Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2015 Issue

Booksellers Respond To RBH’s “Clearing the Backlog” Article

83fe3be2-8dc2-445a-9664-8a51f45e5f32

A number of booksellers felt the the proposal outlined in “Clearing the Backlog” was not needed or workable.

Last month, Rare Book Hub Monthly publisher Bruce McKinney posted an article titled “Clearing the Backlog” that has drawn a lot of reaction in the bookselling world. In his piece McKinney noted that while prices at the upper tier of the book world have gotten stronger, at the lower end the market is flooded and prices are racing to the bottom. By his estimate 99% of all rare and collectible books are worth $600 or less, and of that number his educated guess was some 95% were valued at under $150. By his own estimate there were at least 3 million items that he thought would need to change hands in the next three to five years -- and he predicted “for many dealers the sun is setting.”

 

McKinney went on to suggest a new system of selling in a modified auction format that RBH would set up and which would be open to its subscribers. He proposed that starting price would be pegged at “25% of fair market value,” and once the transaction was concluded the buyer would pay the shipping. Unlike other existing services such as Amazon, Abe, Alibris or eBay it would be free to subscribers - there would be no additional commission or listing fee charged.

 

Though the comments section of the article drew positive reaction, a recent long thread on one of the bookselling list-serves produced opinions that leaned strongly in the other direction.

 

Booksellers who commented ranged from those who sold a general stock of used books to some of the better known ABAA affiliated specialists. They took issue with McKinney’s proposal for a variety of reasons.

 

Chris Volk of Bookfever.com, an established online bookseller based in Ione, Ca. was one of the first to reply: “In a sense, I could be one of the booksellers targeted by this article,” she wrote. “That is, we are primarily selling in the collectible market, and 95% of the books we sell are $150 or less - and we have a lot of books!

 

“But I still find this proposal not helpful for a couple of reasons - the first is the assumption that most booksellers feel like they need to clear out the backlog and are willing to invest a certain amount of time and energy in doing so at bargain prices."

 

Volk’s reaction was not that she needs to cut her prices but rather “what I need to do is to change my mindset that if one is good, two are better,... and to stop feeling like we need to have in inventory ‘every title’ an author wrote.”

 

She also took issue with McKinney proposal that, "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]"

 

“Most books which sell for under $150,” she said, “have few if any auction results - and how does one even begin to determine the fair market value of something offered on ABE? The range of prices for a book which might be reasonably listed at $50-100 will often be from $1 to $500 - so who is going to say that $50 is FMV, or is it $5 if an ‘unsold’ copy exists for that price?

 

“I consider virtually all of our list prices FMV … - and I figure if the tail is long enough, we should sell virtually everything for roughly a net of 75% of list (20% commissions and fees, extra 5% to account for discounts, sales, etc). It is a rare day that does not include a sale of some books listed more than 3 years ago, or even more than 5 years ago.”

 

Like others she thought, “Doing a lot of work to sell a bunch of books for 25% of FMV sooner is not very appealing - even though I realize that, if the inventory were being liquidated, getting just ten cents on the dollar overall would be doing pretty good!”

 

Laurelle Swan of Swan’s Fine Books in Walnut Creek, Ca. wrote, ….” I am a subscriber to

the auction record service that Bruce provides and am grateful to have it as one, among many, tools to use in determining price." She noted, “there are multiple avenues in place already for selling our items, be they lower or higher in the pricing scale.

 

“I would rather see us put our collective time and energy into making those avenues - including ABE, the IOBA and ABAA websites - better known. Many of our customers who ask me for help in locating an item online are only aware of eBay and Amazon, and have never heard of the current options. These customers (not the experienced collector) are the ones likely to be looking for these ‘lower-priced’ items that apparently we are all looking to sell at fire-sale prices, and these customers will not be aware of Rare Book Hub either.”

 

In her my opinion even though the RBH data base provides actual prices realized on auction transactions, “it does not provide ‘SOLD’ prices, it provides ‘AUCTION’ prices. Sold prices, in my definition,” she continued, “are the prices a bookseller realizes when he or she sells his or her book, and agrees on a price with a willing, reasonable buyer.

 

“I'm sure we have all purchased items at auction if we feel we are ‘getting a good deal’ - by definition, this means that we feel we can sell the book for more. Otherwise the auction houses would only have retail customers bidding on their lots, not booksellers. I'm also sure that many, if not most, of us tracking auctions have seen items sell for far more than we believe is fair retail price.”

 

In her view, “Auctions are all about clearing the decks, not in ascertaining a ‘fair market value’ for the wares they are selling. … Let's not consider auction prices any true indication of fair market value, ” and she was one of several to observe, “We might not like someone else telling us what a fair market value is for our books.”

