Chapter 364 “What’s This Book Worth?”, Or, On Determining the Value of Books

So there I was this past weekend, reading through one of my local papers, the San Jose Mercury News, scanning for interesting articles. Suddenly, a headline caught my eye: “Web Site Puts a Price Tag on Old Books”. The article, written by Steven Wayne Yvaska, is part of regular column called “What’s it Worth”. The author counsels those who own “old books” to use a bookselling website — abebooks — to learn how much their books are worth. He went on to say, “The Web site is an online marketplace for book lovers. You can buy or sell books, join a club to hobnob with others about a favorite author, and read articles and book reviews.”

My brow immediately furrowed in consternation. While abebooks is certainly a marketplace for books of all kinds and I have bought numerous books there, it is not the best place for a seller to determine price. If all a bookseller does to determine the monetary worth of a book is to look it up on abebooks, is he really a bookseller? After all, what abebooks lists are books for sale. The prices noted on their site are the prices being asked for a particular book, not the prices realized for books actually sold. While knowing the prices currently being asked for a book is indisputably helpful, it is only one of many tools a bookseller uses in determining price.

I’m still new in the antiquarian book business. After two-plus years in the trade, I find pricing to be one of the most difficult aspects of the job. I can remember times when I priced a book too low and times when I’ve lost a sale because I have, perhaps, priced a book too high. Getting it right — where both I and my customer feel I’ve asked a fair price — isn’t always easy. I’m sure more experienced booksellers have a lot they could tell us about their pricing methodologies. Since this is my blog, you’ll have to settle for my opinion on the issue. I have several criteria for reaching a price on an antiquarian book, and I’ll share some of them with you here:

1) The price I set for a book must include room for a profit for my business. I love books and I love my job, but it is, after all, a business.

2) The price I set for a book includes a look at prices actually realized for the same title and edition in similar condition at auction. Two websites, subscriptions required, are very useful in ascertaining these numbers: American Book Prices Current and Americana Exchange. Though they charge an annual subscription, both sites have far more reliable information on prices realized than looking up prices being asked on abebooks. The information I learn there has justified the subscription costs many times over.

3) The price I set for a book includes a look at the marketplace. Sure, that means I look at abebooks, too. But I also examine prices on Amazon, Google Shopping, Bookfinder, and Via Libri. Looking at the aggregate of books offered across several marketplaces will give you a better sense of the overall market. I also take into consideration whether I think a particular book will sell fastest at a book fair, online, or through direct quote to a customer.

4) The price I set for a book includes my making an informed judgment about the book in hand. Is my book worth a high-end of market price (maybe if it’s in better condition than all the others offered or it’s the only one being offered or it has a special inscription from the author) or are the other copies currently on the market overvalued (my copy might sell faster if it is priced lower than the dozen other copies offered for sale)?

5) The most important criteria I use when I offer a book for sale is to do some research (and not just online research; I use reference books and bibliographies, primarily) on that particular book or author. Occasionally, but often enough to make it worthwhile, I find information not widely known by other sellers that illumines the book’s significance for others.

All of these thoughts and more were swirling through my head as I turned the page to read the bulk of the article. I was relieved to see that the author had ended his article with the following:

“Professional appraisers use all sorts of tools to assign values to personal property. They check book auction results and records for specialized sales. Undoubtedly, sellers confer with one another to compare their expertise. Discovering values can be exhaustive and painstaking. You won’t find everything you seek on a web site. . . .”

Quite some time ago I wrote an article about what makes an antiquarian bookseller different from other booksellers. The primary difference is that antiquarian booksellers do not just look up prices asked by other booksellers to determine the value of their own books; rather, antiquarian booksellers use knowledge to find the value in books and to illumine the importance of a particular book for others. To be at all effective and accurate, this knowledge must necessarily include more than the know-how to look up prices on abebooks.

See you in the stacks!


Filed under A Bookseller's Education, Bibliography and Reference Books, Book Finds, Internet Resources for Booksellers and Book Collectors

4 responses to “Chapter 364 “What’s This Book Worth?”, Or, On Determining the Value of Books

  1. Good, but not sure about criteria 1. If you have bought a book and it turns out to be worth less than you paid, it makes no sense to price it above what you paid as it will not sell. You must cut your losses and get what you can for it.

  2. Hello Henry,

    You make a good point about criteria #1. I certainly have encountered this situation before — paying “too much” for a book that I can’t then sell at a profit. I’ve found that, as you suggest, it’s best in this case to just sell the book for what I can get and get some money out of it that I can put toward another purchase. When I wrote my article, I was writing under the (ideal?) assumption that I had chosen and paid for the book wisely in the first place. The situation you mention does indeed happen to every bookseller now and then, so I thank you for bringing it up. It helps make a more complete picture of pricing decisions a bookseller makes.

    Thanks for for being such a long-time reader of the blog and for sharing your advice about criteria #1.

    Best Regards,

  3. WJM

    The situation you mention does indeed happen to every bookseller now and then

    You mis-spelled “all the freakin’ time”! 😉

  4. Perhaps I mis-stated as well as mis-spelled, lol!

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