Reality Returns to Bookselling
By Bruce McKinney
The median price of books, manuscripts and ephemera, measured across more than 220,000 lots sold at auction in 2008, fell 21% from 2007. The decline, which mostly occurred in the second half, saw the median price for the year fall to levels consistent with 2003 while masking a larger decline that, if sustained in 2009, will carry realizations back to levels last seen in 2000. Dealers and auction houses generally expect further retrenchment and auction houses are lowering estimates and reserves in response. Note: Median price is the midpoint of prices paid and differs from average price that is disproportionately affected by single high value transactions.
Reality in 2009 will now work itself out in public - mainly in the auction rooms where six-hundred fresh lots are posted each day. Should realizations continue to fall such experience will lead to lower expectations. It's a potentially slow and uneven process that may take several years as many online sellers will probably prefer to wait for recovery rather than adjust to a downturn they hope is temporary. They may wait a long time. Even when the economy was strong only a small percentage of old and rare books listed on line sold in any year. In recession, sell-through will further decline. At auction 70 to 76% of all listed items have sold over the past five years.
In what is shaping up as a tumultous year the spreads between auction realizations and online listed prices, which generally have run at a 3 to 2 ratio [$100 on a listing site, $67 at auction], may increase to 2 to 1 [$100 on a listing site versus $50 at auction]. In this scenario auction realizations decline while listing prices, at least short term, hold.
While the book business has unique problems it is also part of the real economy and the economy will be weak for an extended period. This is the eleventh sustained economic downtown [10 recessions, 1 depression] since 1900 * and looks to be neither garden-variety recession nor an absolute depression. Mike Stillman calls it a "decession" or, if you prefer, "repression" and it looks to be five years more or less. The Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, who teaches at Princeton and writes for the New York Times, has recently conveyed a sense of possible abyss. Frank Rich adds this: "While its become a Beltway cliche that America's new young president has yet to be tested, it is past time for us to realize that our own test is also about to begin." The economy is going to get tough and how much room there will be in the lifeboats for books is uncertain.
Historically, in the book business, sales rather than prices decline. In commercial fields that informally set prices based on observation of competitors' prices the variable is time and the rare book business, which is anathema to lowering prices, simply hunkers down. In this economic downturn that strategy is almost certainly not going to work because the economy, in recovery, will experience inflation that returns dollars that buy significantly less. After all binges there are then the headaches.