A Personal View of 2010
Paul Drake - the face of things to come - heads antiquarian division of Better World Books.
With this article I am just finishing my first year of writing about the antiquarian trade for AE Monthly. It’s been a wonderful opportunity and I’ve enjoyed it immensely, especially working with our AE editor Mike Stillman.
Last February I teamed with Chris Volk of Book Fever in Ione, Ca. to review. This year I thought I’d try it again on my own and take a backward look at 2010 from the perspective of the small independent dealer.
I live on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where I own a small online antiquarian business. I have exactly one live colleague out here – JoAnn Carroll. She runs the Old Lahaina Book Emporium, the only bricks and mortar used book store on our island.
When I asked her: What was the best thing about 2010 in her book business? She replied,
“I made it through.”
And the worst?
“I guess the same thing,” she said, “I made it through but who knows what’s coming next?”
Personally, I feel pretty much the same way. That said, here’s my take on 2010, the year just finished:
The Best Trend:
I found my most profitable and sometimes happiest circumstances came when I teamed up with other dealers. Shep Iams and Chris Volk at Book Fever gave me invaluable advice and an informed perspective. Michael J. Osborne in Maryland took some of my books and prints to a fancy East Coast show and bought a few of the nicer ones for his own inventory.
Vic Zoschak of Tavistock Books in the Bay Area actually visited Maui and shared his thoughts on bibliography and incidentally turned into a customer. Joachim Koch of Books Tell You Why got me excited about the world of James Bond. Tara Gilchrist at Better World Books in Indiana introduced me to Elizabeth Svendsen of Blue Jacket in Ohio who reached over and pulled off the shelf just exactly what I always wanted.
They were all fellow dealers who helped me make a sale or exposed me to new facets of the business. They were all willing to share what they knew and would work with me on a handshake, by phone, by Skype, or email for mutual benefit — this was the most heartening trend in my own business.
A Personal View of 2010
The Missionary Heralds offered my most exciting sale of the year.
The Best Stories
Of last year’s stories, the one on Better World Books got the most hits and generated the most feedback. Vic Zoschak’s comments on the value of bibliography generated the most requests for handouts, and the recent article on 007 Book Values had the best mail, including a letter from a reader in Australia thanking us for running the story and sending a photo of his inscribed Bond books and another shot of him smiling in front of his Bond car - a LOTUS. (For links to a year’s worth of articles see the end of this story)
The Best Moment
The best moment for me as a bookseller came in the fall when the Missionary Heralds I bought at the Lansing, Michigan Book Fair finally arrived here on Maui. Just like the intrepid missionaries, these slim little pamphlets traveled via slow boat and took a long time to arrive in the mid-Pacific.
I got chicken skin as I read these first published accounts giving their first impressions of the place we now call Hawaii. These excerpts from their letters and journals dated 1819 and 1820 were written for the folks back in Boston. Their friends and family had sent them off on a long sea voyage to a far away land and not seen them in over a year.
Until their mail arrived they did not know if they were alive or dead. But they were alive and like good New Englanders busily recording all their thoughts and experiences. They arrived to find the pagan idols overthrown and the royalty and chiefs of the isles receptive to their message. You didn’t have to be a Christian to appreciate these personal historical accounts in their most vivid written eyewitness form.
The buzz I got off these slim little antique pamphlets – the original account in their first appearance - was only exceeded by the thrill of selling this material the next day and at a respectable price.
It wasn’t my biggest sale of the year, but it was my most exciting, the one that turned me on, the one that made it fun and worthwhile to be in this business. I suspect that I, like many of you, relish the thrill-of-the-chase almost as much as the money, though I can assure you that the money does help.
The Best Advice
The best advice of 2010 came from Ian Kahn of Lux Mentis in Portland, Maine. I interviewed him as part of a story on the ABAA. It was Ian who commented persuasively that it was just as easy to sell a $10,000 book as a $1,000 book.
