The Red Book

by Craig Stark

26 September 2011

A Book That Really Looks Like Nothing

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Years ago, in the process of paying for books at a sale, an estate sale liquidator told me, "You know, I can never figure out what books you're going to buy. You always surprise me." To my mind, this was one of the highest compliments anybody ever paid me because it pointed to one thing - specialized knowledge. It's fine and dandy to have and act upon your good instincts when scouting for inventory - and I've heard many booksellers pride themselves on just how special their instincts are, especially in the context of deprecating another bookseller who uses a scanner - but I would strongly urge inexperienced booksellers not to rely on them to the extent that you overlook the vital importance of acquiring knowledge. Ultimately, knowledge is king, and it's so often knowledge that saves the day at a sale.

In the recently issued Chapter 8 of BookThink's Guide to Online Bookselling, there is a brief discussion of collectible non-fiction reprint editions:

... it's important to note that there are at least some recent non-fiction books that are enthusiastically collected for their edition state. 20th century examples that you may already be familiar with include Alcoholics Anonymous, Security Analysis, and The Joy of Cooking.

These, of course, are books that have considerable value as first editions, but in some cases second and later printings also do exceptionally well. True, a list of non-fiction titles that are collected as later printings is a relatively short one (speaking of more modern books), but knowing what they are is especially valuable information for a bookseller because in most cases, since there is strong interest in them, publishers have met the demand and printed them in large numbers - that is, existing copies are still fairly common. And, because of the knowledge factor, competition for them at sales is understandably limited. Also, per my anecdote, estate liquidators usually have no clue and price them accordingly, especially if they fall under the books-that-look-nothing umbrella.

There are several reasons why collectors seek later printings of non-fiction. A first printing might simply be too expensive, and early printings that are identical in most respects to the first printing (especially if there is an identical dust jacket) make satisfactory substitutes. Or a buyer might seek a particular printing of a book because it's what he or she grew up with. And there are also completists who collect complete runs of books that are especially important to them. And any or all of these reasons can apply to a discrete title.

If I had to pick one book that gets my vote for the most-frequently-left-on-the-table book at sales - and a book that looks like absolutely zilch if there ever was one - it would be R.S. Yeoman's A Guide Book of United States Coins. Without exception, everybody I have ever mentioned this book to had this or a similar response, "Who knew?"

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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