#361: False Economies – On the Buying of Second-Hand Books (Definitely Not a Rant…)

Books waiting

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.

four-little-chow-chow-puppies-portrait-waldek-dabrowski

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.

mind-blown-28

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…

57 thoughts on “#361: False Economies – On the Buying of Second-Hand Books (Definitely Not a Rant…)

  1. Regarding your last paragraph, this does not seem to be a problem for Pretty Sinister John. He has often purchased rare second hand books for high amounts !

    • Fair enough, some people undoubtedly have a commitment to this that I don’t. I’m not so concerned about the means and whims of individuals — if you see a book for sale at a price you’re willing to pay then you buy it, that’s how buying works. I am, however, mystified by this seemingly false escalation of price and availability that is entirely self-supporting. And, obviously, insecure at my own meagre means excluding me from partkaing… 🙂

  2. We are fortunate that there are various publishers who are re-issuing GAD at normal book prices. As this seems to be a growing phenomenon at the moment, hopefully some estates will see sense and realise that something is better than nothing. Also copyright, which in the UK seems to last for 70 years after the death of the author, will start to run out for many GAD authors e.g. Freeman Wills Crofts in 2027. John Dickson Carr won’t be until 2047, which may be a bit late for some, but would suit me as I hope to be hitting retirement then.

    As for books which are obviously overpriced at the moment, it depends how much the seller wants to sell – if they aren’t that bothered, then they can market at a silly price in the hope that some mug meets that price.

    Individuals have to decide how much a book is worth to them, and stick to that, even if sometimes that means missing out, and you always have the hope of picking up a bargain some day.

    • it depends how much the seller wants to sell – if they aren’t that bothered, then they can market at a silly price in the hope that some mug meets that price.

      Yeah, I have a feeling I’m over-complicating it — you’re admirable in your brevity on the matter!

  3. My personal obsessions, Street and Flynn, are often the victims of this overpricing – there was a copy of Murder At Lilac Cottage by Rhode for £1400 on Abebooks for example, and someone has been desperately trying to flog a non-dustjacket not-quite-first edition of Death In The Tunnel for £200 on eBay for at least a year with no success.

    By sticking to eBay auctions, and having a strict maximum spend, I’m doing my best not to contribute to overpaying and hence overpricing other copies – there’s at least one Flynn out there that I want but I’m not willing to pay £35 for it.

    Of course, we bloggers are in part to blame when the prices go up – when we start trumpeting up Flynn, Rhode or whatever, all it takes is piquing the interest of couple of interested with deeper pockets than you, and you can forget about ever completing that collection…

    • Of course, we bloggers are in part to blame when the prices go up – when we start trumpeting up Flynn, Rhode or whatever, all it takes is piquing the interest of couple of interested with deeper pockets than you

      This feels like one of those 1970s cop movie reveals when you’re forced to ask who the real villain is and it turns out to be society. Man, we sure do create a lot of our own problems, hey? okay, form now on I shall slam everything, especially if I haven’t even read it and don’t own it but reeeally want to. Zero-star reviews all round…who’s with me?!

      • I’m with you, JJ. From this moment on, I pledge to single-handedly take down Christie using the power of my blog, driving her books to worthlessness, snapping up first editions for a song, then turning them around and selling them for a fortune to the people who now loathe and despi- . . . . . . . . . oh . . . . . . well . . . . . . . . . never mind.You’re on your own, mate.

      • I am slightly lucky in that when a shall-we-say obsession starts for me, it starts quite quickly and I tend to have a blitz on Abe books. But currently Flynn seems to have completely dried up (and a lot of titles weren’t there when I started) and Rhode has slowed down considerably…

  4. I’m with PD! Once the adoring public gets a whiff of your review of The Beacon Hill Murders, those Roger Scarlett volumes will be jacked up in price so fast your head’ll spin!!

    I think that in the real rare book world, there’s a science to pricing these things. But the used bookstores available to me – and there are sadly very few of them anymore – seem to take a more haphazard approach. I picked up a beautiful copy, with jacket and in very nice condition, of Van Dine’s The Bishop Murder Case because it “only” cost $35.00. The bookseller seemed almost apologetic to be asking that. (He’s also a very nice man who feels bad that he doesn’t get more classic mysteries for me to plotz over!)

