A recent post by Noah on the topic of book-scouting came hard upon the back of an experience of mine that really brought home the frequent futility of buying second-hand books. And, since the timing was rather too apt to ignore, I thought I’d share my frustrations. But I’m not ranting; be sure to note at the simplicity of the ensuing vocabulary, indicative as it is of me in a reflective (rather than bad) mood.
All titles, authors, bookshops, and websites shall be anonymised in the foregoing narrative.
After much searching for a title by an author I am keen to read, I eventually came across it in a second-hand bookshop in London, one that relies on donations for a large amount of its stock. Cue excitement. The price, however, was ridiculous, so I enquired as to whether offers would be considered (it was donated, after all, not something that had been purchased to resell) and was turned down flat. Fine, their prerogative. When I ventured to enquire how they had reached this eye-watering sum as an acceptable asking price for the book I received pretty much the following answer:
“Well, we look on a well-known reselling website and see what people are selling the books for on there, and we then sell it for an equivalent price.”
Now. The problems with this are legion, but I’ll stick to just the one: a lot of books are listed on secondary selling sites, and a lot of these books are listed on these sites for a lot of money, and a lot of these books do not sell. So using secondary selling sites to set the prices for books is immediately a false way of doing things — you’re not pricing your books equivalently for what others are selling them for, you’re pricing them equivalently at a value others wish to sell them for. All that achieves is the perception of this being the price for which these things sell, and round and round and round we go, where it stops nobody knows.
Happy place happy place happy place happy place…
Because there’s really no clarity on how much a book is actually worth, is there? Or is there?
Mention was made in the comments of Noah’s post about mobile app book scanners being used at book sales to establish which books were valuable and therefore worth buying…but where does the judgement of this value come from? Surely something is only worth what another person is willing to pay for it, and if it’s decided that want I want to sell it for is the same thing as what someone else is willing to pay (obviously allowing — I’ll make this explicit here, since it may get raised otherwise — that, yes, some people are always on the lookout for unreasonably cheap books, and so a sensible threshold must be found) we’re not actually addressing the issue. I’m willing to pay for a book that is out of print and difficult to find. I’m not willing to pay £80+ for it. Someone in possession of such a book would love to get £80 for it, though, and so prices it at £80 and as a result it suddenly becomes worth £80, which since no-one is willing to pay it isn’t worth and so becomes more valuable as fewer of them sell. I feel like Yossarian, the last sane mad in a pricing war I’m desperate to get out from under.
The thing is, this sort of circular reasoning seems to persist in a huge number of aspects of our lives, and comes to seem reasonable simply by repetition. House prices escalate because someone is willing to pay over the odds, and has to borrow huge amounts of money to do so, and therefore all other houses in the street or area become worth the same amount (and, indeed, as soon as one sells cheaply value is cut from others surrounding it, increasing the pressure on prices to remain high). Obscure skills no-one really has much interest in are deemed to add value to something purely through their obscurity: I once saw a stand at a market where a man was cutting designs into metal discs with an angle grinder (East London is a weird place…); it’s a niche form of art few people have any interest in, and this lack of interest meant he sold very few of his wares, and so in order to make money from it he had to sell them at high prices, and since these high prices meant people were even less likely to buy them he sold even fewer than he would have and so they had to be sold for even more money, and so he sold fewer again and so…
With books, value comes from rarity. Rarity comes from them being unaffordable. Which adds to the value. Which adds to the rarity.
Now, sure, I have a vested interest in this — someone is asking stupid money for a book they have not even the slightest intention of reading that I wish to read and cherish forever, and I’m on the moral right but financial wrong side of that equation. Only Croesus need apply. But this just seems emblematic of the issues we seem to face in acquiring GAD books: scilicet, the egregious, pecuniary, avaricious short-sightedness that presumably leads estates to withhold the rights to republishing because not enough money is offered (“100% of the nothing I’ll make by refusing is much better than any money I’m offered!” is a curiously persistent perspective…) and people fortunate to blunder into the fringes of our obsession and hold us to ransom so they can make a lot of money for no effort. So, yes, I don’t view this dispassionately, but at the same time it just doesn’t make sense to my rational brain.
So…is it me? Am I missing something? A chunk of Freeman Wills Crofts books from the House of Stratus reprints have cropped up on a reselling site for an average price of around £70 each — do I just suck it up and pay that for them and become part of the problem? But then why should I support someone who has put in no effort to make these available? I buy all the books I read from the reprint series doing the rounds — the British Library, Coachwhip, Collins Crime Club, Dean Street Press, Locked Room International, Ramble House — because I want to support the people who work to make them available and the bookshops that sell them. I support second-hand bookshops that actually seem interested in selling the books for affordable prices for the same reason…this false escalation price simply because you have a book very few other people do doesn’t quite merit the same reward.
I could go on. I really could. But then it would definitely become a rant, and I don’t wish to be accused of that. Some of my readers, I’m sure, have seen this exact experience from the other side of the desk; I know John at Pretty Sinister, for one, used to be a bookseller, and undoubtedly has a perspective on this that I do not — so, c’mon, hit me. I am open to any clarity that anyone is willing to provide…