The Proverbs of Bookselling Revisited

by Craig Stark

13 September 2015

The Fourth Five

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16. Don't put all your books in one basket.

This is similar to #18 below, but the application is more broad. When I first started selling books, I sold on eBay only. Then Amazon. Then other venues. As I added venues, I enjoyed a bump in sales every time, and later, I began to sell books off-site, by other means (see #18), and experienced more bumps. But multiplying footprints isn't the entire story. If you look back over the past twenty or so years, it's clear that venues either come and go - or, if they persist, their productivity ebbs and flows, and sometimes it pays not to give up on venues that are ebbing. Biblio is a good example. Things started more or less slowly there for me, then got slower over a span of years, but they hung around and hung around, trying different things, etc., and now my sales there are significantly better than they have ever been. There is of course some overlap of potential buyers as you add venues but enough non-overlap to make it worthwhile.

17. Books (or ephemera) not printed to last often have lasting value.

In another lifetime I had a presence in an antique mall as a furniture maker. The mall space was my showroom, and one day I got into a discussion with one of the antique dealers about the quality of antique furniture. It seemed to me to be pretty consistently good based on what I was seeing - and certainly much better than much of the new furniture being built then, in the they-don't-make-them-like-they-used-to sense. My thinking was that there were simply higher standards - and better materials available - a hundred or more years ago. He said, "Not necessarily. Much of the poorly built furniture just didn't survive." Intuitively, this seemed to make sense, but it was years and years disabusing myself of this … untruth? Oh, sure, some poorly built furniture didn't last because it was poorly built, but as I began to encounter example after example of poorly built stuff at estate sales, it became clear to me that survival had more to do with the value placed on something by the owner and the subsequent care it was given than it did how sturdily built it was.

The same is true of books and paper, of course. Examples abound. First Editions of James Joyce's Ulysses were bound in wraps, but in cases great care was taken to preserve copies, five-figure value is the result. And a Great Gatsby dust jacket, similarly cared for, is six. Recall last year's Sotheby's auction of a copy in an unrestored dust jacket for $377,000.

The point is that things not printed to last often do last - and though their fragility often leads to scarcity over time, you will consistently encounter things of value in wraps, dust jackets and stacks of paper.

18. There is more than one way to sell a book.

When you've been doing something for a long time, especially if you've achieved some measure of success, it's human nature to be lulled into doing more of it - that is, until it stops working. And, if it does stop working, it's also human nature, at least sometimes, to move on to something else. But, if it's bookselling, instead of moving on when your Amazon (or whatever) sales tank, it might prove profitable to investigate a different approach. Books don't have to be sold on Amazon, after all; they can be sold at auction, via catalogs, at book fairs, to libraries, to museums (and numerous other institutions), to other booksellers, etc. - oh, and in bookshops and malls!

Certainly it takes time to acquire good material and learn the market for it, but it's not difficult. One of the best early sales I had was a grouping of early NASA prototype space food packets. Finding the museum in Italy that was building a NASA collection of early material was only a few keystrokes away. Also - don't forget your own customers. If you keep your sales records in a spreadsheet - and I can think of no good reason not to - in a matter of moments a sort can be performed that will bring up the email addresses of all former buyers who would be potentially interested in a collectible book within a specialty. Voila! A mailing list.

19. Eventually, every bookseller will have his or her day in the sun. Knowledgeable booksellers have nice tans.

If you've gotten to know many dealers, you've surely heard many stories of their days in the sun - the one big find that netted them a huge windfall. In the area I live in, there is one notorious story that gets told and re-told of an antique dealer who purchased a piece of furniture for a modest four-figure price at a local auction house and resold it at a major auction house for over a million dollars. Obviously, this was an unusually bright day in the sun for him, but there's no reason, as we gain more and more experience - and knowledge - as booksellers, that bigger and bigger sales can't happen. The more you know, the less luck plays a role in this. Work on your tan.

20. Bad books in, bad books out. Bad books out, good books in.

Similar to "garbage in, garbage out," but specific to bookselling - and it applies mostly to buying collections or groups of books for one price. If there are bad books amidst these purchases, resist the temptation to list them, not only because your time invested won't repay itself, but also because they will inevitably crowd the good books out. On the other hand, if you toss the bad books as you acquire them, good books will have a funny way of multiplying. Here's the principle in play: Always make space for the good.

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