A conversation about bookselling. Your guide to the rare book trade
We asked Sotheran’s Oliver and Rebekah, the brilliant duo specialised in antiquarian books and modern first editions, to write down the most frequent questions, and answers, to the rare book trade.
Here’s what they came up with. Hiding behind their humorous, irreverent style, there are some very useful tips on dealing with antiquarian booksellers, and insights into the fascinating world of the rare book trade at large.
We hope it answers some of your questions, perhaps make you laugh too.
WELCOME TO THE BOOK TRADE
Hey there - didn’t see you behind all those books. Come out, don’t be shy.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SECOND HAND/USED AND ANTIQUARIAN/RARE BOOKS
In many ways, they can look like the same thing, in the same way a black cat looks a bit like a panther on a moonless night in a coal cellar. The most important difference is that antiquarian bookstores tend to deal in books that are collectible for one reason or another, meaning the books can sometimes be very expensive. Antiquarian bookstores tend to rely less on bulk sales of cheaper books and more on high value individual sales. Some very lucky bookstores even do both, to varying degrees.
WHAT MAKES A BOOK EXPENSIVE
Ok there are three main ingredients in the Witch’s Brew that makes a book expensive.
- Rarity. You all know this one. How many copies were produced? How many survived? Is it signed?
- Condition. Is your book a raggedy ass wreck? Does it look like it just rolled off the press? What is the binding like? Does it still have the dust wrapper/ceremonial bookmark/ostrich feather boa it was sold with?
- Does anyone care? This may sound harsh, but you can have the only copy of ceremonial southern seagull prints located in 19th century French portaloos, and unless there’s someone out there who want to buy it the value is exactly nil.
WHERE DO BOOKSELLERS GET THEIR BOOKS?
We get our stock from all over the country, and sometimes from abroad. We watch auctions, buy from other booksellers, and from private estates to find the best material we can for our shelves. We frequently have people write in to offer us books, and we’re open to offers from the public if you think you have something we might like.
I WANT TO SELL YOU A BOOK. WHERE DO I START?
This is a big question. The first thing you’ll want to do is find some booksellers that specialise in the kind of material you’re selling, if possible. The various bookseller organisations all have websites with their members listed, or you can just Google something like “old bookseller who sells Shakespeare” and see what comes up. Then, get in touch by phone or email, and send some pictures if you can. The booksellers will usually be able to advise you from there. Some booksellers have a Sell to Us form on their website!
Bookstores get a high volume of offers every day. Be patient if you don’t hear back at first, and then chase it after a few days, in case we’ve missed it.
WHERE DO I FIND THE RIGHT BOOKSELLER?
Well, you can Google it like we live in the 21st century. But not everyone has access to a computer, and even if you do, it can be a bit wearing scrolling past pages and pages of identical looking stores. If you are in a pinch, there are Trade Organisations – a bit like the Legion of Doom, but for booksellers – who can help you.
They all have websites and directories of booksellers to help you find the right person.
In the UK, the ABA (Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association) and PBFA (Provincial Book Fair Association) can help.
In the USA, the ABAA (Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America) perform a similar function.
ILAB is the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, who operate across national boundaries like the Avengers, except you won’t find them destroying countries and shooting lasers from their eyes unless absolutely necessary.
The best way to make sure you get paid a fair amount is to seek out a dealer belonging to a trade organisation (like we talked about earlier) - they are accountable for their dealings, and often have built reputations centuries old on fair dealing. Of course, the bookseller has to make a profit, and you’ll find that dealers offer you roughly half of what they’d make on the open market.
HALF? THIS IS OUTRAGEOUS?
No, quinoa is outrageous, this is business. Booksellers can usually charge more than you would be able for the same book, because they often have clients waiting in the wings, the expertise to draw out the book’s attractive qualities to the right people, and the infrastructure to sell it at the most advantageous time. We also have to pay for our premises, staff, and the unbelievable amount of ink the printer gets through. There’s also no guarantee we’ll necessarily end up selling it (even with the advantages our experience offers us), so we are taking a risk. Of course, if you think a bookseller is leading you up the garden path, take it to some others. A second (or third) opinion can help you get a better idea of the book’s worth.
