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The Offer: As stated earlier, I prefer to make my best offer my first offer, with maybe a little room left to sweeten the price if they are hesitant. If they counter with a much higher number, saying that they've researched the titles online and know what they are worth, there are a few things you can try. Point out that online prices are for books that haven't sold, and that the prices they've seen may not even apply for any number of reasons - condition, edition (first versus reprint), etc. Finally, it takes a lot of work and time to list and sell books online, and it could be years before they realize the prices they are dreaming about, if they ever do. Point out that the offer you are making is up front cash in hand (literally or via check), with no more work or worry on their part. Be confident, be professional - and certainly don't get into an argument. If the owner is convinced that the books are worth much more than you are offering, you won't convince him otherwise. Cut your losses, wish him good luck, and leave.
If you truly have no clue as to value, don't be afraid to make an offer. You are there to buy books not offer an appraisal (a point that should be very clear from the beginning), and the worst they can do is say no. In a situation like this there certainly is a risk of over paying, and how much risk you are willing to take is a judgment call you will have to make. But think about it: If you offer $100 for 100 books, then you only need about half a dozen to sell for $20 or more to break even (remember to factor in your overhead, e.g., sales commissions). And think about how much you are going to learn while researching those 100 books.
And if you find that those 100 books that you bought for $100 are actually worth some serious money, consider going back to the previous owner and paying him more! Explain that there were some books outside of your experience that were worth more than you thought and that you felt ethically bound to make up some of the difference. In addition to racking up some good karma, you will also build a great reputation as a fair and honest book dealer. That person's word-of-mouth recommendation could lead to your next big score.
Another thought: Suppose you are offered a collection that you feel is too risky to handle. For example, a technically specialized collection, one with lots of signed firsts, or one where the owner makes it clear they expect a lot more than you are willing or able to risk. Consider contacting another higher end dealer and offer to connect them with the collection owner. Most reputable dealers would offer you a finder's fee of some kind if they ended up making the purchase, and you will have made a valuable contact with a local professional who now owes you a favor.
In Closing: two thoughts on what I think of as the tangential benefits of buying book collections.
First is education. Buying, handling, researching and listing a large lot of books is one of the best ways I can think of to gain the knowledge you need to succeed in this business. After all, knowledge is our stock in trade - the book is the physical manifestation of knowledge. As stated earlier, even if you just break even on a purchase, you will still be ahead because of the extra knowledge you've acquired. And working with a focused collection is taking a crash course that makes you a whole lot smarter about what sells (and what doesn't!) in 19th Century steam engines, Middle Eastern textiles, early American architecture, or any number of other topics. And this is knowledge that will pay off again and again for the rest of your career.
Second, research can have an immediate and tangible benefit. I was researching books by Philip K Dick, related to some titles in the SF collection that I bought. While doing so, I came across a listing for a signed hardback first edition that I believed was seriously undervalued, based on the knowledge I had gained from my research. I ordered the book, and when it arrived I discovered that it was a far more important, and valuable, copy than I had even thought. But that, as they say, is a story for another column.
A Note On Personal Safety: The focus of this series of articles is on buying book collections, and so naturally assumes that far more often than not this will involve making a housecall. In other words, going to a stranger's home. Often alone. And sometimes, following one of the suggested tactics in these articles, with significant amounts of cash in your pocket. I think you see where I'm going here. In fact, one reader did contact me to warn about the potential dangers of going on housecalls, citing past incidents of assault and robbery as reasons why she will no longer go to a stranger's house to view a collection. Some possible precautions that may make sense for you: Ask how the seller heard about you and, if by recommendation, check with who referred them, make sure other people know where you are going, go during the day instead of at night, go with a companion if possible (not a bad idea anyway - boxes of books are heavy!), google your destination (and use the street view function if available) ahead of time to get an idea of the neighborhood, and if anything makes you uncomfortable or suspicious, leave. In other words, exercise caution and use common sense.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Given the complexity of this topic, some of you may be interested in discussing it further. Tim will be available on the BookThink forum in the coming days. Look for the topic heading "Buying Book Collections."
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