    The bookstore that is closer to me but has a much less nice proprietor has a cabinet in the store showing off some signed editions in fine condition. There’s a copy of Agatha Christie’s . . . I can’t remember if it’s Elephan’s Can Remember or Third Girl, but it’s one of her worst titles . . . anyway, it’s evidently signed and it has a jacket, and I think he’s asking something like $900.00!! I want to ask him, “Why?” I get it, it’s Christie, but it’s a terrible title, and the store’s in downtown San Mateo where the elite do not meet, and the book has been sitting in that display case for well over two years – right next to a fine copy of Ellery Queen Jr.’s The Red Chipmunk Mystery that only costs $200.00!! Meanwhile, on another shelf I found a perfectly acceptable hardbound copy of Carr’s Till Death Do Us Part – a first edition in great shape but without a jacket – for $6.95. Six dollars!! Say what? (It now resides on my humble bookshelf, thank you very much.)

    Meanwhile, a store in the city sells Dell Mapbacks for $15 . . . go figure. The pricing schemes of these organizations are all over the place. I do understand the concept of pricing high to give something value – that sounds horrible even as I write it – but I share your frustration, and I also go onto eBay and marvel at the gross overcharging of books I cannot hold in my hand before I buy. Incidentally, I looked up Hitchcock’s Three Investigators on eBay and there are a lot, but again the prices are all over the place and I’m not sure what to do!

    And I had to laugh at your drawing a comparison to real estate, having been through a roller coaster ride with my own condo. I bought it for a jacked up price using “creative financing” which almost lost me the house when the market tanked and my loan amortized. And all the elderly people around me began to sell off their homes for a song in order to cash out and move to assisted living, which drove my value down even further. And then it all came back up with a vengeance. The inventory is so small in my desirable area that everything is ridiculously expensive – even my place should I decide to sell it. But then I wouldn’t be able to afford to buy anything else . . . As one of the great purveyors of real estate (poppy fields, flying houses) said at her damp, mournful end, “What a world, what a world . . . “

    • Brad, those 3I books bug me too. I have a nearly complete set of Collins UK hardbacks and always have a look around for a few I don’t have but the pricing can be crazy.

    • The Beacon Hill Murders is off to a good start, actually. Maybe I should snap up the other Coachwhip reprints of Scarlett before I end up enjoying it and driving the price through the roof. Because we all know how influential my blog is…

      A great example of inconsistency can be found in the nearest second-hand bookshop to me, which had a green Penguin Captrain Cut-Throat on it’s Hey These Are Old and No-One Cares! shelf for 99p, and then a (later) green Penguin Dead Man’s Knock on its Hey These Are Old and So Therefore We Have to Charge a Lot for Them! shelf for £6. Hell yeah I bought both, but I wondered if approaching the dek and pointing out the discrepancy was more likely to get me a bill for £1.98 or for £12.

      Just to be careful, I bought the cheaper one first and my friend bought the second for me immediately afterwards…that way he could argue them down if anyone noticed.

      What a time to be alive.

  5. I know how you feel it can be annoying when books are exorbitantly priced such as those Stratus House ones. I am fairly good at not giving in and buying books at ridiculous prices, instead hoping cheaper copies will come up later on. This has happened for me with Ames a few times. As to the second hand bookshop which gets donated goods, at the Oxfam I work at, we do look up prices for certain books, but then we often deduct some money off so we’re cheaper than online prices. But I second the Puzzle Doctor’s notion of eBay auctions, as you can get some ridiculously cheap items, unless there are some plonkers who push the bids up too high 5 days away from the end of the auction (why? why? why? – to be fair that would be my book buying rant).

    • eBay can be useful, I don’t deny, and I’m mindful not to contribute to the problem when I sell on there by offering stuff at low prices. Having a price limit, as PD suggests, and the belief that a book will come up again at a sensible price is definitely the way to go — and, in a way, the exorbitant over-pricing has saved me a lot of money because otherwise I’d’ve snapped up a fortune’s worth of reasonably-priced books….but it’s a sad state of affairs when that’s the way to get a positive out of a situation that’s so clearly unbalanced.

