The Debate and the Dilemma: A Field in Transition
- by Bruce E. McKinney
DeWolfe and Wood; brick and mortar bookselling, shows and the web
Prices in the books, manuscripts, map and ephemera markets have generally been falling for some time and there is widespread agreement among dealers that their competitors' books are in trouble. Their own books, thank God, have been spared the battlefield indignities others are apparently suffering. Or so it seems. Sales and prices are randomly falling. It’s a problem and not easily resolved.
To get perspective I spoke with seven dealers.
The world first divides between the unique and valuable and everything else. This article is about the everything else. The unique and valuable are doing fine and about this broad agreement and consistent auction confirmation. Unfortunately there is plenty of the “everything else."
About this material there are two perspectives. The first is that prices always recover and therefore reducing prices is somewhere between unnecessary and foolish. The other advocates adjustments to maintain sales volume and cash flow, these adjustments taking two forms – changes in how we sell and how much we ask. Adjusting prices becomes complicated when, to maintain cash flow, it becomes necessary to sell at prices below one’s cost, something that seems to be happening with increasing regularity. As one dealer said, “the market doesn’t care what I paid.” Advocates for adjustment differ among themselves whether cost or current value should be determining.
A lot is at stake, for some success or failure.
For those wrestling with these questions there are four possible actions.  wait it out.  reduce prices,  adjust the ways I sell, and/or  change what I sell.
Auction houses have a substantial advantage in the books, manuscripts, maps and ephemera category because they do not generally own what they sell. They can begin to less like what is slow to sell and learn to love what does. They cannot move too far from the constituencies they serve but can and do lean. Dealers on the other hand have to deal with what they have and that’s a predicament when it isn’t selling. They got into the field because they liked it and for years their material seemed to sell itself. Today it requires better marketing and fresh strategies to sell, even at lower prices, what used to sell regularly.