The Empirical Bookman

by Jaime Frontero

#104, 1 October 2007

The Hunt Redux: Ode to a Golden Age ...

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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.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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