Exit Strategies - Getting Out (A Bad News - Good News Story)
By Susan Halas
As book values slide and taste changes, boomers age, and new technologies play an ever larger role in the book trade - dealers and collectors increasingly ponder their exit strategies. There are lots of ways to get out of the book business, but few are fast, and even fewer it seems are profitable.
This month AE spoke with a wide range of individuals and firms. These were collectors and dealers who either had recently left the trade or were seriously contemplating downsizing, refocusing or completely closing shop. Though almost all were willing to talk about their situations, almost nobody wanted to be quoted for attribution. Given a high degree of confidential information associated with this topic we'll try to hit the highlights without revealing too many of the specific details.
The Bad News
Most AE Monthly readers already know the bad news: As more and more inventory comes to market prices, even for good books in good condition, continue to decline with no sign this trend will end or rebound. On the contrary, indicators are strong that eBooks, Kindle, the wide availability of free on-line content for previously out-of-print titles, print-on demand and other innovations will make even greater inroads into what was once the territory of the printed book and continue to erode book values.
The Train Wreck Scenario
When AE asked for comments on this topic our IN box filled rapidly with train wreck scenarios.
Take for example the dealer who decided to put it all on eBay. Such a deal - he offered thousands of volumes of clean stock at a low starting price with no reserve. Shazam!! It sold. It sold for 10 cents on the dollar. That was not 10 cents on the dollar of retail value, that was 10 cents on the dollar of his original cost!
Then there was the bricks and mortar store in the college town that finally couldn't make it any more. They held a huge liquidation sale which did indeed clear the shelves and brought in enough cash to cover their debts. Prices started at 50% off; each week there were even further reductions until it was 90% off. What was left sold by box and the rest went to Goodwill. They got out in three months and the average selling price for nearly 100,000 volumes came to less than a buck a book.
If that's not grim enough, consider the widow of a long time specialist. She died and left a will saying that her heirs were to have equal shares of her book collection, other collectibles, papers and copyrights. She named a family friend as her executor, a local lawyer who knew nothing about the books or the book business. Her children did know something about the trade but they had very different ideas about what constituted an "equal share."
The body was hardly cold before they were at each other tooth and nail. With lawyer in the middle and the meter running at $250 an hour it took two years to settle the estate. The beneficiaries each got some of what their mother would have wanted them to have, however they still aren't speaking to each other.
Here's what one of the heirs in that drama had to say: "If you're thinking about passing books and other collections on to the next generation give it while you're still alive. If you don't want these things to actually transfer until you die, at least designate book-by-book, picture-by-picture, map-by-map: Who is it for? Who do you want to have it? What is fair? If our mother had made these decisions while she was still alive, it could have been so simple. Instead it was miserable, bitter and expensive."
The Good News
The good news is you can get out, and there are at least a few recent examples of people who have gotten out without taking a beating, but… it takes time, a certain Zen like detachment, and realistic valuation.
What are your books worth? Do you want to sell them one at a time or as a collection? Are you expecting to get as much or more than you paid for each and every one of them? If so you might have an unpleasant surprise in store. Over and over again the sellers who did well pointed out that a very high percentage of the value is usually concentrated in a very small number of items.
Let's say it again: accurately valuing your holdings is critical. That means separating the true high value items from the mid range and the low to no value books. Accurate realistic valuation is the first step toward an exit strategy that maximizes the return for each category. It takes time and planning.
One high profile collector who spoke with AE recently held a profitable auction of some of his books. He shopped many of the major auction houses and went with the one that gave him the best deal. "The well promoted well attended event doesn't just happen," he stressed. "You have to make it happen; you have to be on top of it."
As for the time frame - estimates varied but most took several years. "Take it in six month increments," he advised. "Plan what you're going to do. Know the value of what you have. Auctions aren't for everyone, but auction records are a pretty reliable indicator of value and scarcity."
In his view when the time comes to sell the collection or inventory that features a "collage" approach and includes books as well as many kinds of related materials such as photos, prints, maps, ephemera and other relevant items will bring a higher price and find a better home than the "books only" collection.
He also emphasized the need for a certain amount of critical detachment. "Many of the people I see," he said, "are not really dealers. They're collectors who got into selling as a way to fund their book buying habit. They have a hard time imagining a life without their books. They equate selling with dying. It's not surprising they put it off."