I took this advice to heart. Not having any $10,000 books in stock, I hung up the phone and listed the most expensive thing I could find in my own inventory: a large, old, lovely and rare map of the Philippines. It sold within days.
He was right, the good stuff sells and it sells rapidly. Selling is not the hard part. Finding is the hard part.
A Personal View of 2010
Detail from 1821's Missionary Herald.
The Best Conversations:
The two most memorable conversations of 2010 were with people who held views that were very different than my own:
Early on I spoke with Bruce McKinney the publisher of AE Monthly and the AE auction data base. He is a celebrated book collector of the first order, and has recently held two very large and successful auctions of items from his own holdings.
What was so intriguing about our talk was the realization that the world of books looks very different through the eyes of a collector who is usually a buyer than it does through the eyes of a dealer who is usually a seller. He itemized the reasons why auction data is a more reliable index of value than dealer sales.
That was news to me, because of course; I see it exactly the other way. In my view bookselling is a noble occupation with a long and distinguished history and the dealer a better judge of value than the auctioneer. To me booksellers are a group of passionate people with specialized knowledge. It’s the knowledge you pay for – and it doesn’t always come cheap. But his comments did bring home to me that the buyer’s desires, fears and inclinations, are quite different than what we on the sellers’ side perceive.
Another discussion that stands out in my mind was with Paul Drake, who heads the antiquarian department of Better World Books. BWB is a multi-million dollar on-line corporate book selling operation. We spoke at their Indiana warehouse where about 100,000 mostly donated books a day were coming unloaded out of containers. This was used bookselling on a scale I previously had only dimly imagined.
He knew very little about books, but he knew a great deal about computers, pricing models, algorithm and Amazon rankings. He was very different than any of the other book people I have encountered over the years. I had a strong hunch his view of bookselling has more in common with the shape of the future than mine.
I was also much taken with the way he got into the trade. Here was a person who found himself in the book business much in the same way Jack found himself entwined with the beanstalk. He hadn’t looked for it, it just grew up under him one night and it was growing mighty fast. It was all that he could do to keep up.
That was not the way it happened to me.
I've been a solo dealer for more than 30 years, following in the footsteps of my parents who ran their antiquarian shop for more than 50 years. I started in this trade when the state of the art technology was a mimeograph machine and I’ve been working at it in some form ever since. I’m one of literally thousands of small dealers, all trying to make a living as booksellers, at the same time the trade is changing at an unprecedented rate.
By the end of 2010 with the increasing popularity of Kindles and Nooks, ipads, and free online access to most of what’s been printed in the last 500 years, I found myself wondering if there will actually be a book trade as we know it now in the next ten years?
In 2010 the glut of ordinary post-ISBN books continued. They were cheap, common, losing value rapidly. At the other extreme were the rare, scarce, important, valuable and/or unusual items – many of them pre-ISBN, which now command prices that seem as outrageously high as the other end seems low. For the top end the buyers were insanely picky about condition to the point of absurdity. Mirroring our present economy, the middle seemed as if it had fallen out.
A Personal View of 2010
Gene Alloway, owner Motte & Bailey in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Waiting for the Next Thing
Over the past year I noticed that there is a very strong subset of sellers who are ready to graduate from the AAA bases, from eBay and its ilk but have, as yet, no better place to go. By and large these are specialized on-line dealers who are a cut above the herd, they want a place to sell that shows off their wares yet gives them greater independence and flexibility than any the existing models.
So far that next thing has not arrived. But in the year of Facebook, Twitter and an increasing emphasis on social media, can a new, more direct and coherent marketing model for the small but specialized bookseller be far behind?
Disorganized and Technically Weak
Looking at the demand for a better mousetrap it puzzled me that existing bookseller organizations seemed dated or technically inept. I was also mystified that none of them had been able to capitalize on the fast growing ranks of sellers. Most of the benefits that come from joining them are not the kind you can take to the bank.
