Adding Value to Books by Creating a Collection
Bookseller's collection generates outstanding free publicity.
By Renée Magriel Roberts
In today's super-competitive, Internet-dominated marketplace, we have seen the value of good, used books, and even some more common rare books decline, as customers now have the option of comparison-shopping with dealers all over the world. This is not new to the marketplace; computer dealers quickly discovered that once generic machines were available, they could not continue to get the higher margins that once attracted people to name brands. Some went out of business and others quickly made adjustments, creating a total gestalt, a value-added package, that included not only the machine, but software, support and training.
Selling books is not entirely dissimilar from the technology marketplace. Bookselling responds extremely well to value-added efforts and especially to product knowledge. The research and knowledge behind an author, an illustrator, a work, or particular subject areas, for example, adds value to each and every listing. We have seen on many occasions that books we have listed have sold, despite lower-priced, comparable books being available, because of the quality of the listing.
With this in mind, we have also worked at developing book collections. Collections are worth far more than the sum of the values of the individual books because they represent additional time, knowledge, opportunity, aesthetics, and value that a buyer may not wish to simulate. They are rare by design, because as a collection, they are unique.
I learned a little about collecting from my father-in-law, Paul Magriel, a legendary art collector, who collected boxing ephemera, American drawings, art nouveau, American still lifes, and Renaissance bronzes, among many other groups of works. He had an impeccable eye and would send his collections to museums all over the country on exhibit, sell each one, and then start over again to build a new collection.
We became interested in one particular work, Benjamin Franklin's autobiography or memoir, a few years ago when we acquired an inexpensive early American reprint and tried to figure out exactly how it stood with respect to a "first edition". It became clear almost immediately that there were problems with even defining a first edition of this work. The earliest book in print (Paris: Buissson, 1791) was a French translation of a pirated, poorly copied version of Part I only of the four parts and the outline that now are thought to represent the extent of the work. There was a Swedish translation of the French (1792) as well as a German translation. The first appearance in English was a translation from the French, again of Part I only, and with little relationship to the original ms. The second appearance in English was a different translation from the French, again of Part I only. In 1818 the first three parts were published from the ms., but were edited, in some places for style, in others for substance. And in 1868, when John Bigelow for the first time published all four parts and the outline, from the original ms., he edited the work as well.
Adding Value to Books by Creating a Collection
"First" editions of Franklin's autobiography form a collection, and free PR.
Since a definitive edition of this work did not appear until the twentieth century, the answer to the question of first edition, in my mind, was that the whole collection was a kind of evolving first edition. And so the idea for the collection was born. We thought it would be fun to acquire most if not all of the major appearances of the book and then connect the dots with scholarly material, photographs, and "packaging".
A collection, however, is not just a group of related books. In addition to researching each book and describing it, we placed it in the flow of translations and reprints. We wrote an article for Americana Exchange describing the evolution of the memoir. This article was picked up by a freelance writer from Antiques Roadshow magazine, who interviewed me for their January publication in celebration of Franklin's tercentenary. We could not have purchased advertising better than our exposure on the Web and in print.
This month, the collection, complete with annotated tags, a poster, a handout, and local press releases, is on exhibit at Sturgis Library in Barnstable, housed in the country's oldest library building. Advertising for the exhibit was initiated by the library. This in turn led to a close-up article on the collection by the Cape Cod Times which will be appearing shortly. It is always a plus when a collection is publicized by someone other than its owner.
We will continue to add additional books to the collection, as well as background materials and expose it in ways that make sense. We now have a library of professional photographs taken of each work and enough written material to create a small booklet. With experience and research, comes additional expertise. When we eventually sell the collection, it will be for significantly more than the sum of the values of each book in it.
The basic technique is this: Find a theme for your collection, one in which you have passion. There are innumerable ways to slice and dice knowledge. You can look at a theme repeated in many different works; the works of one author or illustrator; the works of a publishing house; key works in particular subjects. Secondly, be the expert. Learn and keep learning about the books in your collection. Next, make contributions to the field. Write articles for publications (print and online) that might have an interest in the work. Piggyback one article with others. Expose the collection through exhibits (both bricks-and-mortar) and online. We've even used eBay on more than one occasion (with a very high reserve) to "advertise". Package the collection with custom boxes, signed articles, photographs, along with its history and exhibition itinerary make your collection truly memorable. By the time you sell it, it will not have only geometrically increased in price, but you will have gained invaluable knowledge.