Reality Returns to Bookselling
The next few years will be difficult
By Bruce McKinney
The median price of books, manuscripts and ephemera, measured across more than 220,000 lots sold at auction in 2008, fell 21% from 2007. The decline, which mostly occurred in the second half, saw the median price for the year fall to levels consistent with 2003 while masking a larger decline that, if sustained in 2009, will carry realizations back to levels last seen in 2000. Dealers and auction houses generally expect further retrenchment and auction houses are lowering estimates and reserves in response. Note: Median price is the midpoint of prices paid and differs from average price that is disproportionately affected by single high value transactions.
Reality in 2009 will now work itself out in public - mainly in the auction rooms where six-hundred fresh lots are posted each day. Should realizations continue to fall such experience will lead to lower expectations. It's a potentially slow and uneven process that may take several years as many online sellers will probably prefer to wait for recovery rather than adjust to a downturn they hope is temporary. They may wait a long time. Even when the economy was strong only a small percentage of old and rare books listed on line sold in any year. In recession, sell-through will further decline. At auction 70 to 76% of all listed items have sold over the past five years.
In what is shaping up as a tumultous year the spreads between auction realizations and online listed prices, which generally have run at a 3 to 2 ratio [$100 on a listing site, $67 at auction], may increase to 2 to 1 [$100 on a listing site versus $50 at auction]. In this scenario auction realizations decline while listing prices, at least short term, hold.
While the book business has unique problems it is also part of the real economy and the economy will be weak for an extended period. This is the eleventh sustained economic downtown [10 recessions, 1 depression] since 1900 * and looks to be neither garden-variety recession nor an absolute depression. Mike Stillman calls it a "decession" or, if you prefer, "repression" and it looks to be five years more or less. The Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, who teaches at Princeton and writes for the New York Times, has recently conveyed a sense of possible abyss. Frank Rich adds this: "While its become a Beltway cliche that America's new young president has yet to be tested, it is past time for us to realize that our own test is also about to begin." The economy is going to get tough and how much room there will be in the lifeboats for books is uncertain.
Historically, in the book business, sales rather than prices decline. In commercial fields that informally set prices based on observation of competitors' prices the variable is time and the rare book business, which is anathema to lowering prices, simply hunkers down. In this economic downturn that strategy is almost certainly not going to work because the economy, in recovery, will experience inflation that returns dollars that buy significantly less. After all binges there are then the headaches.
Reality Returns to Bookselling
After 2000, increases in home value based on easy money replaced job creation as the fundamental driver in the US economy. And for a while it was possible to periodically refinance real estate to 'borrow' the gain without incurring tax. It was too good to be true. The bubble has since burst and real estate valuation is now trying to find traction at 60 to 70% of peak values. The government is committed to saving homeowners from default. Nevertheless, foreclosures will peak over the next three years. To lessen the crisis primary mortgages will probably fall below 4% later this year.
For book, manuscript and ephemera dealers the issues are further complicated by the un-braided nature of economic priority and its impact on demand. All purchases are not equal. Food, medicine and mortgages come first and books, manuscripts and ephemera somewhere after. For the bookseller who depends on selling for a livelihood, there may be limited options for inducing buyers to purchase other than to offer pricing concessions. The standard approach - lowering prices - however is difficult to use because most booksellers list on sites with thousands of others – where there are often multiple copies in varying condition and where all pricing reference is to other listed copies rather than to present value [auction] calculations. Hence a book listed at $800 on line may transact at auction for $300 but internet buyers not know this. For the seller the dilemma is whether to price based on online competition or against auction realizations and there is no easy answer. Certainly, collectors are moving toward market-based pricing but how many and how quickly, is unclear. Nevertheless, to put bread on the table, some dealers may need to lower prices on-line and hope to do it in a way that attracts buyer interest without incurring seller retaliation. Their reference may be exclusively to other listed copies but it may not be competitive enough to induce the 'auction aware' to buy. If everyone cuts prices no comparative advantage is achieved and theoretically everyone loses. No matter how you figure, it's going to take more sales to make the same income in 2009. How long the downturn lasts is an open question. That books, manuscripts and ephemera though are uniquely vulnerable in this downturn is beyond question for several reasons:
 High speed online access, cheap computers and ultra fast online databases everyday link more disparate book inventories into what is becoming essentially a single online search of an ever increasing quantity of material. Excessive availability and selection dilute demand even in the best of times.  The world's interest in and need for physical copies is also declining as the next generation looks past physical objects to ultra-fast deep searching of primary text. For many, efficient access to content obviates need for the object. A portion of the buying public will simply disappear.
Future generations may read more words but certainly fewer books and inevitably come to see us as the last stone-age barbarians in a world in which the human expectation about information changes so fundamentally it actually restructures thought.  The very nature of collecting is changing. It is turning out that books, among the many forms of printed material have been collected, not because they have been preferred, but because they have been possible. As the internet and sprawling databases bring broadsides, pamphlets and ephemera within a single search, books face an additional dilution of demand. This is already very clear on eBay and is spreading into the auction rooms. There are, conservatively estimated, ten million ephemera. Pre-1925 books probably total less than 400,000 titles and editions.
So even without an economic down-turn the book business has faced an uncertain future as millions of printed objects that recently had higher commercial value face increasing competition both from other copies and other collectible forms. In a world of supply and demand, the supply increases, the demand decreases and in some cases simply morphs into new collecting directions.
Reality Returns to Bookselling
What can be done? The on line universe that is making books, manuscripts and ephemera uniquely vulnerable at the very moment when the economy is under severe pressure can be seen as either a disaster or opportunity.
The current approach is convenient to sellers but discouraging to collectors. The way forward lies in reorienting listed material into logical collecting categories and building communities around these subjects. We have started to do this as Wiki Bibliographies. It is only a start and I'm afraid many dealers will fail before the new methodology takes hold. In the meantime, let's prepare for a tough year. There are going to be some exceptional items to buy. The trick will be to pay fair prices, and if bought by dealers, to have the skills to deliver them into outstretched hands.
Economic Contractions in the Modern Era
There have been many sustained economic downturns during the past one hundred years. They are usually associated with failed economic policy and are as natural as rain. Since 1900 there have been eleven such events of differing severity. We remember the Great Depression as the most serious and sustained but there have been ten others:
1907-8|| 2 years|
Reality Returns to Bookselling
Personal savings as a percentage of disposable income.
Personal Saving as a Percentage of Disposable Income (1970-2005). Click the thumbnail image above left to view this chart.
Personal savings as a percentage of disposable income has been declining since the early 1990s as families substituted increasing asset values for savings. With the plunge in real estate we will probably return to more traditional savings rates in the 8 to 10% range as a percentage of disposable income. For several years consumers will spend little - thus insuring that economic recovery will be slow.