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.