Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2015 Issue

Booksellers Respond To RBH’s “Clearing the Backlog” Article

83fe3be2-8dc2-445a-9664-8a51f45e5f32

A number of booksellers felt the the proposal outlined in “Clearing the Backlog” was not needed or workable.

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.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini. June 27</b>
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> KENNEDY ONASSIS, JACQUELINE Typed letter signed to Oleg Cassini. $400 to $600
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> [CASSINI-KENNEDY FASHIONS] Important archives related to the development of fashions for Mrs. Kennedy… $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> [CASSINI-KENNEDY FASHIONS] Detailed ledger of the Kennedy White House years… $500 to $800
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> KELLY, GRACE. Four autograph letters to Oleg Cassini. $5,000 to $8,000
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini. June 27</b>
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> CASSINI, OLEG. Group of Kennedy-era original fashion sketches. $1,000 to $1,500
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> KENNEDY ONASSIS, JACQUELINE. Autograph letter signed to Oleg Cassini. $800 to $1,200
    <b>Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini:</b> CASSINI, OLEG. Fashion sketch titled “Mrs. Kennedy-Palais de Versailles-State Dinner.” $800 to $1,200
    Doyle, The Estate of Oleg Cassini: [CASSINI, OLEG - KENNEDY, JACQUELINE.] Group of approximately 130 original fashion designs… $800 to $1,200.
  • <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. <i>On the Origin of Species.</i> Presentation Copy. Sold for $500,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. Autograph Letter Signed, 3 pp, negotiating the 2nd American edition with Appleton. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Hemingway, Ernest. Autograph Letter Signed, 8 pp, Paris, 1924, to his father discussing Bullfighting, Stories, and his new baby. Sold for $25,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Corialanus.</i> London, 1623. 1st printing [Extracted from the First Folio]. Sold for $50,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Swift, Jonathan. <i>Gulliver's Travels.</i> London, 1726. 1st edition, Teerink's A edition, fine, large copy. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Fitzroy, Robert. Autograph Letter Signed to agent Thomas Stilwell, informing him of the progress of H.M.S. Beagle. Sold for $17,575.
    <center><b>Bonhams<br> Property from the Collection of Nicole and William R. Keck II</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Sonnets.</i> 1901. 2 volumes. Printed on vellum and illuminated by Ross Turner, bound by Trautz-Bauzonnet. Sold for $13,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Beardsley, Aubrey. <i>The Birth, Life, and Acts of King Arthur.</i> 1893-94. 2 volumes. Contemporary painted vellum gilt by Chivers. Sold for $5,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Assisi, St. Francis. <i>The Canticle of Brother Sun.</i> Illuminated on vellum, for the Grolier Society. Sold for $7,575.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Rackham, Arthur. <i>Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.</i> 1/500 copies signed by Rackham. Sold for $4,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Proust, Marcel. <i>Du coté de chez Swann.</i> 1st edition, 1st issue. Inscribed by Proust. Sold for $8,825.
  • <center><b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>The Library and Picture Collection of the late Martin Woolf Orskey<br>June 26</b>
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Book of Hours. Illuminated manuscript, Flanders or northern France, c. 1450. With 12 full-page illuminated miniatures. £10,000 to £15,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Zahrawi, Abu’-Qasim, al- (c. 936-1013). <i>Albucasis chirurgicorum omnium,</i> Strasbourg, 1532. The first comprehensive illustrated treatise on surgery. £3,000 to £5,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Milles, Thomas. <i>The Custumers Alphabet and Primer,</i> 1608. Gilt supralibros of 17th-century English bibliophile Edward Gwynn. £2,000 to £3,000
    <center><b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>The Library and Picture Collection of the late Martin Woolf Orskey<br>June 26</b>
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Guillemeau, Jacques. <i>Child-Birth or, the Happy Deliverie of Women,</i> 1st edition in English, 1612. The second midwifery manual printed in English. £1,500 to £2,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Rabisha, William. <i>The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected,</i> 1st edition, 1661. Rare. Five copies in libraries. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Royal binding. <i>An Abridgment of the English Military Discipline,</i> 1678. Contemporary red goatskin gilt by Samuel Mearne for Charles II (1630-1865). £1,500 to £2,000
    <center><b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>The Library and Picture Collection of the late Martin Woolf Orskey<br>June 26</b>
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Pallavicino, Ferrante. <i>The Whores Rhetorick,</i> 1st edition in English, 1683. Rare anti-Jesuit satire. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Swift, Jonathan. <i>The Benefit of Farting,</i> 1st London edition, 1722. Teerink 19. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Edwards, George. <i>Natural History of Uncommon Birds</i> [and] <i>Gleanings of Natural History,</i> 7 volumes, 1743-64. Contemporary tree calf, 362 hand-coloured engraved plates. £8,000 to £12,000
    <center><b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>The Library and Picture Collection of the late Martin Woolf Orskey<br>June 26</b>
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Campbell, Patrick. <i>Travels in the Interior Inhabited Parts of North America,</i> 1st edition, 1793. Howes C101; Sabin 10264. Uncut in original boards. £5,000 to £8,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Hearne, Samuel. <i>A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay, to the Northern Ocean,</i> 1st edition, 1795. Sabin 31181. Large-paper copy. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Dominic Winter Auctioneers<br>June 26:</b> Edgeworth, Maria. <i>The Match Girl, A Novel,</i> 1808. £1,000 to £1,500
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ian Fleming, <i>Goldfinger,</i> first edition, inscribed to Sir Henry Cotton, MBE, London, 1959. Sold for $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Joseph Brant, Mohawk Chief, ALS, writing after pledging support to King George III against American rebels, 1776. Sold for a record $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Sonia Delaunay, <i>Ses Peintures</i> . . ., 20 pochoir plates, Paris, 1925. Sold for a record $13,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Diana, Princess of Wales, 6 autograph letters signed to British <i>Vogue</i> editor, 1989-92. Sold for $10,400.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Alexander Hamilton, ALS, as Secretary of the Treasury covering costs of the new U.S. Mint, 1793. Sold for $12,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Benjamin Graham & David L. Dodd, <i>Security Analysis,</i> first edition, inscribed by Graham to a Wall Street trader, NY, 1934. Sold for $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> George Barbier & François-Louis Schmied, <i>Personnages de Comédie,</i> Paris, 1922. Sold for $9,375.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Alphonse Mucha, <i>Ilsée, Princesse de Tripoli,</i> Paris, 1897. Sold for a record $13,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ralph Waldo Emerson, <i>The Dial,</i> first edition of the reconstituted issue, Emerson’s copy with inscriptions, Cincinnati, 1860. Sold for a record $3,250.
  • <b>Christie’s Paris:</b> Blaise Cendrars and Fernand Léger, <i>La Fin du monde filmée par l’ange N.-D.,</i> Paris, Editions de la Sirène, 1919
    <b>Christie’s Paris:</b> André Breton, <i>Second manifeste du Surréalisme,</i> Paris, Editions Kra, 1930
    <b>Christie’s Paris:</b> Paul Eluard and Pablo Picasso, <i>La Barre d’appui,</i> Paris, Editions « Cahiers d’Art », 1936
    <b>Christie’s Paris:</b> Blaise Cendrars and Fernand Léger, <i>La Fin du monde filmée par l’ange N.-D.,</i> Paris, Editions de la Sirène, 1919
    <b>Christie’s Paris:</b> Hans Bellmer, <i>Die Puppe,</i> Paris, G.L.M., 1936
    <b>Christie’s Paris:</b> Salvador Dali, <i>La femme visible,</i> Paris, Editions Surréalistes, 1930

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions