Buying Book Collections

by Timothy Doyle

19 September 2011

Part IIIb: The Visit, the Evaluation and the Offer

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In the last installment of this series, I talked about what to expect when you actually go on the house call. I discussed my philosophy on coming up with an offer price, focusing on a collection where you have a good idea of the resale value of the books. I also covered some of the factors that could influence your decision to buy or pass; for instance, the ratio of good books to trash in the collection, and how much work would be involved in dealing with the trash.

In this final installment, I will discuss some very general rules of thumb that you can use when dealing with a collection of books outside of your experience. Particularly if you are dependent on a scanner or other lookup tool in your scouting, it can be a scary prospect to come up against a large lot of books that lies outside of your experience. Making the decision to buy or pass, and how much to offer - it's a little like walking the high wire with no net. But the following can help to make the experience a little easier. I will also make the argument that guessing wrong doesn't have to be a totally negative thing - we learn as much or more from our mistakes as from our successes. And with a little thought, experience and common sense, most of your buys should at least pay for themselves.

It is well outside the scope of this article to try to teach you how to value the books. BookThink has been publishing articles for several years now, teaching the concept of flashpoints. There has also been some discussion of attributes that indicate when a book is of little value. These can certainly be applied in a situation where you are looking at a collection and don't have specific knowledge of the market value of the books. Do you remember "Scarce, Specific, Strange, Scenic and Slender"? Are collections of letters a bore or a score? What about local histories and genealogy? Can books on pigeons carry the day? Do you know how to identify book club editions? And do you know how to identify those that actually have some value? What does it mean when the author's name is in bigger type than the name of the book? Do you know the many different systems various publishers have used to identify first editions, and do you know what McBride's or Ahearn's or Zempel and Verkler's are?

I personally would not show up at a house call with a barcode scanner, or whip out my smartphone and start checking prices. If there is a book or two that you question, you could probably find some excuse to go out to your car and do a quick check there. But for a collection of any size, it would simply take too long to work through all of the books and with every beep and buzz you are telling the owner that you don't know what the books are worth. Worse, you are planting the idea in their head that they can do the same thing you are doing. If you don't trust your instincts and experience, you could try making notes of what you consider to be books of value and then research them before making an offer. This is both inconvenient and dangerous. It means making at least two trips, and opens the possibility that another dealer comes in and scoops you or that the owner changes their mind about selling. It is far better to look at the books and make an offer on the spot. Act as if you know exactly what you are doing even if you are shaking like a leaf inside. This inspires confidence in you as a professional, and will help to make the sale.

Here are some general thoughts on how to value a collection where you have no specific knowledge or experience to guide you. IMPORTANT: These are presented as generalizations, and as such they can lead you astray as easily as guide you. Consider each point in the context of your own experience and knowledge, as well as the specifics of the collection you are looking at.

1. Non-fiction is better than fiction. While over the years more of my top dollar sales have been fiction titles (signed and/or scarce first editions), non-fiction accounts for a larger number of sales - and at a pretty decent average sale price. Buyers of higher priced fiction are usually collectors and are very picky about condition; non-fiction buyers are much less concerned about wear to the dust jacket or a previous owners name or bookplate.

2. A focused collection is better than a hodgepodge of material. As noted earlier, a focused collection implies a knowledgeable collector and a much better chance of at least some higher value books. Also, working with a focused collection means that time you spend researching will also be focused. It is better to spend time learning about Oriental rug titles when you have 50 of them to sell versus two or three.

3. Non-fiction: Steer away from older (more than three or four years) or intro/general textbooks. Some subjects change rapidly or require annual updates, meaning books become obsolete quickly. Some examples are computer hardware and software/programming, biology, and law. Other topics are much more durable, so that older works are still relevant. Some examples include philosophy, mathematics (specialized, not general), architecture, art, etc.

4. Non-fiction and fiction: Look for titles that cross over multiple interests. For example, a book on period dress and clothing with lots of detailed illustrations could appeal to those with an interest in theatre, history, costuming (a big thing in the SF world, especially Victorian dress - look up Steampunk if you aren't already aware of it), fashion design, living history, historic re-enactment or museum studies.

5. Fiction (primarily) and non-fiction (to a somewhat lesser degree): Avoid books with missing or damaged dust jackets. Recent fiction will lose most if not all value if the dust jacket is in less than Very Good condition. The older/rarer the book, the less this rule applies. This also is less important for non-fiction books that are valued mainly for their content.

6. Fiction: Hardback is generally better than paperback, though vintage SF and fantasy MMPBs can do quite well. Avoid best selling authors unless there are first printings of early titles. For example, first printings of Stephen King's earliest novels will do very well, while first printings of his later novels were printed in such huge numbers that they have very little resale value. I'm talking about trade editions here - limited, signed or specialty press editions are a completely different topic.

7. Look for previous seller's penciled in prices, usually on the inside front free endpaper. A low price doesn't mean low value, as it could be decades out of date. Nor does a high price mean high value, since many books have lost value with the advent of online bookselling. But it can be an indicator, and sometimes there are penciled in notes that can be a clue.

8. Don't just look at the books; talk to the owner. Try to get a feel for their attitude and relationship to the books. If they care little about the books and are under time pressure to empty the house, then you could get away with a low offer and still be doing the seller a real service. If there is extreme sentimental value you may never be able to offer enough, and you may want to consider just making an offer and leaving quickly if it is rejected. A knowledgeable collector may be able to tell you quite a bit about the books; book people love to talk about their books.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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