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The Empirical Bookman

The Hunt Redux
Ode to a Golden Age ...

by Jaime Frontero

#104, 1 October 2007

I have an uncharacteristically short revelation of sorts today. Three of them actually. So pay attention, because I'm only going to note them once and explain them once - and then we will continue to plod along as though we all get it, all understand it fully, and it has become a linchpin to our comprehension of how one sells books. (Or any collectible, for that matter.) And to whom. Ready?

The Golden Age of Collectibles is Twelve.

There - I've said it. What does it mean? Well, taken by itself it means that we are all imprinted with the wild and irresponsible desire to own things that are of no earthly use to any of us, when we are at our wildest and most irresponsible. That is, when we are about twelve years old.

But this is only a mildly interesting piece of information - until we don our magic robes, and add the next part of the Arcana of the Trade to our understanding:

The Golden Age of Money is Forty-five.

So what does that mean? It means this: There is a window of opportunity in the life of anyone who collects anything, during which we as sellers may extract the maximum amount of cash from them. This window is roughly 10 years wide, extending from when their income begins to peak until they start running scared on retirement, and feel the need to sock their money away for that purpose. So, more or less, our target market is buyers between the ages of 45 and 55. We will never get better, we will never sell better books, and we will never make more money, unless and until we conquer that market.

As a general rule, the best way to conquer that market is to train it. That is, one must find collectors "in the bud" and bring them along to full bloom. There are very few non-collectors destined to wake up one morning consumed by the unquenchable desire to own a signed copy of On the Road. And even if there were, why would they buy it from you? One must identify the interest for hip culture in a customer, and reinforce the desire over time - from Bukowski back through Kesey by way of the firsts of Allen Ginsberg and Burroughs, with perhaps a side-trip to an early Cellini autobiography - until the moment is ripe. When the Kerouac is needed it will appear. Confidence.

When I was twelve, the Jaguar Motor Car Company produced a little rocket they called the E-Type. Migod I loved that car. It cost $2,000 new - and only 15 years later I paid $3,800 for a really nice one. Today, that really nice one will set you back $30,000 to $40,000 because all those 12-year-olds are at the very end of their peak disposable income years, and the competition is fierce. The car may hold its value as we retire and/or die off, but there won't be anywhere near as many of them sold. Have you noticed that the Shirley Temple collectibles aren't doing quite as well as they were 20 twenty years ago?

Therefore: Our target for buying today - those things we can turn the quickest and which will give us the best profit - are those that 12- year-olds lusted for in 1975. And mark this: It is not required that these things were new in 1975 - only that they were desirable, and desired. In fact, it may be the best indicator of a serious collector-to-be that at that age he or she wants something already old. Example: In the past few years I've sold two copies of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to people in their early fifties - one a pure first state and the other mixed. I've spent years selling books to each of them and have developed good relationships - but one of the first questions I asked at the very beginning (as I've asked all my customers) was: "What did you read when you were 12?" How old were they when that book was published?

So yes, let's get back to books. Who buys them? How does this fit with our newfound understanding of these Golden Ages?

Basically, you've got three kinds of people to sell your books to on the internet - Readers, Collectors and Dealers. In a B&M store you can add Display Buyers - interior designers, real estate agents, set designers and the like - but they want to see the books and (usually) matching sets they buy and don't cruise the 'net with any reliability.

At the low end of the dollar spectrum are the Readers. These include a delightful woman I like to call Aunt Tillie ("Oh! I had this very same book when I was a little girl! I'll bet my niece/nephew/grandchild would love it just like I did ..."), who's always good for a $10 or $20 impulse buy - but she's also more of a bookstore phenomenon, and not as common on the internet. Researchers who buy books for the facts they contain are Readers.

In the middle are Endpoint Collectors and Dealers - lumped together for our purposes, because on the internet they compete against each other. Researchers who buy scarce and valuable books for the more esoteric facts or lost arts they contain (late 17th century hand-tinted plates of Mayan costumery, for example) are also Collectors. (And of course, in the stratosphere of the book world you've got collectors of and dealers in such things as Incunables, the odd Isaac Newton ALS, the Signers, or Albrecht Dürer's excursions into the "meta" of books. You know - the expensive stuff. For this discussion they are irrelevant - they would only read this and smile. (At least one of them probably is.)

One can base one's career on the ephemeral - in fact, most booksellers do - following the trends and searching out the latest hot books. But while the result of that may be profitable, that profit will be constant over the years - it will not lead to advancement through the ranks. Hot books will never change. They will always sneak up on us as they break the all-important barrier of their original cover price, and recede back into obscurity after cresting at a hundred, a few hundred, or in some rare cases even a thousand dollars. If you sell too many hot books to your long-term customers, you will lose those customers. How much repeat business do you have today, from those you sold a copy of The Da Vinci Code to a year ago? What did you sell it for? What's it worth today? How do those who bought it from you feel about that?

Not that there's anything wrong with twisting the knife when you happen to run across one of those "hot" books. But as far as the internet is concerned, you should keep a separate selling account just for things like that - and if you have a B&M storefront, you might want to keep them out of it altogether.

The smart and long-term bookseller will develop a symbiotic relationship with her core customers. As they advance in their collecting interests, she will advance with them. Additionally, as their knowledge in their field increases, she will do her best to keep up. (That's a losing battle of course, so don't feel bad about it - serious collectors almost always know more about their area of interest than their dealers.)

And so that would be the third of the revelations I have promised for today:

The Golden Customer is Your Own.

OK. So now we have a rough idea of where to get these things we sell, and a fair idea of who we're going to sell them to. But you will never do either of those things well - not buying or selling - unless you understand why books are valuable.

Did I hear somebody in the back mumble something about supply and demand? Loser ...

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Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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