THIS ALL MAKES SENSE? MAYBE, BUT WHAT IF I’M BUYING?
Yes, Please do.
I WAS ACTUALLY THINKING OF BUYING A BOOK AS AN INVESTMENT
We strongly counsel against buying a book as a form of monetary investment as the value of Antiquarian books can change with the zeitgeist. Instead, we suggest you buy something you love, and it will never be a bad purchase.
SIGH. FINE. BUT ON THAT TOPIC, I’M NOT MADE OF GOLD. HOW EXPENSIVE IS A RARE BOOK, ANYWAY?
Antiquarian books range from £10 to £100,000, though many are somewhere in between. They can also be a lot more! If you let the bookseller know what you are looking for, they can tell you if they have something in your budget. There’s no shame in asking, and it actually helps if you give them an idea of price.
I LOVE TO HAGGLE, THOUGH. CAN I GET A DISCOUNT?
There is no harm is asking, but be prepared that the dealer might say no. Ad hoc discounts can often be around 10%, unless the dealer really likes you or wants to move a book that’s been hanging around like a bad penny for some time. If you push for discounts all the time, then you might get them, but you probably won’t be the first person we go to if we find a book we know several people are after. You have to weigh that urge to haggle up against the possibility we might find other people who want the books you like who are willing to pay the asking price.
IF I GIVE YOU THE NAME OF A BOOK I WANT, CAN YOU FIND IT?
Yes. And no. Alas, the nature of the rare book trade means that we can’t guarantee finding any particular book - it is a rare book trade for a reason, right? However, what many dealers do is keep an eye on the market for one appearing, and attempt to secure it for you at a reasonable price should that come to pass.
You are not necessarily obliged to purchase a book reserved in this manner unless you agreed to that up front, and some sellers will contact you before securing it to let you know the rough price it might be. In some cases, a dealer may source a book and ask you to pay for it before ordering it in – this helps prevent cases where we pay for a book on someone’s behalf and they never show.
CAN YOU BIND A BOOK FOR ME?
Bookbinders and booksellers have a long, intertwined history, but they are now usually considered two different beasts (with one or two exceptions). You can either go directly to a binder, or ask a bookseller to make arrangements for you. Some very special booksellers have both on site – check with that bookseller’s website ahead of time.
CAN I TRADE YOU A BOOK I OWN FOR ONE OF YOURS?
This differs, but you’ll find that most booksellers can’t accept books, livestock or bags of grain in trade for our stock.
HOW DO I LOOK AFTER MY BOOKS? I FEAR WHEN I LOOK AWAY THEY WILL CRUMBLE INTO DUST.
Depending on the age and condition of a book, this can vary. A few good pointers are to keep your books out of sunlight, and away from damp. Acid-free plastic coverings can help protect cloth from degrading, though this is not strictly necessary. You can buy leather dressings to help preserve leather bindings, which slows down their eventual decay. Equally, not handling books can slow down deterioration (but where is the fun in that?). At the end of the day, remember that books are made of natural materials and will eventually decay like everything else – do your best to keep them safe, but understand that even the best preservation has limits, and that books are there for us to enjoy whilst they last.
I HAVE A QUESTION ABOUT A BOOK I HAVE. I DON’T WANT TO SELL IT, OR BUY ANYTHING, CAN YOU HELP?
Alas, this is a question for a library, a museum, or perhaps an auction house. Many bookstores (particularly ones in high rent areas) have trouble paying enough staff to meet their overheads, and whilst they might spend an hour or two looking up these kind of details for you, too much of that kind of things will see them sunk like the Titanic.
WOW, THIS IS A LOT TO TAKE IN. IS THAT EVERYTHING?
Not at all. The world of antiquarian books has a long history, and all kinds of quirks, but this should help you avoid the worst misunderstandings. Of course, nothing can replace experience – the best way to get to know the book trade and start collecting is to go to book stores! Shop around, find a bookseller you like, and don’t feed them after midnight.