      • Regarding eBay, my alert just pointed out to me a Rhode that I’ve not seen before for just over my price limit… It is his final book and apparently crap, but… Aargh! Good thing I don’t have some surplus in my PayPal account or I might weaken…

    • I am fairly good at not giving in and buying books at ridiculous prices, instead hoping cheaper copies will come up later on

      That’s what I try to do. I tell myself that I don’t actually need to buy that outrageously expensive out-of-print John Rhode title right now since I have loads of unread books already sitting on my shelves. If I wait a month, or six months, or even a year, I could get lucky and find a much cheaper copy. And surprisingly quite often it works.

      The key is to have several simultaneous obsessions, so if you can’t get the book you’re really lusting after you can console yourself by grabbing a few reasonably priced titles that you’re lusting after almost as much. Just don’t get fixated on that one book that you absolutely must have right now.

  6. Yeah, there is no logic to some of the pricing we see. On a few occasions I have paid what I consider above a reasonable price for a book, or a particular edition, I especially wanted. But, with a frankly huge pile of stuff to be read, and the rotten memory I seem to have regarding plots and so on, I’ve decided I no longer need to play that game. If I see something for what I feel is a fair price, fine. If not, there’s enough to occupy me already on my shelves.
    Actually, I’ve found a certain resale site particularly annoying with some books getting auctioned and selling for absolutely ridiculous prices – three figures is not unusual for some editions – and I sometimes wonder if these bids are all genuine or whether some aren’t there to, shall we say, “massage” the final price.

    • The frank absurdity of my own TBR is — like you — one of the few consolations I take when the pricing and/or unavailability of books starts to get to me; it’s not like I have nothing else to read. And that tides me over until the scratch at the back of my mind goes “So, I hear Henry Wade’s good…”

  7. Perhaps there’s a deeper conspiracy here and the most over-priced books are hiding the secrets to the universe – immortality, the ultimate meaning of life, where all the teaspoons go – concealed in handy, coded, bite-sized chunks. Naturally such knowledge cannot be allowed to fall into the unwashed hands of the impecunious masses.

  8. I have some of the House of Stratus paperbacks and the bindings are pretty bad (one of them is essentially a pack of cards at this point), and yet I see them listed at +£50. Who is buying them?

  9. Excellent post. I went to my first book fair today, and have now decided that I’ve enough books to be getting on with until the next one. Possibly also influenced by Amazon sending me an email asking if I’d like one of their business accounts to reduce money on buying in bulk…
    I now feel guilty about some of my earlier purchases – my impulsive, internet-addled brain wants the books Right Now and knows Amazon is the least-effort way of achieving that. So I’ve bought quite a few books, which, having just seen them lined up in neat rows for a few quid apiece, I realise were overpriced. And having bought the cheapest copy, the next available copy is more expensive, and so on and so on.
    Anyway, I remembered an amusing blog post on the topic of Amazon pricing:
    http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=358
    Perhaps it’s not quite people at fault always…

    • That’s a very good story, thanks for posting the link. And, hey, as for your own guilty conscience…man, we all do silly thing when we’re young 🙂

  10. If this bookshop is using Amazon as a pricing guide, not sure that is the best method.
    Sellers price books and let them sit there for months, I think/assume they have no overhead at least I don’t,

    I would take a customer with ready cash over a potential customer anyday

  11. I assume this whole post is triggered by me buying that heavily desirable edition of The Devil Drives for $8…

    Well, obviously it isn’t though, since it kind of swerves in the other direction. There’s a definite madness to book prices – those House of Stratus reprints of Crofts are possibly the best example. They look amazing, but who on earth is going to buy them? Yeah, Crofts titles run on the expensive side, but if you’re patient you can pick up a decent selection of them for a reasonable price. Oh, err… maybe I wiped those off the market…

    I’ll give my own personal experience with buying books although it may run somewhat askew of your overall point. I’ve personally never spent more than $12 for a used book. I typically try to buy batches of at least five books by an author, because there’s a definite savings to be had – I typically spend around $3 per title. In the event that I’m pecking off a one off purchase of an edition I really want, I typically max out around $9. The one time I spent $12 was for John Dickson Carr’s The Hungry Goblin, simply because the price seemed too good to be true (and the book turned out to be in pristine condition).

