Weakness at the lower levels of the rare book market is widely discussed. The market tends to take solace from the continuing strength at the upper end while generally avoiding, for lack of a solution, the significant declines below $600. I want to make a proposal.
At a guess some 99% of all rare and collectible books are worth $600 or less. Ninety-five percent of these books, maps, pamphlets and ephemera are worth $150 or less. They may once have been worth more but there are too many items and too few buyers to maintain current prices.
So how will the market adjust? Were time infinite sellers could simply wait. But time is not infinite and the number of items coming out is increasing. Dealers are aging. The material will have to be sold.
eBay has been an effective marketplace for all kinds of material but lower priced books and ephemera have never really been much more than an afterthought for them. EBay is a money-driven business and inexpensive books do not materially move the bottom line. Books simply aren’t a good fit for them.
So the 99% of books in the old and collectible category that need to enter the marketplace, though they may not be valuable, are nevertheless of some value to dealers and are interesting and occasionally important repositories of information for libraries and collectors. They will be bought if the prices seem logical but because of the obvious inventory overhang [run some searches on Abebooks to see the number of copies in your collecting area that are available] these books tend not to sell - I think mostly because no one knows what they are really worth.
Recently an article in the Economist mentioned that eBay has been looking to move their book business from auctions to listings a la Abebooks. I think I understand the business logic but for the old, used and rare book field this will be a disaster. For eBay there is more money in listings and fixed price sales but there will also be many fewer sales and only limited market confirmation of current value. For the field to clear this overhang we’ll need a low cost alternative approach.
At a guess at least 3 million such items need to change hands over the next 3 to 5 years. The demographics simply will not wait because dealers, collectors and institutions will dispose. They, by degrees, have to. For institutions their priorities are changing. For too many dealers the sun is setting. For collectors, they are already making some purchases at auctions but have no equally easy way to buy at market-determined prices at the lower end of the market.
They need one. I propose:
A free auction listing service for RBH members who use any level of paid services.
Members can post very complete descriptions and photographs. The seller guarantees that all information is correct.
Such items and their descriptions are then posted to a Subject to Sale Section
Each item will have a start price and it can be no more than 25% of fair market value [as established by eBay, Abe, or auction realizations]
An auction begins only when someone selects an item in the Subject to Sale section and makes the 25% start bid.
The item then moves into the Up for Sale category and becomes searchable in the Upcoming auctions section. The sale then continues for 15 days.
A bidder may bid directly or use an outside service to bid into the item close.
All items would have a buy it now price and that price cannot be greater than $600. This provision is to ensure that such material does not intrude on the fully vetted lots that auctions provide.
Once the sale ends the buyer pays both the cost of the item and the shipping.
The seller provides an unconditional right of return. This right of return expires 10 days after proof of delivery is confirmed by the post office or other shipping option.
Support: For sellers, items listed, items bid upon and sold, and items returned will all be displayed in a statistical analysis of each seller.
For buyers the number of lots purchased and also the number of lots returned will be shown.
There are no commissions.
The buyer will pay the seller directly and the seller reimburse directly. The seller will know who the buyers are and the buyers will know who the sellers are.
I invite comment, suggestions and criticisms.
If we do not establish a mechanism for handing this material an important opportunity will be lost.