It’s been an interesting book week with two major book sales and the viewing of a very nice collection. Both sales were way down in terms of both quantity and quality, but I know I made out fine at the first one. The second is still up for grabs, as I haven’t yet had time to do the research. Everything is still packed up due to the ongoing saga of dust, noise, and general mayhem. But I don’t want to talk about the book sales OR the mayhem. What’s on my mind today is the collection and the overall problem of bidding on books in today’s pork belly market.
There was a day not all that long ago when we would view a collection and be able to evaluate it just by looking at it and feel fairly confident that we could submit an honest offer and still make money. Today even when we spot books we’ve had before – which in this case included the beautiful Norton Shakespeare First Folio in the slipcase and the glorious Audubon elephant folio in the slipcase published by Abbeville – we’re as skittish as a cat in a car. I explained to the owner the current market and its vagaries and asked if he would mind if we did some research before making a bid. He agreed with no hesitation and I spent all day Tuesday researching ten very nice books, one of which particularly worried me. This wasn’t because it was an iffy title – it’s because it was an excellent one. We are talking here about a first edition of Florence Nightingale’s nursing book, a small, slim, plain-Jane brown volume I wanted so badly I had to bite my tongue until it bled to keep from blurting out a number than might haunt me like one of those nightmares that play out in your sleep a couple times a year.
So how exactly do you arrive at a figure for something so rare and iconic, yet of relatively limited appeal? If you read the ABE books website it will offer this advice:
Do you have an old book and would like know its value? You might think it’s a rare and valuable book but don’t know where to find its value? One very simple method of finding an approximate value of a book is to search for similar copies on AbeBooks.com and see what prices are being asked.<P>
At first glance this actually sounds reasonable and might even BE reasonable sometimes, but we all know that prices on the internet by and large are not based on much more than what the seller thinks he or she might get, or in some cases just WANTS to get. I’ve seen the same exact book range literally from $500 down to a dollar -- ONE DOLLAR – an object lesson if ever there were one in how the internet has skewed pricing. Even when there are only three listings the possibility exists that the first person priced it to the rafters and the other two followed suit, or the other way around. When we are talking books as expensive as the Nightingale much more work must be done. I would strongly suggest that if you have not already done so you join the Heritage auction site where you can research past book auctions to see what price the market set for a like copy of the book you have. But of course “like” is the operative word. It must be apples to apples with no equivocating – same binding, same publisher, same condition, same editon. Heritage does not sell books exclusively – it’s a site for collectibles of numerous types -- but the books CAN be quite excellent (or not). Another good resource is the ABAA site. Just following these two can be an education in itself. To register with Heritage use this link lihttps://historical.ha.com/common/regist er.php. ABAA (Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America)can be found at www.abaa.com
Of course there are reference books (NOT price guides) that can help with your offer also, but even they aren't the final word. Once you find a comparable that seems right you still have to factor in several important things – the probability of a reasonably fast sale, your ability to attract the right buyer on the venues you have available to you, the instability of the marketplace, and your ability to showcase a special title. Consequently, I did not make my bid for the Nightingale (or any) based on the highest prices I found. At these price points I have no choice but to proceed with a healthy dose of caution. Does this mean I might not get the books? You bet it does, but I don’t want to tie up four-figure money for something that might come back to bite me. So I wound up taking a middle of the road stance with enough wiggle room to go up some if needed. Building in flexibility is a crucial component to the offer process. Remember, these are the owner’s treasures. It stands to reason that he or she wants a chance to be proactive in reaching the final price.
Late Tuesday afternoon I put the final touch on a lengthy book by book overview of the market and its range with stated sources and attached a list with my offer for each title. Yesterday morning I dropped it in the mail with the sense of a job well done. But before you surmise that it was strictly a hard, cold, cerebral business decision let me assure you that it was not. Unlike some dealers, my emotions still color how I handle these situations. I do what I need to do to stay afloat, but not without considerable angst. The bottom line is I love the books. I want them badly and hope fervently that I get them.
If I don’t I’ll be very disappointed – not just because of the money, but for the loss of the beautiful books themselves. For me it always comes down to that visceral desire to handle them, work with them, find homes for them. Once I fall in love it's hard to walk away.