Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Recent discussions on the Bibliophile newsgroup board have addressed the issue of how to price a book when there is a lack of other copies on the net. The bottom line of the discussion seems to be research and knowledge. This needs to be expanded to include the pricing of books when there are several or many copies on line. The use of online listings as anything more than an auxiliary tool for pricing is not research to be employed by booksellers. Knowledge and experience, a reference collection, colleagues you can count on to turn to when your stuck; these are the indispensible tools of the bookseller.

I was faced with an appropriate illustration of the perils of the current state of bookselling yesterday. I walked into a small local store yesterday, one which has been operating for quite some time. It's a general shop and does not have an "antiquarian" or rare section, but on the wall, in a folded ziplock bag, was a beaten up copy of Beckett's En Attendant Godot, with the wrapper separated from the book, a big chunk of the spine missing and general darkening throughout. It was marked $1000, which would be a very healthy price for a first in such crappy shape. But it wasn't a first, just a 15mille (fifteen thousandth), which was worth perhaps $10 if it had been in perfect shape.

I had a friendly conversation with the person at the counter, who was not the owner, but who was a "cataloguer" for the shop. They had written the listing, and with the owner had priced the book, and neither had any idea how to begin to determine a French first edition. They defended the price by saying that there were other copies of the first on line for $4500. They didn't know that these were mine, nor did they know that the prices were as they were because one was truly fine and the other was a very scarce review copy. They had merely looked the book up on Bookfinder, seen the higher prices and the same date of publication and marked it accordingly.

Did this make me crazy? Yes. It is irresponsible on the part of the bookseller. It makes it appear there are more copies of this book available than there actually are. It reflects badly on booksellers as a whole. Etc. etc.

Bookselling is an exciting trade in part because you never know what you might next have to learn about. I remember researching a fine collection of bird books while working for another bookseller, and a small group of very rare early accounts of the Spanish conquest of America for yet another seller. I knew nothing of these areas when I started, but by the time I was finished with each, I had a general knowledge of the appropriate reference books, had tracked down listings from older dealer catalogues and auction catalogues, and catalogued and priced the books accordingly. Could I have made a mistake? It's possible, but I had done my best at the time and could now feel comfortable defending my research and prices, should a customer or colleague question them.

The tasks of research and cataloguing should be seen as opportunities, not chores. They are part of what makes bookselling a challenge and their skillful execution brings a bit of honor to the trade with each performance.

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