Updated: Nov 18, 2020
by Vic Zoschak of Tavistock Books
This essay of mine, “What’s This Book Worth?”, was originally published in 2002 for the benefit of the fledgling IOBA membership, the Association having just been formed but 3 years prior. However, the questions it attempts to answer are eternal to bookselling, which is to say, the essence of which is the ability to pencil an informed price on the flyleaf of a book one wishes to sell. And given the queries, “What do I have?” & "What is it worth?”, persist to this day, IOBA thought it worthwhile to again publish my methodology for answering same.
“Is it a first?” “What are the points of…?” “I can’t find a price guide for…?” “No copy on the net, and need to know the value of…?” Such are the daily, ubiquitous questions found on the various bookish listservs to which many booksellers & collectors subscribe. Most such queries are asked by novice booksellers, or the o.p./used bookseller who has what is thought to be a [potentially] valuable book. And in fact, upon examination, all these questions have in common this last aspect of the bibliophilic world, for what matters the edition, or issue, or state, if not that fact’s relevance to commercial value? Before answering, recall, gentle reader, we pose this query from the perspective of the bookseller, vice book collector, as this IS an article for the IOBA Standard…and given one rarely sees a question posed regarding “which is the best scholarly text?” or something equally indicative of an interest other than monetary, most, I suspect, would respond to the original query with “very little”.
So, let’s us make the assumption that commercial value is a driving force in the bookseller community, and that most, if not all, booksellers would prefer to not “undersell” a book, where it is understood that “undersell” is defined by the individual, and the definition of which will run the gamut of the individuals doing the defining.
What then confers “commercial value”? The answer, in theory, is easy: nothing more than the forces of Supply & Demand. Determining such for a book not known to you… well, therein lies ‘the rub’, does it not? However this situation need not be too daunting if approached in a systematic manner. One just need evaluate the 4 basic factors that affect the commercial value of a given book: Edition (a Supply & Demand factor), Condition (also a Supply & Demand factor), Availability (a Supply factor) & Desirability (a Demand factor). There are then 3 subsequent factors, all pertaining to the individual bookseller, that will influence the price that bookseller actually establishes for the book to be sold: (1) the amount the bookseller paid for the book, (2) the bookseller’s desired profit margin, and (3) the bookseller’s customer base. Let’s begin by looking at, in greater detail, the first 4 factors…
Edition. In Book Collecting, the “name of the game1“, is ‘First Editions’. Let’s take this as a given, and just accept that book collectors [in most cases] prefer the first edition (which we understand to be the first printing) of a given work. Though one qualifying remark need be made at this juncture…when determining commercial value, one must always look at the book from the perspective of the book collector, e.g., a Rackham collector will want the first printing with his illustrator’s work contained therein, which will not necessarily be the true first printing of the title in question, yet, to continue with this example, the ‘Desirability’ factor of Rackham illustrated books is such to give these works a significant commercial value, perhaps even greater than the true first printing of the title.
So the question now becomes one of determining the edition of the book under consideration…there is no easy answer to this question, as different books from different periods require different approaches. However, this is key — don’t guess! Have some rationale or reference that substantiates your assertion that the book in question is the edition you state. And here is probably a good time to relate that, in my experience, reference books soon pay for themselves, and the old adage of using 10% of one’s annual profits to build a reference library is still valid today, despite the availability of information, and misinformation , on the Net.
For the booksellers reading this essay, this last issue regarding reference books can be approached from another perspective, and can be conversely expressed via the question, “What price your reputation?” Do you wish to be known as someone who “wings it” or as a professional who “knows what they’re about”? Not to say errors won’t be made, we all make them, but in my experience the conservative approach, in the long run, will better serve.
Condition. “Condition” in Book Collecting is analogous to “Location” in Real Estate, i.e., it is everything. Book collectors are little different than collectors of other material goods — they, more often than not, wish their collected pieces to be as close to “original” condition as possible. Simply put, the better the condition of a given book, the higher the commercial value. And remember, it is NOT a straight-line relationship…e.g., there are significantly fewer Fine/Fine 1st edition copies of GONE WITH THE WIND than there are VG/VG copies; as such, the Fine/Fine copies command a premium, and consequently are worth significantly more.
