Food Chain Bookselling

by Craig Stark

28 February 2016

Does It Still Apply?

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Take a look at most any book with more than a few copies listed on most any major bookselling venue and, more often than not, you'll see an array of prices - sometimes a dizzying array. There are a number of factors that can explain this, at least potentially. Condition might come to mind first, and it can be a huge factor in some instances, as can the presence or absence of a dust jacket - or other factors that play into the issue of completeness. And one's business model may affect things, say, in the case of a mega-dealer who needs to move stock quickly to keep a business viable, and thus price to sell. And - e-books and POD's are there in spades to complicate things.

Time was there was a well-defined food chain in the book trade. So-called scouts - or, more generally, pickers - lived at the bottom, seeking things of interest to flip to established booksellers. More often than not, they relied heavily on instinct; if they had been at it long, there would also be a growing reliance on recalling what they had previously encountered and sold - a kind of informal historical pricing database stored either in memory or entered in a scouting book.

The bookseller, in turn, would price the scout's book to realize a profit - and this could happen because the bookseller had a shop to sell it in and, presumably possessed some knowledge of it that the scout did not. Or had a reference library to research it and gain knowledge. And the bookseller might also have a client list to shop it to.

But even then there were booksellers and there were booksellers, and a lot of buying and selling went on between them. Why? Sometimes it was something as simple as having a buyer for a book, but as often as not it was because some were higher on the food chain than others, had varying abilities to give books, as H.P. Kraus once famously said, pedigree. (cf. his A Rare Book Saga.) To my knowledge, nobody has conducted a study to determine what percentage of books sold are sold bookseller to bookseller, but it's obviously significant. Nowadays I buy about half my inventory from other booksellers.

Everybody talks about how the internet has leveled the playing field, but I wonder. If it has, what would explain the wide variation in pricing noted above? Are those higher priced books never going to sell? A quick glance at who the booksellers are will most likely disabuse us of this assumption. Often they are something approaching household names in the book trade and are clearly making money at what they do - despite their higher prices.

But perhaps the internet has leveled the playing field in the sense that more experienced booksellers who never took the trouble to learn much about the trade now compete directly with inexperienced booksellers who may or may not learn more. Why? Because the former have lost the edge they once enjoyed on the basis of there being far fewer booksellers competing with them. And of course, anybody can Google, and what more experienced booksellers do know can often be had by anybody, assuming they land on good and not bad information.

To return to the original observation: If, when investigating the phenomenon noted above, you sort from lowest to highest price, there is often a pattern. Descriptions more or less change from boilerplate to the three C's - clarity, competence and completeness. For the purposes of illustration let's look at a simplified, specific example:

I've evolved into something of a Maugham collector in recent years. It happened almost by accident, reading his The Moon and Sixpence via researching a BookThink article (and this on the heels of having read his The Razor's Edge for altogether different reasons) - and I became a fan. If you've read much Maugham, perhaps the last thing you would categorize him as is a Science Fiction writer. And yet the above pictured book is not only early, first published in 1908, but most certainly lands squarely in the SF genre. Better yet, for reasons of collectability, it is a tale starring none other than noted occultist Aleister Crowley. In it, Crowley, thinly disguised as the magician Haddo, forces a woman to marry him and sacrifices her to create a homunculus. Nice, huh?

I would like to turn your attention to the First US Edition, which recently sold on eBay for several hundred dollars less than it could have - namely, $87. If you search this title on Abebooks, specifying a 1909 publication date and Duffield and Company as the publisher, two copies come up, the first priced at $250, the latter at $750, and the copies, as described, seem to be in nearly equivalent condition. Now, if we apply the food chain template to this book, the eBay seller, who did nothing more than upload a cover photo, note a 1909 copyright date and provide an ultra-brief condition note, surely is at the bottom of the food chain. The seller of the $250 copy takes this a step further, offering a much more complete condition description, also a brief reference to Crowley, but mistakenly describes it as a "First Edition, First Printing," omitting the "US" qualifier. In fact, two issues preceded this, the First UK Edition (William Heinemann) appearing in 1908, and a First Colonial Edition later the same year.

An aside: Amongst the dead horses I've beaten at BookThink over the years, is the importance of building a good reference library. It's safe to assume that neither of the above sellers possessed (or even consulted) the standard Maugham (Raymond Toole Stott) bibliography - A Bibliography of the Works of W. Somerset Maugham.

But here's the kicker, that is, if you're interested in making a few bucks as a bookseller: Had you possessed this bibliography and happened upon the eBay listing, you would have discovered on the basis of the binding alone that this was a First US Edition and could have scored it for under $100.

So, back to our three sellers. The third seller is something of a household name in the SF genre - Lloyd Currey. For years he has been a leader in his field and some years ago compiled one of the most useful and comprehensive SF bibliographies extant - Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors: A Bibliography of First Printings of Their Fiction and Selected Nonfiction.

How does he handle things?

New York: Duffield & Company, 1909. Octavo, pp. [1-6] [1-3] 4-310 [311-314: blank] [note: first and last two leaves are blanks], original pictorial slate blue cloth, front panel stamped in orange, green and black, spine panel stamped in orange and green. First U.S. edition. Maugham made revisions in the text of the American edition, in some instances considerably expanding it. Generally regarded as occult fantasy, this novel is actually science fiction. The villain, Oliver Haddo, modeled upon Aleister Crowley, studies the occult, ancient alchemy and modern biological science, and successfully creates life. Remains a very readable science fiction horror novel. "THE MAGICIAN (1908) presents a savage portrait of Aleister Crowley, easily recognized as Haddo, a student of occultism who forces a young woman to marry him by casting a glamour upon her, and who eventually sacrifices her in order to create a homunculus." - Clute and Grant (eds), The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), p. 634. Crowley, with whom Maugham once roomed in Paris, elected to be perversely flattered by the grotesque characterization, calling it "an amusing hotchpot of stolen goods." Barron (ed), Fantasy and Horror 4- 111. Barron (ed), Horror Literature 3-144. Bleiler, The Guide to Supernatural Fiction 1135. Wilson, Shadows in the Attic, p. 359. Bleiler (1978), p. 136 (coding "Magic & Witchcraft"). Reginald 09831. Stott A11c. Small attractive private owner's book label affixed to the front paste-down. Slight spine lean, cloth rubbed at spine ends and corner tips, mild foxing to endpapers, edges of text block darkened, a clean, tight, very good copy with bright cover stamping. An above average copy of a book seldom found in nice condition.

Does food chain bookselling still apply? You tell me.

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