Buying Book Collections 101

by Timothy Doyle

5 September 2011

Part IIIa: The Visit, the Evaluation and the Offer

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I recently received an email with the intriguing subject line "Wish to sell 400-500 SF books." The gentleman described himself as a longtime collector and stated that most of the books were first editions and printed from 1960 through 1990. The location of the books was approximately a two-hour round trip for me. While the email was quite brief and to the point, there was a lot there to interest me. First, "longtime collector" implies a person who has acquired both knowledge of the field and some good titles along the way. The specificity of "SF books" was promising: A focused collection again implies depth of knowledge and a quality group of books. That the email specifically mentioned that most were first editions shows that he understands the importance of the distinction, and that these were not a bunch of Science Fiction Book Club editions. I liked the date range of 1960 through 1990, as these are the titles and authors that I grew up reading. It is also a period of time in which a large number of highly collectible titles were published. This, plus the sheer size of the collection, almost guaranteed that there had to be some gems - you would have to have remarkably bad taste to buy 400 first edition SF hardbacks from those three decades, and have them all turn out turkeys.

In my email response I told the owner that I was very interested and posed a few additional questions: "What percentage of hardback to paperback? Are any of them signed? What are some of the representative authors that you collected over the years? Finally, is there a price that you had in mind?"

Under different circumstances, there are other questions you might ask to help you decide if a house call is worth the time and effort. This topic is touched on in Part 2 of this series. Based on information in the email, I already knew I was going. My additional questions were to help me manage my own expectations. For example, 400 to 500 vintage SF paperbacks would still be a very interesting group to look at, but is completely different from the same number of hardbacks. There are few paperbacks that would exceed $10 to $20 in value, and even these are very dependent on condition: Paperbacks obviously do not age as well as hardcovers.

Knowing the SF field as I do, finding out three or four representative authors will tell me a lot about other authors likely to be there. For example, someone who likes Larry Niven is into hard SF, and could also collect authors like Poul Anderson, Ben Bova, Joe Haldeman or Frederik Pohl. Alternatively, someone who likes Harry Harrison might be into humorous SF (his Bill the Galactic Hero or Stainless Steel Rat series), and might collect Keith Laumer's Retief series or just about anything by Ron Goulart.

Book collector's, especially genre collectors, will often try to get their books signed, or will pay extra to buy signed collectible copies. With more than 400 books to look at, it would be good to know up front if any of them are signed.

In the end, it all comes down to price. How much are you willing to spend, and how little is the owner willing to accept, and can the two meet somewhere? An entire book could be written on the subject, but for this introductory article (it is Buying Collections 101, after all) there are some basic points that should be addressed.

What is the maximum you should be willing to spend? My personal rule of thumb is 15 to 20% of anticipated resale value, with adjustments up or down depending on circumstances. This will vary from dealer to dealer. An online-only dealer who works out of their home with no staff has much lower overhead than a brick and mortar seller with a mortgage, property tax, utilities and five employees. The former can afford to pay a higher percentage for good books, because there is less overhead eating up the profit margin.

This topic often crops up on bookseller forums, and as you would expect there is a wide range of opinions. Some sellers state they typically offer no more than 10%. Others have said they price by the piece based on an overall "feel" for the quality and resale value of the books. The latter approach is probably best suited to a collection of books where you have no specific experience or knowledge of potential value. More on this later.

Some dealers have said that they will pay a higher percentage if they are allowed to cherry pick the collection; this saves them the trouble of moving and disposing of the dreck. In general, I don't favor cherry picking, except under special circumstances. In Part II of this series, I referred to a house call I made to a retired online bookseller's home where hundreds of books had been stored on shelves in an outside shed for a few years. There was obvious insect activity in places, and even some bird nests. Given the insect and bird activity, the potential for mold, and that this was a dealer's left-over unsold stock I passed on purchasing. But to avoid making the trip a total loss, I did buy three cherry picked items for about 25% of estimated resale value.

The problem with dealing with an owner who allows cherry picking is twofold: First, it shows they are not in a hurry to get rid of the books, and a seller who wants the books gone yesterday is less likely to haggle over the price; and second, you have no idea how many other dealers have been there ahead of you.

Here is a formula that I use to quantify the pricing/profit relationship: Final Profit = Resale Value - Purchase Cost - Overhead - Tax Liability. For example, say you are looking at a collection that you estimate has a resale value of $1000. Using the 20% factor I discussed above, my purchase offer would be $200. Overhead will of course vary from dealer to dealer but could easily range from 15% to 25%. Let's split the difference and use $200 for the overhead cost. For me, taxes are approximately 30% of the net (Resale - Purchase Cost - Overhead), so this would be ($1000 - $200 - $200) * 0.3 = $180. Using this very rough estimation, the final profit on this lot would be $420, or 2.1 times what you paid to buy the books in the first place. This assumes 100% sell through, and it could take years for some of the books to sell. Additionally, some may never sell or will only sell at a price below your original estimate.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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