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The Empirical Bookman

A Response: To Set a Book in Stone

by Jaime Frontero

#105, 15 October 2007

I received an interesting query to one of my columns from a reader, forwarded by our editor. I thought it deserved a considered response.


Date: Sat, 22 Sep 2007 11:16:56 -0500

Subject: The Hunt: A Gentle Art Expressed

Hi Craig,

I just read the above article by Jaime Frontero. I thought it had some good creative ideas of ways to get books. I began thinking of my own creative ways to get books when it occurred to me that I have no idea what I am looking for when it comes to the books over $500 that are mentioned in the article. Up to this point I have been selling non fiction mainly on Amazon. I sell a lot of textbooks and high level science stuff for upwards of $300 but have never seen a $1000 book or a $500 book for that matter. So ... where do I start? Are there any good books you can recommend? I found a few books on Do any of these look good? I spent last night looking through the highest priced books on eBay, and it seems to me that 90% of them are either first edition, signed by someone famous or both. Is this a good place to start?

Thanks so much!



In this very specialized area of bookselling, there may be no better piece of advice than to let other people - in this case those from whom you get your books to resell - do your work for you.

There are really only three kinds of people who will have these high-end scientific books: dealers, collectors, and scientists - or those who planned to be scientists at some point in their lives. You'll get no deals from dealers. Collectors, by definition, aren't ready to sell them to you - and when they are ready to sell, they'll probably sell them themselves. That leaves scientists.

When I was young, I took a break from bookselling to study physics. During my years in college I couldn't quite shake the book-thing I have in me, and I wound up putting together a nice little collection of first edition (and first Thus) books by Einstein, Heisenberg, Hoyle, and other luminaries in the field. I was not alone in this pursuit. I found that most students in most of the hard sciences wanted books that were germinal in their field because in the sciences (as in theology, interestingly enough) all knowledge is carefully and painstakingly built on the shoulders of those who went before. And quite a few of these students had enough of the collector in them that they searched out older and more valuable editions of those books. So the books are out there - and they can therefore be gotten. What percentage of physics students completed their studies and became working physicists? What percentage of geologists? Or mathematicians?

I submit that the number of working scientists, when compared to the number of those who graduated in such subjects (plus those who dropped out), is roughly similar to the number of professional athletes compared to those kids who wanted to grow up quarterbacking for the Raiders. That is to say, small.

And after awhile, they come to realize that they really don't want those books anymore.

So here's some concrete advice.

Firstly - broaden your knowledge. You will never find a book if you don't know it exists. As you've stated: " occurred to me that I have no idea what I am looking for when it comes to the books over $500 that are mentioned in the article." That's absolutely true - you don't. Nor do I, until I learn about them.

For example, did you know that we are both looking for a copy - only a third edition, mind you - of the Botanichesky Atlas [St. Petersburg: Devrien, 1906], by Gofman, K., Monteverde? In Russian? Just some pretty pictures of plants .... Think of all those over-educated Russian scientists who immigrated to our country after the Trofim Lysenko debacle but were unable to find employment in their field. What happened to their technical books? Do their children still have them? Is there a Russian enclave in your town?

If, as it appears, you've nailed down some reliable sources for $300 books, you're almost certainly missing some in areas you're not familiar with; that is, missing some higher-dollar books in those fields. This ties in with your statement that: "I spent last night looking through the highest priced books on eBay and it seems to me that 90% of them are either first edition, signed by someone famous or both." eBay is a great place to research what people have been paying for decent books, but keep in mind that searching Completed Auctions only goes back a few weeks, and the uncommon stuff won't show up frequently enough to get a handle on. Abebooks Advanced Search has superior sorting functions: by publisher, bracketed date, bracketed price, keyword and so on. You might find it valuable to spend some time cruising through the books offered there. I spend at least an hour a week doing just that.

Try this: Go to Wikipedia and investigate a scientific field you don't have as much familiarity with as you'd like - then take five or ten of the names that crop up in that field (Nobel winners and the like) and search Abebooks for them. Construct your search thusly: "Author:" (use last name only) - set "Price (US$):" "min" to 400 (no max) - set the "max" field of "Published Date:" to a couple of years after the author's death, which should usually be applicable. Just those three search criteria - don't worry about checking off the "First Edition" or "Signed" boxes. If you need to refine your search because you get too many hits, then do so, but with the minimum price set to $400, it shouldn't be an issue. Also, set the "Sort Results By:" function to "Newest," so you can get a judgment on how the value of the book as perceived by dealers has changed over the past couple of years.

Or you can do what I did - a simple two field sort - in the Russian example above. Put "plant biology" in the "Keywords" field, and 500 in the "Price (US$):" "min" field.

Then secondly, as far as actually getting your hands on those books, try cold calling. Well ... maybe not cold. Find some old yearbooks from colleges in your area with good science programs, and look through them - nothing more recent than fifteen years or so. These are pretty common at used bookstores that are close to the colleges they serve - and when you're done with them they are usually quite sellable. You will almost always run across them in four year increments. I've had some success with picking out names that were listed in their Junior year class but not in their Senior year - in other words, they dropped out. If you look through the phone book, some of those names will show up because they settled down in the area. Call them. But what the heck - you can call graduates too. You might also want to check out the list of Seniors against current instructors at the institutions they attended; those are steady people who seldom let anything in their lives get lost, change residences infrequently, and they've almost all of them kept every book they've ever owned. And write off the idea of finding people who've left the general area: The more people move, the less likely they are to have kept books from their college days - books are heavy.

Once upon a time in a lot of books, I ran across a pamphlet on "How to be a Detective." It was one of those silly things we sent away for when we were kids, with a coupon clipped from a comic book. I read it because I really didn't have anything better to do at the time. And y'know something? Finding books is actually not all that much different than tracking down a missing person.

Be a detective.

Other than that approach, the best and most reliable source for valuable science books that I've found is live auctions. If you've never done them, I recommend it. Buying in larger lots is a good way to get fairly good deals. You will usually only be competing against other dealers, so bidding will seldom approach retail value. And non-internet auctions draw dealers from the immediate area, many of whom sell out of B&M stores, so you won't be competing as much with the internet. Not directly anyway. You can find auctions that suit your level. No need to hit Sotheby's your first time out - in fact, that's a sure path to disaster. Start slow. Auctions are a real pump, but they're dangerous. Examine the lots you're interested in carefully. Research. Decide on the maximum price you'll pay - and stick to it.

Hope some of this helps.


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