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Bookselling Research

A Brief Guide to the Guides

by Craig Stark

#121, 26 May 2008

Time and time again I've urged booksellers to take the time to do dedicated bookselling research - and by this I mean that you take an hour out of your day here, a few hours out of another day there, etc., and do absolutely nothing but learn this crazy, ever-changing market. Unfortunately, most booksellers seem much more content to learn by doing - that is, they buy some books, take them home and research them, list the ones that seem likely to deliver a profit, and somehow dispose of the rest. If one of them sells, they'll likely recall it and look for it again. In the course of doing this, they do indeed learn at least something about what sells and what doesn't, but it could take years to build up a substantial body of knowledge using this system (something I call learning by osmosis), and even then, given the volatility of book values, much of this knowledge would obsolesce.

It's a lot more work to do dedicated research, but the breadth and depth of knowledge you'll take away from it will quickly set you apart from other booksellers, most of whom can't be bothered with it - and set you on a path that will greatly increase your chances of succeeding in this business.

But how do you go about this exactly? Typical forum advice suggests searching closed/sold eBay auctions by price, say, at $20 and up, or, if you have a specialty in mind, also searching by category. Fine as far as it goes, but this won't help you understand the market much because you'll end up with nothing but a list of titles and prices and have no clue whether or not you'll be likely to find any of them when scouting, let alone understand why they have value.

The all-important "why" is the basis of BookThink's concept of flashpoints - or value indicators. These indicators can be any number of things - a publisher, an author's name, a binding type, and so on - but whatever they are, as you begin to build your knowledge of them, your overall knowledge of the market will grow exponentially because a single flashpoint can often point to many thousands of additional books that also have value.

Needless to say, there are many, many approaches to research, but today I'm going to discuss one that's worked unusually well for me.

First, let's suppose that heretofore you've been a generalist bookseller, have been struggling some lately (as lots of generalists have), and have come to the conclusion that specializing in a niche might be a better way to go, might even be what you'd need to do to survive in this business - and I think you'd be right. Let's face it, a generalist dealer, by definition, can know a little about a lot of things but rarely a lot about anything, and since it's your knowledge that's ultimately going to fuel your success, set you apart from other booksellers, win the trust and loyalty of buyers, etc., it just makes sense to narrow your focus. And I bet each of you generalist booksellers already know what you'd love to specialize in. The passion is already there, right? Of course it is. You don't just love books generally; you love certain types of books.

Maybe field guides? Nah, probably not, but let's suppose that this is indeed what you'd like to specialize in. Let's also suppose that, though you loved reading and collecting field guides as a child, perhaps some Golden Guides or Petersons, you don't really have a good working knowledge of the niche. You need, therefore, some major help.

Since field guides are often published in series (and collectors often like to complete series), a good place to start would be by acquiring as complete a list as possible of the specific series that have been produced over the years, then proceeding to identify the high spots in each one. Since you're starting from ground zero, this may seem like a daunting task. You could try doing a search at Abebooks, entering something like "field guide" in the title search box and examining what comes up, but who wants to slog through 50,000 plus results? Besides, there are lots of field guides that don't even use the words "field" or "guide" in the title.

Or, you could head over to eBay and investigate closed listings in the "Nonfiction Books > Outdoor, Nature > Field Guides" category, but I'm here to tell you that not more than a few hundred or so will show up, even on 90-day searches, and I can almost guarantee that you'll be discouraged by the prices realized - and, at this point, you just might begin to question your decision to specialize in field guides at all. A lot of work, it seems, for not much of a payoff, and wouldn't using this time to visit some thrift shops, scanner in hand be more profitable? Maybe you'll find only $2 or $5 or $10 books, but at least these will bring in some income.

My advice is to solider on. Fortunately, there's an easier way. It's all well and good to set out totally on your own, but progress is typically slow with this approach. One thing you can almost always count on, however, is that for just about any specialty you can think of there are one or more, sometimes many more experts who have either published books, built dedicated websites or otherwise made some of their expertise available to the public in some medium. Experts, as a group, love to share their expertise.

Field guides, though perhaps an uncommon specialty, still attract collectors, and some collectors become experts. You may recall a Gold Edition we did on Golden Guides. In the process of researching this issue, I went straight to Golden Guide collectors Zen Sutherland and Bruce Brenner, both of whom had an astonishingly deep knowledge of this niche. They assisted me in both understanding the Golden Guide collector mentality and educating me on issue points and high spots. And they asked for nothing in return.

So it is with many experts. But experts don't always have to be contacted in person. You may also recall an article I did some weeks ago titled "Increasing Your Bookselling IQ with Libraries Unlimited."

Libraries Unlimited has produced dozens and dozens of reference books that play right into the hands of specialty book dealers, despite the fact that their intended primary purpose is to guide library purchases. If there's a specialty that you're contemplating getting started in, I highly recommend that you check this publisher's back list for one or more references pertaining to it. This might hugely reduce the time you'll need to invest in gathering pertinent knowledge.

For examples, here's a list of some of the more LU important titles (look under the heading "Other Books."

And, if you scroll down some in list, you'll see this title:

A Guide to the Field Guides

Well, what do you know? Written by an expert too! And so we're off to the races.

There's much in this book that the field guide specialist could use to acquire valuable bookselling knowledge and otherwise take advantage of, but let me close this article with one example. Chapter 1, "Field Guide Series," lists 105 different field guide series, each annotated with information on, among other things, content, types of illustrations and level of expertise. Remember that Abebooks search you didn't want to do? Here it is, done for you.

And for kicks, look at this entry:

"Christopher Helm Identification Guides. A series of bird hand-books published in the United Kingdom by Christopher Helm and in the United States by Houghton Mifflin and Princeton University Press. Each volume in this highly uniform series is written by well-known experts and has color illustrations by leading bird illustrators. The illustrations are in a separate identification section with brief descriptions and identification tips on facing pages. The identification section is followed by species accounts offering extensive information on the natural history and identification of the birds. Each volume covers a different family of birds world-wide. They are not true field guides, because they are too heavy to carry in the field and are worldwide, but advanced birders find them extremely useful."

Did you see what I saw in this? Anything that might point to value? You guessed it - "advanced birders." This is music to a bookseller's ears, there being so many "advanced" books that have value. And guess what happens if you search "Helm Identification Guides" on Amazon? Several dozen Helm titles appear, not one of which offers a copy under $10 - in fact, many titles are listed for $40, $50 and more and more than a few for over $100. One over $200! A flashpoint has arrived. And for the titles that aren't in the Amazon catalog? Why, most of them are listed in A Guide to the Field Guides.

And, studying this book might lead you to another discovery. Author Diane Schmidt also maintains a website, a huge database of what else? - field guides. If field guides were your specialty, you could spend days here.

Some other time I'll talk about how to take those flashpoints and parlay them into quality inventory, but for now, you have homework to do!

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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