 

Vic Zoschak, of Tavistock Books (ABAA) in Alameda, CA also was less than thrilled with the proposal. He commented briefly, “I am a long-time subscriber to RBH, at the Octavo level, and ‘very much’ value the information that Bruce supplies on his site. However, what others may not realize is that at this subscriber level, my inventory is also offered for sale ... on RBH. Despite a subscriber base comprised of the ‘best colleges, universities, archives, auction houses, special collections and deep pocket collectors and dealers’, I do not recall ever selling a book through RBH. Not a one. Ever.”

“Where do his clients come from,” asked Luis Porretta of Luis Porretta Fine Arts in British Columbia, “to buy these collectible books when they have not been found on eBay, Amazon and all the other listing services?” The reality is that there are fewer people buying books and more people selling books and this is a trend that has resulted in a falling turnover for most online book dealers the past fifteen years. Another venue selling books with a new plan is not going to change this reality.”

 

A Massachusetts specialist in books on science, technology and engineering who preferred not to be named thanked McKinney, “for once again creating a lively discussion, and for finding creative ways to market RBH. “But,” he asked, “don't all these basic mechanisms exist today? And in forms that we can all use, as much and as often as we want? We already have quality sites: TomFolio, Biblio, IOBA, and ABAA among others. These sites have "vetted" dealers, inventory, guarantees and descriptions.

 

“Any dealer can reduce venue pricing now (or list stock on eBay, send it to auction, offer sale lists to fellow dealers and customers, etc). Does anyone think the overhang exists simply because existing sites aren't offering material as effectively as they could?

 

“The real reason the "overhang" exists is supply has outstripped demand. One major contributing factor is the crippled traditional feeder system for new buyers and dealers (bookstores and tradeshows).

 

“The fun (and essential) part is to find new buyers. With new customers our less expensive material becomes a key resource to cultivate eager new minds. Improving the feeder system is the real fix.

 

“I would love it if a third party could do this work for me (us). But without significant levels of funding how likely is it that RBH could pull enough new, currently unknown customers into the fold solely by creating a new lower-cost venue?

 

“It is far more likely,” he thought, "that this proposal would cannibalize some of our existing sales by encouraging us to move our stock there, take away 75% of our retail price, and sell to the same buyers we already have, albeit at a better price. It really just kicks the bucket down the road a bit.”

 

His suggestions for improving the situation emphasized, “Focus on marketing, not on cost. Passive bookselling is not a strong strategy anymore.”

 

Though most of those who wrote did not think the proposal was needed or workable, there was at least one exception: Kenny Parolini of Vineland, NJ who sells online as poormansbooks.com wrote, “I make about one sale a year but it more than pays my $400 RBH fee. The listing is free with some subscriptions.”

 

