Is it possible to accumulate all this knowledge on your own? Sure. But if you’re going to go to all that trouble, you might as well be a bookseller yourself. How do you think I got here? It’s alright if you want to accumulate your own knowledge – for some, this is part of the fun. But the truth is, no one can know everything, so it can’t hurt to have a friend in the business.

And I want to make it clear that, at least in my case, this is what I try to be. I think too often the roles of customer and merchant are viewed as competing sides in a chess match, and while I enjoy chess, I just don’t want any part in that. My best customers are the ones who know, at least in a general sense, what they want, trust me to provide advice, but who I never feel I have
to convince of anything. They aren’t interested in competing with me, they want to work together. So in the end, we both win. Food for thought, I think.

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