And at this point, we should probably mention dust jackets…they first appeared on the scene in the 19th C. but until the mid 20th C. they were viewed as ancillary to the book, and were usually discarded. Hence dust jackets from the late 19th C. or early 20th C. are quite scarce, and this factor is recognized by market forces in the values assigned these uncommon pieces…e.g., an early 20th C. A. C. Doyle title usually sells for $3000 or so — a few years back one was auctioned with dust jacket (1 of 2 known as I recall). It pulled down over $100,000.00.
Availability. Supply of a given work is primarily a function of initial print run, and other subsequent factors such as initial popularity, time in existence, etc., etc. ‘Availability’ can be sub-divided by condition & edition — e.g., if your client is seeking a Fine copy of a given book, the ‘Availability’ pool will be smaller than if a VG copy is acceptable. Edition can also affect this factor when Issues & States come into play…let’s consider Dickens’ OLIVER TWIST which has a famous issue point with respect to the title page — the first issue has the Dickens pseudonym ‘Boz’ on the title page. When Dickens saw this, he requested an author name change be made by the publisher, so the Second issue states ‘Charles Dickens’ on the title page… both are First Editions, but which one will your customer prefer? If Issue is not an issue, then the ‘Availability’ pool of First Editions is larger. Either way, the rule of thumb is that the 1st issue item will command a higher price, both for reasons of primacy and availability.
Desirability. This is simply answering the question of ‘who cares, and why?’, and is probably the most influential factor in determining a given book’s value. The determination is relatively easy for some books (e.g., Hemingway’s THE SUN ALSO RISES), & more difficult for others (D’Anvers CRAFTSMAN)…but if you can’t ascertain any market whatsoever for the book under consideration, then rarity is strictly academic, and the book has little-to-no commercial value. Conversely, a book such as the NUREMBERG CHRONICLE that has recognized great historical significance with high demand and relatively low availability will command a significant price (5 figures for this particular book).
Summary. So then, how does one arrive at a price? A methodology I employ is a series of questions & answers… First, what do I have? After determining the two factors that answer this question (e.g., edition & condition), I note whether or not it has any special attributes, such as ownership signatures (author or otherwise) or publication specialty (e.g., ARC). NB: Research signatures in books! I have more than once made a significant sum because the bookseller from whom I bought a book did not take the time to look at, much less research, the signature/inscription in a book.
Next comes an idea of availability…Are copies currently available (e.g., AddAll.com), and in what quantities? If yes, how does my copy compare to those currently on the market? Where do I want to position my copy with respect to the others available? Who’s at the high end…what are the copies like at the low end? Etc., etc.
If no copies are currently on the market, then a determination of track record is in order…here one can look at old bookseller catalogues, price guides, and auction records. If found, then one need to do no more than extrapolate to current conditions.
Finally, if the book held has no history, at least as far as we’re able to determine (recognizing that extremely few books have absolutely *no* market history), then questions on importance to society & an estimate of desirability are in order…chances are if we’ve arrived at this juncture, then the market segment interested in the purchase of the item is perhaps quite narrow or the book is quite rare…but either way, with an item not currently available, one is still able to establish the price…simply make a value judgment on what is held, think of a price, and mark it on the flyleaf.
Lastly, we need acknowledge individualistic factors in ‘marking that price on the flyleaf’…what was paid for the book? Booksellers cannot sell at a loss, and expect a long business life! Which presupposes that the book was bought at a price that allows for markup does it not! Second, how much profit margin is desired? Is the price to be set at the absolute top of the market? Somewhere in between? And what customer does the bookseller have for the book…for example, does a bookseller known for reading-copy mysteries have credibility with a buyer of Aldine imprints for that 1513 Cicero that came in a box of books? Probably not. So, all these factors warrant consideration by a bookseller looking to establish a price for a book. But, as you might imagine, there is no ‘pat’ answer, and each individual must decide their respective position on each book.
In conclusion, & speaking solely from a personal philosophy, I don’t worry too much about ‘making a mistake’, i.e., underpricing. For, if I follow the above methodology, chances are I’ll be “close”, and I’ll certainly make my profit margin on the price I’ve established…and unpriced books do no more than take up space. Which, afterall, is in-and-of itself a cost…not to mention — there are always more books, and space is something I’ll definitely need for that next batch that walks in the door.
1For the most part — as with most rules-of-thumb, there are exceptions, with many coming in the Americana genre, where the addition of maps, etc. in later editions may challenge the first printing of a title in desirability and, consequently, commercial value.
Originally published in the September 2001 issue of The Standard.