Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2010 Issue

Bookselling - It's a Business: Year and Decade in Review

Susan Halas (left) and Chris Volk.


By Susan Halas & Chris Volk

Many independent booksellers found 2009 was a better than expected year with a stronger than expected finish. It was also marked the end of a decade when everyone and his dog became a bookseller.

The rush to bookselling was not surprising given an economy that turned sour and an occupation with a very low threshold of entry. The field generated as many business models as there were vendors. Some sold on eBay: cited in a 2005 survey as the primary source of income for more than 724,000 Americans. Many focused on Amazon, which launched its Marketplace in 2000 and reported 1.7 million active third party sellers by 2009 (not all of them booksellers).

Others flocked to the more traditional multi-dealers sites like Alibris, AbeBooks and biblio.com. Still others relied strongly on their own independent websites jazzed up with the new social media bells and whistles. With the influx of hordes of newcomers, those who were already established in the field had to work harder and be more creative to stay ahead. The best performers seemed to have a strong on-line presence and an increasingly sophisticated command of the tech repetoire.

Wide range of financials
The variety of business models was not surprising. What was surprising were the range of gross sales, the extremes of volume and the divergent views of the future.

Reported gross revenues started near $0 and escalated though several financial benchmarks. The first breakpoint came under 20K, next stop was mid five figures, then mid sixes, and upward to more rarified climes approaching, or even exceeding $1,000,000. No matter how many dollars were earned and spent almost all of these ventures remained relatively small, independently owned entrepreneurial businesses. Year end reports ran the gamut from major declines to significant increases, particularly in the fourth quarter.

"I was off by 25 percent and anyone who tells you it was different is a liar," said one highly reputable and long established ABAA member, while his colleague, also an ABAA member and almost as long established, reported, "We had a very strong fourth quarter and we're ahead year over year by at least five percent."

"…The best ever." That's how one bookseller classified last year, while another said 2010 looks to be even better based on the first 10 days. Several remarked on it being a great year for buying, while more than one seller noted that they had exceeded their conservative forecasts.

Some of these comments are from a poll in January 2010, when a group of online booksellers (over half of them members of IOBA, the Independent Online Booksellers Association) were surveyed on how things had turned out for the whole year. The results were strongly positive. A year which started out at least moderately affected by the overall economic recession wound up - for some sellers, at least - with substantial gains. Seventy percent of those replying to the follow-up questions reported increases in total sales which ranged, in dollars, from 10% to over 50%.

Not that booksellers were immune to downturn: the January survey was a follow-up to a more narrowly focused one in March 2009. In the original poll, over 50% of the 48 independent and experienced sellers reported a significant decline in the first two months of 2009. Even by the end of the year, 30% were still reporting an overall decrease.

