Here’s the rest of the article I recently wrote for BookThink on scouting for and finding saleable books. Part 1 is here, in case you missed it. You might notice that some of Part 2 comes from an old blog post I did on this topic; I think the information is germane to the topic and worth repeating. Enjoy!
As I wandered the booths of the fair in San Francisco, I realized that if people are going to buy books from me instead of one of the other 200 sellers there, I had to do several things: offer books no one else was offering, offer books in the best possible condition, and offer books at a fair price.
First, I specialize in a field not already dominated by a dozen other booksellers and I know my specialties. I currently specialize in illustrated and unusual books by Dante Alighieri and in books written by or about American women in the 19th century, most of them pioneers. I chose my specialties primarily because these are subjects I love, and as a former high school English teacher, also studied and taught. I have better luck selling what I know and I expect to know more the more that I sell. I have taken the time to educate myself about the best books in my field. Who wrote them? What are their titles? What do they look like? Could I recognize one if it were found on the bottom of a heap of other books in a box?
I also buy /invest in bibliographies relevant to my areas of specialty. I read those repeatedly and also read other dealer catalogues on the subjects to improve my knowledge of what’s out there. That way, when I go “out there”, I know a bit about what I seek – titles, authors, editions. Additionally, I learn what characteristics will help me identify a book in the field previously unknown to me – names of significant people who wrote about Dante, artists who illustrated the Dante, or titles of books about places where pioneers settled, to give a few examples.
Secondly, I try to buy books in my subject area in the best condition I can afford. One thing I realized while looking at the books offered by other booksellers at the fair is something I had heard many times before but that didn’t register completely until I was at the fair: Condition is paramount. After seeing the books of 200 booksellers displayed right next to each other, I really understood this concept. If you are selling books at a fair with 200 dealers, chances are that someone else may be offering the same book or type of books as you. The factor that usually makes the difference in selling that book is better condition. The same is true when selling books on the internet. If a collector wants to purchase a book that has 12 copies listed for sale online, chances are he’ll buy the one in the best condition. Condition matters.
When I saw the range of books offered at the San Francisco fair, I resolved to quit buying those tempting books with a few flaws I come across every so often, like the first edition that sells for many hundreds of dollars in fine condition, but since my copy needs to have the front board re-attached, it will be worth significantly – no, exponentially — less. I don’t know why I continue to stockpile such books. I think that sometimes I become so excited to find a particular title that I don’t care about condition. If I find the title in question, I’ll buy it. Unless the book is truly rare – as in no other copies offered for sale in the last 100 years — all this leaves me with, really, is money poorly spent and books with flaws when there are plenty of fine books available. I concluded from my book fair observations that I would be better off spending my money on acquiring only a couple of fine books than I would spending my money on a dozen good books.
I also try to offer my books at a fair price, based on the current market value of the book, how much work I put into researching and describing the book, and based on making more than I paid for the book. This means that I have to acquire the books at a good price in the first place, which really means I have to be creative when hunting for books.
Where, then, to scout for saleable books?
Start with the ubiquitous estate sales and library sales. You won’t find hundreds of volumes of good material at one time, but these sales are excellent places to start. Library sales give a new bookseller a chance to see books of all editions and all conditions. It was at a library sale that I saw enough book club editions of books that I began to learn how to distinguish most of them from a real first edition. You won’t see any book club editions (at least I hope you won’t) in a true antiquarian bookshop, so it’s hard to learn if that’s the only place you shop. It was also at a library sale that I learned to differentiate condition — a good from a very good, a very good from a near fine, and a near fine from a fine book. Seeing the wide range of conditions on so many books helped me to know to know the difference. A library sale will add volumes to your education as a bookseller, if not to your bookshelves.
Don’t despair that you see a lot of dreck at most library sales (and you will see a lot of dreck). The term book hunter suggests that we must know the dross from the gold. If you are new to book collecting or bookselling, you need first to learn to recognize the dross in order to separate it from the gold. Once you attend the same sale a few months in a row, you will get pretty good at this and no longer feel like you aren’t seeing anything saleable at your library book sale. Also, if you inadvertently purchase some “mistakes”, you won’t have broken the bank to do so. When these mistakes happen to me, I chalk it up to “bookseller’s tuition”, the price I pay to learn to be a good bookseller.
When you’re confident at a library or an estate sale, start scouting your local historical society. Many of these organizations hold regular sales. Mine even has an open used book shop. I was once lucky enough to find books and ephemera donated to the historical society that have the bookplate of a prominent California historian, and that added somewhat to their already saleable value.
Another place I shop frequently is the open (and/or online) shop of my fellow booksellers. A very valuable part of my bookselling education has been to get to know other booksellers. Once you have some basic knowledge, it is worth your time to cultivate a relationship with more experienced sellers. I now know a few well enough that they’ll buy a particular book with me in mind, hoping they can sell it to me. I’ve also been able to supply a couple of booksellers whose likes and dislikes I’ve gotten to know. Sometimes they will offer me a book at a low price because it is a book outside of their own specialty and they want to get their money out of it and devote that money to another book within their specialty.
If you can’t exhibit at a book fair, attend one instead. Some of my best buys have been from other booksellers at book fairs. A book fair can offer 50 or more booksellers in one location, or in the case of San Francisco, 200 sellers. Frequently, sellers offer books at fairs that they do not offer online or in their shops. You can also occasionally find deals among booksellers looking to sell off books they acquired that aren’t a part of their specialty. They are wonderful places to scout and to meet your fellow booksellers in person.
I do go to the occasional book auction, though I don’t often find bargains there. Still, I learn a lot about what makes a book sell. It comes back to condition nearly every time. I also buy some books on ebay, but not unless I know a lot about the book I’m about to purchase. There’s nothing worse than a seller purporting to have a first edition and then seeing the actual book and finding out it’s a book club edition. Better to know the points of issue ahead of time and figure out for yourself if the book is actually a first. I’m wary of signed books sold on ebay, too. It’s just too hard to determine authenticity in most situations. Still, when you know what you want and you’ve done your homework, you can find interesting books there.
Purchasing an entire estate of books may also lead to some good finds, but, if like, me you are a new bookseller, take care to research how to evaluate and negotiate such a deal. I’ve purchased such an estate once before and it was a good experience for me and for the seller, but I asked the advice of more experienced booksellers as to the protocol of housecalls before I agreed to look at the customer’s books.
Finally, read Larry McMurtry’s entertaining novel, Cadillac Jack. It’s a fun read and is a great portrayal of the mindsets of collectors and sellers, even though the characters in the book are neither booksellers nor book collectors. The narrator, Cadillac Jack, repeats a mantra when he is looking to buy items he can resell later: “Anything can be anywhere.” I have discovered that, more important than where one hunts for books, is the attitude with which one hunts for books. I have had some of my best book finds when shopping while employing Cadillac Jack’s “anything can be anywhere” motto. When you find a saleable book, the main thing is to pay attention to how your own knowledge will help you sell this book, to condition, and to the price you pay for the book.