Top All-Time FAQ's

by Craig Stark

8 May 2012

And Some Maybe Not So Obvious Answers

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By Craig Stark

Patterns emerge over time. The same questions, mostly from those who aren't booksellers, come up again and again. When it happens on forums, sometimes these questions are patiently answered, sometimes they are dismissed with a suggestion to search the forum archives (because the question has been answered so many times before) - and sometimes the replies aren't so nice.

It occurred to me this week that perhaps one of the reasons they come up so often - never go away - is because the answers aren't as obvious as one might think at first glance.

Let's look at some of the more common ones, and maybe you'll see what I mean.

1. I have this wonderful old book, but the front cover is detached. Is it worth getting it rebound?

If sufficient details about the book are provided, agreed, this is a quick one to answer. In my experience, a quality rebind can't be had for under $100 and might run into much more, depending, so if the book in a rebound state is worth less or even about the same as the rebinding cost, it's a no brainer. Fine, but there's a perhaps hidden implication here that the rebinding a book - any book - will necessarily increase its value over its dilapidated state. If the book post-dates the early 1800's, when so-called edition binding came into play, rebinding it will necessarily change its original as-issued state, and we know how fussy collectors can be about acquiring books in their original form. It's possible, therefore, that rebinding may decrease a book's value, especially the book is scarce and remnants of its binding are discarded. But it's also possible that a truly fine rebind of a modern book done by a master bookbinder could increase its value even if some aspects of its original form have changed. Art can trump things sometimes.

2. I have a book that was bound upside down in its cover. Is it valuable?

We all know that errors on coins and stamps, for example, can often inflate values hugely. However, this does not ordinarily translate into books. Binding or printing errors, for whatever reason, do not seem to intrigue book collectors generally. But it's a mistake to assume that this is always so. There are many, many instances when errors are caught and corrected by printers, sometimes at mid-run, and potentially crucial matters of issue and state come into play when this happens on a first print run. Collectors will pay a premium for the earlier, uncorrected issue or state. But this isn't the entire story; there are instances when collectors will pay a premium for errors even if they aren't associated with first edition identification. This phenomenon is most obvious in the case of Harry Potter books, which have been rife with binding and printing errors over the years, who knows why, perhaps because demand has been so strong and printers have been pressured to complete runs at an accelerated, more error prone rate. The HP marketplace isn't as crazy as it once was, but there are many HP collectors still who pay good money for these errors. Again, who knows why, but my guess is it has something to do with how broad the HP phenomenon is - that is, many collectors are not book collectors only but Harry Potter collectors and seek out the unusual no matter what form it takes.

3. I have a copy of Gone with the Wind with a 1936 copyright date (in Roman numerals). Is it a first edition?

The obvious answer here is that a copyright date is not the same animal as a publishing date. The former is simply the date at which a copyright was secured or renewed for a work; the latter is the actual date of issue. And collectors, of course, are nearly always more interested in the date of issue. So, even though the above example carries a copyright date that matches the issue date of the first printing, it's in fact a book club edition issued in the early 1950's. We know this because the date is in Roman numerals, and there are binding and dust jacket differences as well. But again, things aren't always so simple. There are instances when the presence of a copyright date (as opposed to its absence) is a determinant issue point.

4. Where is the best place to buy inventory?

This question can be downright inflammatory if posed in, for example, the Amazon forum. There is a tenacious culture of protectionism there that guards against the disclosure of "secret" sources of inventory, and the only thing that creates a bigger firestorm than the question itself is a bookseller who blithely (or perhaps passive-aggressively) discloses these sources or, seemingly worse yet, outs specific common books that sell for good money. It still makes me chuckle to recall a time when a bookseller mentioned that Betty Crocker's red pie cookbook was just such an item. And it is, but I can tell you that many hundreds of booksellers have purchased issue #48 of the Gold Edition - "A Bookseller's Guide to Betty Crocker" - over the past how many years, wherein this title and other Betty Crocker titles are featured in black and white, and it would be folly to believe that this "secret" hasn't been widely distributed in the bookselling community by this and many other sources. Anyway, at the time, several forum members bemoaned the fact that shortly after the red pie disclosure, prices for the cookbook headed south.

The real truth is that no secret remains a secret for long. Secret sources of inventory either dry up or are found out by other booksellers; secret titles are found out as well, and though public disclosure may depress prices temporarily, most of these regain their value because demand is so strong. The thing is, the easy stuff in bookselling just doesn't last, and if there's a secret to purchasing inventory, it's that there is no secret. The most successful booksellers often buy their inventory in very public venues open to any and all booksellers. They are able to profit from these purchases by way of a long-cultivated, hard-earned ability to build value into them. (If you aren't familiar with the concept of building value into books, you haven't been reading the Gold Edition or our Guide to Online Bookselling.) When a bookseller contacts me privately and asks this question, I answer accordingly, and I suspect that in most cases the answer disappoints!

5. Where is the best place to sell my books?

I could say, "See answer for #4," and be done with it, but let's talk about this some. It's of course true that your chances of selling a book on eBay or Amazon are much greater than selling it on, for example, eCrater. And I can tell you in no uncertain terms that, if you want to maximize your profit on a copy of The Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Songbook, you will do well to hold onto it during the year and list it in early November on Amazon - and price it at $40 to $50. If you have stockpiled multiple copies (and condition isn't an issue), you will likely sell all of them at this price. If, on the other hand, you attempt to sell one of these on eBay, especially out of season, there's a good chance you'll be disappointed at $10 or so.

This kind of know-how can be useful, therefore, but successful bookselling depends on so much more. Experimenting with different venues can only take you so far - and besides, it takes your eye off the ball. We, ultimately, are the ones selling our books, not a venue.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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