Yes, it's hard to organize book dealers, because above all book dealers value their autonomy. Yes, it’s true that when you go into this business it's more like entering some screwy religion than it is about making money. Sometimes I even feel that the business chooses you, more than you choose the business. That said there are zillions of small independent sellers and more coming onboard or moving up a notch every day.
Coming in 2011
For one bookseller’s opinion of what’s in store for 2011 I turned to Gene Alloway, one of my favorite forecasters, who has both an open shop and an online presence as Motte & Bailey in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Here’s what he says:
“This is to me the year we are very much at the mercy of the market. A great deal is up in the air regarding the government budget, real estate, banking, and jobs. For many of us, the middle class is our main source of clients, and all of the above affect that group more than others.
“I also think this is the year of direct selling. Good booksellers do this already, but an increased emphasis on this - the direct seller - client relationship - will pay dividends in both sales and stock.
“Rising postal rates, more cheap sellers online, and fees & low postal reimbursement levels from online sites will lessen profits through third parties.
“A focused approach will be most successful, as we have found in 2010. We went to more shows focused on a single subject (such as medieval history, or even an antique gun show), rather than book shows, and it helped move books, and secured for us better sources for stock. It also helps drive sales to one's own website, where we list books first for some time before listing them elsewhere.
“Unless one has a sizable shop and/or one with a great deal of foot traffic, focus will be key as well. It will be important to identify those subjects that are most productive, and give them greater room for display and stock. No small shop can be all things to all readers, so choosing defined subject spaces and developing those will be important for time, space, and financial management during a difficult financial year.”
A Personal View of 2010
Blue Jacket Books of Xenia, Ohio.
I agree with Gene and here’s my own mantra for 2011:
Big, be it Amazon or Borders may come and go, but small is forever. As small dealers we’re in the knowledge business, whatever format it takes now or in the future. The more we know the better we’ll do. What the dealer adds is the frame of reference and credibility: why it’s important and who might want it. It’s that knowledge that differentiates the wheat from the chaff.
When I finished my year end numbers I found that 90 percent of my revenue came from 10 percent of my transactions, but there were also lots and lots and lots of small sales and at least a few repeat customers whose trade though small was welcome.
My thanks to all of you who helped me make it through.
Links to the booksellers mentioned in this month’s article
Better World Books – Antiquarian Division www.betterworldbooks.com
Blue Jacket Books www.bluejacketbooks.com
Book Fever www.bookfever.com
Books Tell You Why www.bookstellyouwhy.com
Lux Mentis www.luxmentis.com
Michael J. Osborne Books www.michaeljosbornebooks.com
Motte & Bailey www.mottebooks.com/shop/motte/index.html
Old Lahaina Book Emporium www.oldlahainabookemporium.com
Tavistock Books www.tavbooks.com
Susan Halas, a long time antiquarian dealer, writes for AE Monthly.
Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are the links for a year’s worth of Halas’ stories in AE Monthly
Feb. - Bookselling – It’s a Business (with Chris Volk) tinyurl.com/67hf9o2
March - ABAA – Data, Knowledge Charm, New Blood tinyurl.com/64nmdhr
April - Exit Strategies: Getting out of the Book Business tinyurl.com/63lb6ej
May - Richard Minsky on Decorative Bindings tinyurl.com/672dbmj
June - Cherokee Nation Puts History on Display tinyurl.com/5rn4awb
July- Bud Plant celebrates 40 years in Comics & Illustration - tinyurl.com/6xwheet
Sept. - Vic Zoschak Talks Bibliography tinyurl.com/6gxeokx
Oct. - Bookselling tips for eBay tinyurl.com/6xwdker
Nov. - Better World Books - tinyurl.com/6k8qk3t
Dec. - Nancy Pearl: America’s Favorite Librarian tinyurl.com/5wn2nj8
Jan. – 007: Bond for Booksellers tinyurl.com/6jbghya
See all the articles published by AE Monthly in the AE Archives at: