Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2003 Issue

Book Descriptions: The Key To Reselling

Bruce1

Image Taken from Americana Exchange Database



By Bruce McKinney

Thousands of people collect books. The various book fairs around the country attract essentially local collectors and among the more than fifty serious book fairs each year in America there appear to be well over 100,000 people who visit them. Estimates of the total number of active book collectors run all the way to 200,000. Certainly the number of people who will collect if the hobby/avocation is more intelligently structured is even higher.

Let’s take a look back for a second. Historically book collecting has been a relatively small field, geared towards wealth, with collectors often more financially capable than knowledgeable. Such collectors relied upon their dealers for collecting advice as well as for the books that they acquired. If cost was an issue it wasn’t always apparent. The books were as often later given to institutions as they were resold. Such collecting was more about prestige than about economic sense.

In time, a generation of knowledgeable dealers and collectors evolved to embrace the emerging opportunities to understand and collect American history. With increasing interest in the details, book descriptions elaborated and book prices rose. And what for many had been a vanity hobby slowly developed into a solid intellectual pursuit. Year to year book prices tended to rise, fed by a scarcity that was both real and controlled. If a title suddenly became too common, dealers would sometimes withhold copies, often for years at a time.

And then the unexpected happened: in the 1990s the internet emerged as a new venue for people with books to display and sell their material. Small in scale at first, it has, as we all know, grown relentlessly. Today there are perhaps seventy-five times as many books for sale on the web as all the major dealers in the world together own. Today, control over the world of books has shifted to the net. With this shift to the net, collectors begin to have the opportunity to resell their books at attractive prices. To do so, they need to be able to convincingly describe their book collections. In many cases, the books they bought and seek to sell were well described initially. They will eventually be able to resell efficiently if they can use these written book descriptions. Thus the written book description becomes a necessary part of any rare or antiquarian book transaction. Which brings us to the issue at hand, these written book descriptions and their irreplaceable value in the book reselling process. Let’s start by taking a look at the formulaic “book description.”

By time honored practice, when a book dealer offers a book for sale he or she (for the purposes of brevity, we’ll use the male pronoun from hereon in) develops a written description to accompany the asking price. This is both his explanation and his justification for the price his book commands. This description is increasingly if unofficially divided into three parts. The first section contains basic details such as title, author, date printed, place published and a physical bibliographical

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Abraham Lincoln, <i>Emancipation Proclamation by the President of the United States,</i> pamphlet, 1862. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the distinguished Ruby-Jackson family, Portland, Maine, 1853-1961. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens & the persons who served him, 1866-1907. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Autograph book with inscriptions by orators Moses Roper & Peter Williams, 1821-54. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Archive of letters, postcards, and greeting cards sent by Romare Bearden, 1949-87. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br>E. Simms Campbell, <i>A Night-Club Map of Harlem,</i> in inaugural issue of Manhattan, 1933. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Papers of the comedian Nipsey Russell, including a letter from MLK, 1929-2000. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Early German-American anti-slavery broadside, <i>Sclaven-Handel,</i> Philadelphia, 1794. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Edmonia Lewis, prominent sculptor, carte-de-visite by Henry Rocher, c. 1866-71. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br><i>The Black Panther: Black Community News Service,</i> 44 issues, San Francisco, 1967-1971. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Withers, <i>I Am A Man, Sanitation Workers Strike,</i> silver print, 1968. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> <i>March For Freedom Now!,</i> poster for the 1960 Republican Convention. $4,000 to $6,000.

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