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Bookselling in the 21st Century

Part VII: Insulated Niches
Signed Hypermoderns

by Craig Stark

#140 4 January 2010

I'd like you to take a look at a recently published book - The Humbling. The author, Philip Roth, is one of our most esteemed novelists, and he sports a list of awards as long as your arm, including a Pulitzer Prize. And a Nobel could be looming. Not surprisingly, he's collected.

This book, of course, is available in e-text format, but I'm more interested in its manifestation in print. Here are some photos. Look very closely at the last one:

As you may already know, this is what is referred to in the trade as a "perfect binding" - glued, in other words, like most paperbacks. The life-expectancy of this book, such as it is, is drastically lower than it would've been had the publisher opted for a sewn binding. And the thin, paper-covered boards, which are only marginally more durable than wraps, certainly won't help the cause.

Presently, in a signed state, it should bring about $100, and those of you who purchased signed copies at the $22 cover price or thereabouts will do well with them. Of course, values may increase or decrease short term depending on how many copies Mr. Roth ultimately signs, but long-term, especially post-mortem, it's quite likely to enjoy a considerable elevation in value over retail.

Now, let's look at two facts: In case you hadn't noticed, despite the digital revolution being well underway, collectors still collect - they want to hold things in their hands, put things on shelves, etc. - and, given Roth's prominence, a signed copy of The Humbling would naturally be sought after as a collectible object; conversely, an e-text would mean nothing in this context.

Another fact - the abundantly obvious one that print books are going away. They may not be totally gone anytime soon, but numbers will diminish significantly as we trot along.

So, put these two facts together: Fewer and fewer books are being printed, and major publishing houses, looking for anything and everything to shore up profits, are cutting production costs, i.e., printing books with horrifyingly degraded durability. We have two forces conspiring to create ... what?


What does this mean for booksellers?


Those of you who already have considerable experience with signed hypermoderns and have established sources know that, with few exceptions, newly released, signed copies can be had for cover price - full retail, that is - usually in the $20 to $30 range. This leaves ample room for profit, but only if you preserve all copies in F/F condition. This is a more demanding task than it used to be; if you take pains to anyway, your books will rise to the top of the desirability heap fairly quickly, and you can command a premium, especially if you've built a trusted online presence - and this presence, in turn, should include indefinitely guaranteeing the authenticity of all signatures and including a printed, signed guarantee along with your contact information and any associated signing ephemera with the books.

There are several approaches to safekeeping your hypermoderns, but most essentially they should be stored in an environment with minimal or no light, a consistent humidity of about 50% and a temperature of about 70 degrees. I have one of those radio-controlled Oregon Scientific devices on a shelf above my desk that displays, in addition to the time, temperature and relative humidity. Pretty cheap, and this really helps you stay on top of things. Also, if there is any possibility of shelf wear, do whatever is necessary to eliminate it. I immediately insert all dust jackets in protective sleeves and store the books in three-sided (open-ended, for breathing) bubble wrap bags with cardboard inserts. And exceptional care, of course, should be exercised in shipping them.

If you're uncertain how to source signed hypermoderns and/or simply don't know what to buy or leave alone, issues #40, #41 and #42 of the Gold Edition address this and additional factors associated with specializing in this niche. If you're uncertain how to build a trusted online presence, issues #46 and #47 of the Gold Edition will get you started.

These can be purchased here.

A final caution: This is not a niche for the faint of heart - and it's best to proceed slowly, as you learn - but in my opinion it offers long-term profitability for those who are willing to do their homework, take special care of their inventories, and commit to building trust in the online marketplace.

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