Rare Book Monthly

  • Jeschke Jadi
    Auction 151
    Saturday, April 27, 2024
    Jeschke Jádi, Apr. 27: Lot 546. Christoph Jacob Trew. Plantae selectae, 1750-1773.
    Jeschke Jádi, Apr. 27: Lot 70. Thomas Murner. Die Narren beschwerung. 1558.
    Jeschke Jádi, Apr. 27: Lot 621. Michael Bernhard Valentini. Museum Museorum, 1714.
    Jeschke Jadi
    Auction 151
    Saturday, April 27, 2024
    Jeschke Jádi, Apr. 27: Lot 545. Sander Reichenbachia. Orchids illustrated and described, 1888-1894.
    Jeschke Jádi, Apr. 27: Lot 1018. Marinetti, Boccioni, Pratella Futurism - Comprehensive collection of 35 Futurist manifestos, some of them exceptionally rare. 1909-1933.
    Jeschke Jádi, Apr. 27: Lot 634. August Johann Rösel von Rosenhof. 3 Original Drawings, around 1740.
    Jeschke Jadi
    Auction 151
    Saturday, April 27, 2024
    Jeschke Jádi, Apr. 27: Lot 671. Jacob / Picasso. Chronique des Temps, 1956.
    Jeschke Jádi, Apr. 27: Lot 1260. Mary Webb. Sarn. 1948. Lucie Weill Art Deco Binding.
    Jeschke Jádi, Apr. 27: Lot 508. Felix Bonfils. 108 large-format photographs of Syria and Palestine.
    Jeschke Jadi
    Auction 151
    Saturday, April 27, 2024
    Jeschke Jádi, Apr. 27: Lot 967. Dante Aligheri and Salvador Dali. Divina Commedia, 1963.
    Jeschke Jádi, Apr. 27: Lot 1316. Tolouse-Lautrec. Dessinateur. Duhayon binding, 1948.
    Jeschke Jádi, Apr. 27: Lot 1303. Regards sur Paris. Braque, Picasso, Masson, 1962.
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    24th April 2024
    Fonsie Mealy, Apr. 24: McCarthy (Cormac). Cities of the Plain, N.Y., 1998, First Edn., signed on hf. title; together with Uncorrected Proof and Uncorrected Advance Reading Copies, both signed by the Author. €800 to €1,000.
    Fonsie Mealy, Apr. 24: Stanihurst (Richard). De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis, Libri Quattuor, sm. 4to Antwerp (Christi. Plantium) 1584. First Edn. €525 to €750.
    Fonsie Mealy, Apr. 24: Fleischer (Nat.) Jack Dempsey The Idol of Fistiana, An Intimate Narrative, N.Y., 1929, First Edn. Signed on f.e.p. by Rocky Marciano. €400 to €600.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Rare Book & Collectors Sale
    24th April 2024
    Fonsie Mealy, Apr. 24: Smith - Classical Atlas, Lond., 1820. Bound with, Smiths New General Atlas .. Principal Empires, Kingdoms, & States throughout the World, Lond. 1822. €350 to €500.
    Fonsie Mealy, Apr. 24: Rare Auction Catalogues – 1856: Bindon Blood, of Ennis, Co. Clare: Sotheby & Wilkinson. €320 to €450.
    Fonsie Mealy, Apr. 24: [Mavor (Wm.)] A General Collection of Voyages and Travels from the Discovery of America to the Commencement of the Nineteenth Century, 28 vols. (complete) Lond., 1810. €300 to €400.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Rare Book & Collectors Sale
    24th April 2024
    Fonsie Mealy, Apr. 24: Mc Carthy (Cormac). Outer Dark, N.Y. (Random House)1968, Signed by Mc Carthy. €250 to €300.
    Fonsie Mealy, Apr. 24: Three signed works by Ted Huges - Wodwo, 1967; Crow from the Life and Songs of the Crow, 1970; and Tales from Ovid, 1997. €200 to €300.
    Fonsie Mealy, Apr. 24: The Garden. An Illustrated Weekly Journal of Horticulture in all its Branches, 7 vols. lg. 4to Lond. 1877-1880. With 127 colored plates. €200 to €300.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Rare Book & Collectors Sale
    24th April 2024
    Fonsie Mealy, Apr. 24: Procter (Richard A.) Saturn and its System: Containing Discussions of The Motion (Real and Apparent)…, Lond. 1865. First Edn. €160 to €220.
    Fonsie Mealy, Apr. 24: [Ashe] St. George, Lord Bishop of Clogher, A Sermon Preached to the Protestants of Ireland, now in London,... Oct. 23, 1712, London 1712. Second Edn. €130 to €180.
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    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: [RUTH, George Herman “Babe” (1895-1948)]. Signed photograph. Circa 1930s. 191 x 248 mm. $1,500 to $2,500.
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    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: ONE OF THE FIRST PRINTED ANNOUNCEMENTS OF THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. $4,000 to $6,000.
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    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: FIRST PRINTING OF LINCOLN’S IMMORTAL GETTYSBURG ADDRESS. $4,000 to $6,000.
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    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: NEWLY DISCOVERED FIRST PRINTING OF "WITH MALICE TOWARDS NONE... " FROM THE ONLY NEWSPAPER ACTUALLY ALLOWED TO PARTICIPATE IN LINCOLN’S SECOND INAUGURAL PROCESSION. $4,000 to $8,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: THE MOST IMPORTANT GEORGE WASHINGTON DOCUMENT IN PRIVATE HANDS; GEORGE WASHINGTON’S COMMISSION AS COMMANDER IN CHIEF, 1775, ONE OF ONLY TWO ORIGINALS. $150,000 to $250,000.
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    Potter & Potter Auctions
    How History Unfolds on Paper:
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    Starting 10AM CST
    April 18, 2024
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: EDISON, Thomas. Patent for Edison’s Improvements on the Electric-Light, No. 219,628. [Washington, D.C.: U.S. Patent Office], 16 September 1879. $2,000 to $3,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: [VIETNAM WAR]. The original pen used by Secretary of State William P. Rogers to sign the Vietnam Peace Agreement, Paris, 27 January 1973. $10,000 to $15,000.
    Potter & Potter, Apr. 18: SONS OF LIBERTY FOUNDER COLONEL BARRÉ ANNOTATED TITLE-PAGE, “WHICH OUGHT TO ROUSE UP BRITISH ATTENTION”. $4,000 to $6,000.
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    Modern First Editions
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    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Winston Churchill. The Second World War. Set of First-Edition Volumes. 6,000 USD
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    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ian Fleming. Live and Let Die. First Edition. 9,500 USD
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