To read the article “Clearing The Backlog” by Bruce McKinney that provoked these comments click here.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Leslie Hindman Auctioneers: The Adventure & Exploration Library of Steve Fossett. October 31, 2018</b>
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> SHACKLETON, Ernest Henry, Sir. <i>Aurora Australis. Printed at the Winter Quarters of the British Antarctic Expedition, 1907, During the Winter Months of April, May, June, July, 1908.</i> $60,000 to $80,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> HUMBOLDT, Alexander von, and Aime J. A. BONPLAND. <i>Vues des Cordillères, et monumens des peuples indigènes de l'Amérique.</i> Paris, 1810. $30,000 to $40,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> COOK, James, Captain. [Collected Voyages]. London: Strahan and Cadell, 1773, 1777, 1784. First editions of the second and third voyages. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman Auctioneers: The Adventure & Exploration Library of Steve Fossett. October 31, 2018</b>
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> DARWIN, Charles. <i>A Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle, between the years 1826 and 1836.</i> $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> SPILBERGEN, Joris van (1568-1620). <i>Speculum orientalis occidentalisque Indiae navigationum.</i> Leiden: Nicolaus van Geelkercken, 1619. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> DRAKE, Francis, Sir. <i>Sir Francis Drake Revived. Who is or may be a Pattern to stirre up all Heroicke and active Spirits of these Times…</i> London, 1653 [i.e. 1652]. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman Auctioneers: The Adventure & Exploration Library of Steve Fossett. October 31, 2018</b>
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> SHACKLETON, Ernest Henry, Sir, Louis C. BERNACCHI, and Apsley George Benet CHERRY-GARRARD, editors. The South Polar Times. London, 1907-1914. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> ANSON, George. <i>A Voyage round the World, In the Years 1740...</i> 1744. London: John and Paul Knapton for the author, 1748. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> HERRERA Y TORDESILLAS, Antonio de. <i>Description des Indes Occidentales, Qu'on appelle aujourdhuy Le Nouveau Monde...</i> Amsterdam: Michel Colin, 1622. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman Auctioneers: The Adventure & Exploration Library of Steve Fossett. October 31, 2018</b>
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> NOORT, Olivier van. <i>Description du Penible Voyage fait entour de l'univers ou globe terrestre...</i> Amsterdam: Cornille Nicolas, 1610. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> LEO AFRICANUS, Johannes. <i>A Geographical Historie of Africa, Written in Arabicke and Italian.</i> London: George Bishop, 1600. $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> SCHOUTEN, Willem Corneliszoon. <i>Journal ou Description du Merveilleux Voyage de Guillaume Schouten, Hollandois natif de Hoorn, fait es années 1615, 1616, & 1617.</i> 1619. $4,000 to $6,000
  • <b>Bonhams: Sale Results from <i>Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I.</i> September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>Aurora Australis.</i> Printed at the sign of 'The Penguins'; East Antarctica, 1908. Sold for $97,500
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>South Polar Times.</i> 1st edition, limited issue. from the library of Michael Barne. Sold for $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> General Washington's <i>Proceedings of a General Court Martial... of Major General Lee.</i> Philiadelphia, 1778. 100 copies printed for Congress. BOUND WITH: ...Court Martial... of St Clair and ...Schuyler. Sold for $87,50
    <b>Bonhams: Sale Results from <i>Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I.</i> September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> <i>The Voice of the People.</i> Boston, 1754. Rare pamphlet on the Excise Tax. Nathaniel Sparhawk's copy. Sold for $8,750
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> Autograph Letter Signed ("S.L. Clemens"), offering extensive hard-earned advice on writing, 5 pp, 1881. Sold for $37,500
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> Lewis, Meriwether. Contemporary manuscript true copy of his final power of attorney, 1809. Sold for $7,500
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> <i>A New Method of Macarony Making, as Practiced at Boston in North America.</i> Mezzotint. London, 1774. Sold for $6,875
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> <i>Scientific Base Ball Pitching: A Treatise on the Pitcher, Pitching, Origin and Philosophy of the Curve.</i> Chicago, 1897. Sold for $3,750
  • <center><b>William Bunch Auctions<br>October Fine Art and Prints<br>October 29, 2018</b>
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> Aegidius Sadeler (Flemish, 1570-1629), engraving on laid paper "Madonna and Child in a Landscape", after a drawing by Albrecht Durer. $800 to $1,200
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> Anders Zorn (Swedish, 1860-1920), drypoint etching on paper "On Hemso Island", 1917, pencil signed. $400 to $600
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> Joseph Pennell (American, 1860-1926), etching on paper "Setting Up Columns", pencil signed. $200 to $300
    <center><b>William Bunch Auctions<br>October Fine Art and Prints<br>October 29, 2018</b>
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> William Lee Hankey (British, 1869-1952), drypoint etching on paper "Affection", pencil signed. $200 to $300
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> William Walcot (English, 1874-1943), drypoint etching on paper "Lower Broadway, New York", 1924, pencil signed. $200 to $300
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> Auguste Brouet (French, 1872-1941), color etching "La Pirouette", pencil signed, ed 111/250. $400 to $600
    <center><b>William Bunch Auctions<br>October Fine Art and Prints<br>October 29, 2018</b>
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889-1975), lithograph on paper "The Boy", pencil signed. $2,000 to $3,000
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> John Stockton de Martelly (American, 1903-1979), lithograph on paper "Looking at the Sunshine", pencil signed, original AAA certificate. $400 to $600
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> Jacques Hnizdovsky (Ukrainian-American, 1915-1985), woodcut on paper "Moppet", pencil signed and dated 1965, ed 118/250. $400 to $600
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Kurt Vonnegut, archive of 12 letters, signed to his family, 6 illustrated, 1930s-40s. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Allen Ginsberg, 11 autograph manuscripts, including 10 drafts of poems & a page of notes, circa 1948. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Joan Miró, illustrated autograph note signed to MoMA Director of Exhibitions & Publications, 1959. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Carl Gustav Jung, typed letter signed to a colleague, 1948. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Gustav Mahler, ALS, arranging a meeting during his historic visit to New York, circa 1908. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Mark Twain, ALS, explaining the target of his new book, 1902. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Charles Dickens, ALS, accepting an invitation in the voice of a <i>Martin Chuzzlewit</i> character, 1843. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Jacob Lawrence, illustrated greeting card signed, 1960. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Robert E. Lee, ALS, to the colonel of the Kanawha Valley volunteers, boosting morale, 1861. $15,000 to $25,000

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions