Mining the World of Bargain Books
John Alcock's Orchids.
By Renée Magriel Roberts
There are many different ways to buy books: from individuals, estate sales, auctions, publishers, distributors, and library sales. You can even publish books yourself, as we do. But another way to acquire stock expeditiously and at very low prices is to buy bargain books.
Bargain books are typically acquired either directly from the publisher as titles that are just not moving rapidly enough to justify their storage, or second-hand from wholesale jobbers at still heavily discounted prices. These books can be "remaindered," typically with a mark on the bottom pages, or some other kind of defacing from mild to obnoxious. They can also be "hurts," i.e. books that can no longer be sold as new because they were damaged at some point in their manufacture or transit. Or, these books could just have been those that were returned to them by retailers. They are sold by the book, the box, pallet or trailer-load.
Sometimes bargain books are part of a "white sale," that is, a deep discount directly to the retail trade from the publisher. Or, the books can be acquired through an auction process which typically involves large amounts of money and commitment - these auctions would typically be "attended" by jobbers who then re-sell to the retail trade. Although publishers sometimes sell smaller quantities in these auctions, preference is given to the larger orders.
The interesting thing about bargain books is that although they sell at heavily discounted prices, they are not necessarily cheap books at retail. Not at all. Books that are discontinued by the publisher after a limited run may readily fall into the category of rare books. And often, limited runs have only one edition - the first - which also adds value to the book. I have even purchased signed first editions as remainders.
So in purchasing bargain books, one of the things that we consider is whether we will be able to sell the book for more than its original retail price. Rather than compete at the bottom with bargain resellers, we'd rather compete at the top. We are less interested in selling more copies of books inexpensively, than selling a few at rare book prices. We have found that this is a lot less work and is more profitable in time, shipping materials, and money. Now, that is not to say that other business models aren't acceptable; this just happens to be ours.
The discounts on bargain books range widely, but generally from 20% - 50% off the suggested retail price, or even more. Jobbers will typically required a minimum order, say of $200 to get the full discount, or perhaps a minimum quantity of 50 books. You will want to read all the terms and conditions of sale, as books are often not returnable. If you do not want to work with damaged books (that are really hurt, or have remainder marks), you need to make sure that these are not part of your order. Some jobbers will not give you that option; some will.
Mining the World of Bargain Books
Inventing Modern and The Tale of the Scale.
Sometimes bargain books are offered as an "assortment," i.e. not by individual titles, kind of a book goody-bag where one's only option is to specify the maximum number of any individual title. We don't like surprises, so this option would not be of interest.
We look for interesting titles by quality publishers, interesting illustrated books, first books by authors, or books by well-known authors. We look for well-made books and books with a high price-to-value ratio. We always specify the kind of books we won't accept (e.g. no hurts, no remainders), and we try to buy from jobbers or publishers that we trust.
For example, here are some interesting titles that were lately remaindered by Oxford University Press:
Lienhard, John H. Inventing Modern: Growing Up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins. Cloth binding, 292 pp. Illustrated. "The professor and historian who hosts NPR's The Engines of Our Ingenuity here looks at the distinctly 20th-century culture of "Modern" in America, born of the push for new technology and progress and shaping the thinking of young minds growing up in such an age. But it has not been one long march into the future. Modern was once X-rays and radium and radio waves, art deco skyscrapers and the Bauhaus School, Buck Rogers and Fritz Lang's Metropolis. It was also the Teepee Motel in Wharton County, Texas, left behind by the new interstate; Burma Shave signs that no longer dot the highway; and the utopian cities envisioned by razor magnate King Camp Gillette. John Lienhard considers Modern as an entity here, offering snapshots of 20th-century America and remarking on the signposts of its evolution until it went the way of fins on cars. He looks at not just the artifacts but also the thinking of our Modern society, and how the revolutions of science and the romance of discovery were reflected in the kitsch of Modern culture even as they were obscured by it. Black and white illustrations appear throughout the book."
The suggested retail price of this book is $28.00; it is available for $2.00.
Angel, Solly. The Tale of the Scale. Cloth binding, 304 pp. "This is an engaging first-person account of a ten-year journey in relentless pursuit of a small vision. In the mid-1980s Solly Angel saw in his mind's eye a quarter-inch thick personal scale weighing a pound—a true travel scale—and he decided to make it a reality and bring it to market. An urban planner by profession, with an international reputation, Angel had no mechanical skills going into the project. He records his transformation, over the course of a decade, from a bungling ignoramus to an expert on thin scales, and takes readers along from Bangkok to California, from Groningen in the Netherlands to Murrhardt in Germany, and from New York to Tokyo. Geography aside, Angel also explores realms of knowledge inhabited by people with diverse yet complementary outlooks on the invention process—engineers, designers, lawyers, product development specialists, corporate functionaries, and friends who philosophize on the deeper meanings of one's life pursuits." Originally retailing at $28.00, this book is available for $1.50.
Mining the World of Bargain Books
Indian Painting and Imperial Silks.
How could you go wrong with John Alcock's An Enthusiasm for Orchids: Sex and Deception in Plant Evolution. Cloth binding, 302 pp. "The male thynnine wasp's extreme sexual urgency is crucial to the reproduction of hammer orchids in the wild, as John Alcock reports in this book. Hammer orchids have co-evolved with the thynnine wasp to produce odors identical to those manufactured by the females, in effect exploiting the male's highly adaptive sense of smell and his enthusiasm for mating. Illustrated with color photographs, this book abounds with clever explanations for how orchids came to be shaped as they are. Each element of an orchid, as quirky as it may seem, is biologically significant, bearing the imprint of natural selection." Suggested retail $29.95, now available for just under $4.00.
If you prefer art books, try this one from Abrams:
Seth, Mira, Indian Painting the Great Mural Tradition. Cloth binding, 464 pp. "Illustrated with 355 color plates, this massive study of the mural painting tradition in India provides an in-depth analysis of the connections not only between different schools of painting but also the sister arts of sculpture and architecture, and puts each work in its political and geographical context. Mira Seth, the world's leading scholar on classical Indian wall painting, has personally visited all of the major sites featured in this book, from the temples of South India through the Deccan plateau—where the Ajanta and Ellora caves are located—to Rajasthan and the Jammu and Kashmir region in the north." Originally $75.00, now $15.00.
Or Jacobsen, Robert, Imperial Silks: Ch'ing Dynasty Textiles in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2 volumes in slipcase. "This gorgeously produced two-volume catalog presents the Ch'ing (Qing) dynasty imperial textiles and costumes from the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, considered one of the finest and most comprehensive holdings outside of China. The collection has a rich history—approximately half of it belonged to the San Francisco attorney William E. Colby, who amassed it throughout the opportunistic decades of the 1920s and 1930s. Only a few works from the 592-piece collection have been exhibited over the past six decades; the 1991 exhibit "Imperial Silks of the Ch'ing Dynasty" displayed more of the collection than ever before, and is the foundation of this comprehensive catalogue. Imperial Silks opens with an overview of the archaeological record of silk in China and then divides the museum's collection of Ch'ing dynasty textiles into nine chapters covering 26 basic categories of garments, decorative furnishings, and accessories. Nearly every piece is photographed—many are in color—and about 200 of the primary objects are accompanied by a technical analysis that includes the structure of the fabric, thread counts, and dyes used." Originally $195, now about $50.
Bargain books can be seen in person at major books fairs, such as Book Expo America (BEA); London Book Fair (LBF); Frankfurt Book Fair; Ciana (also in London), and at CIROBE in Chicago. Since many presses participate in the bargain book trade, I would not hesitate to contact a publisher in whom you are interested to see where their bargain books are sold. Lists of attendees at any of these trade shows available on their respective websites, or by query, will be a great starting point to source bargain books.
Renée Magriel Roberts can be reached at email@example.com.