Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2006 Issue

Where have the Collectors Gone? Gone to the Internet Everyone!

Life.of.riley

Selling books! What a predicament this is!


By Bruce McKinney

For those who rely on book fairs to sell books the line that comes to mind is William Bendix's "What a revoltin' development this is." New collecting opportunities every day are undermining the old, changing what buyers buy, who they buy from and what they pay. For both dealers and collectors it's the brave new world whether you want it or not. To many dealers it seems as if the traditional book collector is disappearing. They are right to some extent but this is only half the story. The other half of course is that many collectors are simply collecting in other places and are less visible. Collecting opportunities in fact have never been better. They have also never been so different. Think of the old market as a single pane and the new market as shattered glass. These days the pane is larger but the pieces are scattered. For dealers who rely on book shows to meet new customers this is a particularly difficult problem. Shows, never more than a fraction of a collector's options, are further marginalized by the growth of other market segments. As a result new customers aren't showing up as often as they once did. They are out there but they are looking in other places.

If everyone was going in one direction it would be easier to see where they are going. In fact they seem to be heading into a Grand Central Station of possibilities, often careening in unpredictable directions. Collectors, as the story goes, simply used to buy from dealers at their shops, via their catalogues and occasionally at auction. It was probably never quite so simple. Book collectors have always sought bargains. What's different is that collectors today have so many places to find them.

There are, for starters, the listing sites. They list millions of items and have the feel of giant department stores. There are also traditional auctions now too numerous to count and of course there is eBay. There are thousands of individual dealer sites. Many collectors also visit Good Will, the Salvation Army, scan the garage sale listings and attend the occasional local auction. By whatever route they take, in time, collectors find a collecting subject and markets to suit their style and budget. Book Fairs then emerge periodically as events that become visible only because the fair and its participants publicize them, lightning bugs that shine for a few seconds and then are gone.

In the not-so-distant past booksellers were more collegial and participating dealers more willing to contribute their client lists for event mailings. In this way ten thousand people might learn about a fair. But with booksellers finding it harder to sell they are also less willing to shares names. Where show promoters have devised effective sign-up strategies they at least capture the names of attendees, if not buyers, and can send them postcards and emails the next year.

Through it all collectors never lose interest in seeing material in person and so book fairs continue even as their percentage of the audience declines.

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