Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2009 Issue

Perspective on Books and the Net

Sometimes the future is right there in front of you


By Bruce McKinney

These days the world of collectible books is a warren of categories - on line listings, shops on Main Street, catalogues on line and through the mail, presentations at trade shows, and auctions, both traditional and eBay. These categories function independently. They sell to different customers - dividing the world of rare and collectible books into a mosaic of hundreds if not thousands of pieces.

The scale of the venues for old and collectible books is exponentially increasing, the number of dealers, number of books, the number of auction houses and sales all increasing. Some aspects of book selling however are declining. Shops, catalogues and shows are all fewer or less.

Overall the quantity of material is up, and continuing to rise, while the number of primary selling channels, the number of listing sites, shops, and shows down. Succinctly stated, there is more material to sell and fewer cost efficient options for disposing of it. The powerful alternatives are group options and their fees increasing. It's not only more difficult to sell, it's also more expensive.

The increasing volume of listings is not only depressing sales, it's reducing prices. Listings seem to increase geometrically, buyers arithmetically. "Collectible," a term long defined by dealers [to their advantage], is now defined in the marketplace. The loss of control over the defining of "collecting" is and will be deeply destructive to many sellers.

The market, as weak as it is, is actually weaker than it appears because various categories of selling - the shops, shows and catalogues are separate universes; their tribulations recorded only as distant thunder. Their realities are understood often only via informal statistics and impressions. Their customers buy based on convenience, friendship, and special payment terms, view books more as a whim, less as an investment. No one knows how much and for how long such trade will continue, only that it is declining. These areas seem somewhat age related. These are the approaches to book buying that older people prefer but it's not yet certain the next generation, who today overwhelmingly prefer time and cost efficient pursuits, will adopt them. It seems unlikely.

Its now more than ten years since the internet emerged and long submerged inventories began to surface. Today the destruction of the traditional book business is well underway. What lies ahead?

It seems likely that the listing sites, that are undermining traditional selling alternatives, will in time also perish - all to be replaced by a single search [if not a single site] of at least 250 million items that, in providing a single search, will galvanize book buyers by finally simplifying the task of finding material. Multiple selling sites are understandable to booksellers but time consuming and arcane to/for book buyers. It looks to them like a dumb game, a variation of how the Japanese number street addresses in sequential order by date of construction.

Rare Book Monthly

  • Sotheby’s, July 11: Galileo, Document annotated and signed by Galileo, dated Padua, 1595. £500,000 to £700,000.
  • Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    18th July 2024
    Forum, July 18: Rowling (J.K.) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, first hardback edition, 1997. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, July 18: Binding.- Lucian of Samosata Opuscula Erasmo Roterodamo interprete, first Aldine edition, Venice, Heirs of Aldus Manutius and A, 1516. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, July 18: Bacon (Sir Francis). De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum Libri IX, Pierre Gassendi's copy gifted him by Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, Paris, Typis Petri Mettayer, 1624. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    18th July 2024
    Forum, July 18: Shakespeare (William). The First Part of Henry the Fourth, with the Life and Death of Henry, Sirnamed Hot-Spurre…, Printed by Isaac Jaggard, and Ed. Blount, 1623. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, July 18: Darwin (Charles). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, third edition, presentation inscription 'From the Author' in a secretary's hand, John Murray, 1861. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, July 18: Teague (Violet). Geraldine Rede. Night Fall in the Ti-Tree, first edition, Melbourne, Sign of the Rabbit, 1905; and another. £10,000 to £15,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    18th July 2024
    Forum, July 18: India.- Primrose (Gen. James Maurice). Collection of 24 original drawings from his time in India with the 43rd Regiment of Foot, circa 1855 to 1864. £10,000 to £15,000.
    Forum, July 18: Manet (Édouard). Trente Eaux-fortes originales, the complete portfolio, Paris, A. Stroelin, 1905. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, July 18: Bible, English. [The Holy Bible], first edition of the King James Bible, the Great 'He' Bible, [Robert Barker], [1611]. £6,000 to £8,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    18th July 2024
    Forum, July 18: America.- Mathews (Alfred E.) Pencil Sketches of Montana, first edition, New York, Published by the Author, 1868. £6,000 to £8,000.
    Forum, July 18: Bawden (Edward). Original dust-jacket artwork for 'The Outsider' by Albert Camus, [c.1946]. £4,000 to £6,000.
    Forum, July 18: World.- Fries (Laurent). Tabula Nova Totius Orbis, woodcut map, [c.1541]. £3,000 to £5,000.

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