The Price is Wrong -- How Much is that Book Really Worth?
By Mike Stillman
We’ve all seen the long lists on the bookselling sites. Abebooks, in particular, can easily have dozens of copies of a book available, even of ones once thought to be fairly uncommon. With 45 million books posted for sale, you know there are going to be many duplicates. And, the pricing can be all over the board. This can be confusing to the buyer and seller alike. The buyer doesn’t know which to buy; the seller doesn’t know what price to ask if he or she has a copy to sell.
This is all new to the trade. A few years ago, which means pre-internet, almost any old book appeared rare. You could find a copy of the latest Harry Potter book in virtually any bookstore. However, if you came across a book printed in 1887 at one store, the chances of finding that exact same title in any other bookstore in your area were slim. Even if the book was not rare at all, it could appear to be as rare as the Bay Psalm Book to the uninitiated. So, what was that book worth?
Unfortunately, there is no Kelly Blue Book for old books. Experienced book dealers, with access to older auction records, catalogues, and their own knowledge, had a reasonably good idea. The rest of us, including inexperienced booksellers, traders, and collectors, generally didn’t have a clue. Some booksellers undoubtedly pulled numbers out of the air. Those looking to sell books discovered in their attics surely did the same. Dreamers priced them high; those looking to clear out space low. But, what were they really worth?
Today, this “guesstimating” has been exposed. Prices set by 20 dealers scattered over 50 states and a few countries are now all visible together on one internet site. The price of $100 set by a local dealer is no longer the only price a collector will see. That price can now be seen in comparison to 19 others, and the dealer may look reasonable, greedy, or like a source for bargains. But we still don’t know what that book is actually worth.
Part of the trouble here is in understanding what is meant by “worth.” We all want to see a price guide which states a value. We like certainty. Something for which there is a healthy supply and transparent pricing history, such as most coins or stamps, can be readily valued. Unfortunately, this is not true of books. There are too many different books, few printed in anything approaching the quantity of most stamps or coins. There are no price guides available.