    Of course, I do most of my shopping online, as I live in an area that doesn’t have stores richly stocked with GAD books. If I were to find some in an actual store, I’d be more than happy to pay a little premium since 1) I’d get the book right there and then 2) I want to support a store that carries this sort of stuff.

    New books are an exception. For those Locked Room International Books and the other reprints I’m willing to pay what is a relatively expensive price – three times the price of the used books that I typical purchase. Well, I don’t actually purchase these myself – I put them on my wish list for my birthday and Christmas. My friends are more than happy to drop $20 on a book that they know I’ll enjoy rather than buy me a $30 bottle of booze or something else random. I personally find the price of these newer editions to be somewhat ridiculous, but I’m definitely happy to direct money to the businesses bringing these hard to find stories back to life.

  12. I probably shouldn’t give away too many bookselling secrets, but there’s one thing about pricing that consumers don’t generally know. As a former mystery bookstore employee, I can say that it’s sometimes a good policy to have at least one ridiculously overpriced book in your store. For one thing it makes customers take you seriously if you want more for one book than they paid for their entire library. And there is a psychological THING at play here. If I’ve just shown you Nicholas Blake’s copy of The Poisoned Chocolates Case, warmly inscribed to him personally by Anthony Berkeley, and I want as much for that as a small used car, of course you don’t buy it. I don’t expect you to. But you are then more receptive to paying a proper price for a book that you are sure to find interesting by an author whom you enjoy in a significant edition, so more ready to put up $60 for a signed first of such-and-such. And occasionally — very, very occasionally — someone will come in who came into a large sum of money and will buy you your next car in exchange for a book 😉

    • I’ll give away all the secrets if you give me time! HA!

      When I was selling used books full time one of my primary goals was to undermine this avaricious practice of overpricing “rare books” and to make the kinds of books I sold (crime, supernatural, adventure fiction and Photoplay editions – nothing else) affordable. Only on rare occasions when I knew that I had a real treasure did I ever dare to charge skyrocketing prices. The most money I ever made on a single sale of one book was $1250 for a copy of THE ADVENTURES OF ROWLAND HERN with a DJ. I’ve never seen another copy since. That’s when a genuinely rare book merits the “outrageous” price. I sold it to a fairly well known collector who lives in Japan and who has a want list of some of mysterydom’s rarest books. In fact, I had three books on his list the day he met me.

      Value is an illusion for the most part. Scarcity does not equal value at all. I get so irritated hearing this over and over. So what if — according the omnipotent and all-knowing internet — you have the only copy of THE BLOODSTAINED ORIENTAL CARPET by Gwedolyn Chitterdale. Is she a collectible author? Is that particular title a “hot commodity” greatly desired? Is it in pristine condition? Then go ahead and charge $650 for it. It’ll probably just collect dust on your shelves for years. What’s the point? Are you running bookstore catering to READERS or a book museum devoted to the sale of treasures for prissy collectors who only want to complete their set of glass-encased rarities? I was only interested in being one of the former.

      “countdownjohn” has pretty much hit the nail on the head with his observation about a book having only personal value and worth. The rest of it is nonsense as far as I’m concerned. The practice of consulting the internet for comparison pricing as a basis for any book’s value is utter bullshit. It has fairly ruined the way used books are sold as all of you have already discussed. It continues to anger me because I have always been a person who buys used books in order to read them first. Rarely am I looking for “collector’s” copies. I’ve long realized what a pointless pursuit that is.

      What no one has discussed in pricing is Rule Number One of Bookselling: “Condition is everything.” It’s not about scarcity — only the ignorant sellers think this is what determines a price. Condition determines price first and foremost. Anyone not following that rule doesn’t deserve your business. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fired off irate letters to supposedly professional booksellers and asked for my money back when I spent $60 on a beat up utterly crappy reading copy that was supposedly described as being in Very Good condition.

      Booksellers who don’t have standards, who think they know more than you, and who more often than not betray their ignorance of the rules don’t deserve your business. Unless, of course, they have a really rare book at a dirt cheap price. Then by all means take advantage of their ignorance! :^D

      • Thanks, John — it is to be hoped that most people with an understanding of what they’re selling are so considerate about it. Certainly I’d stop short of saying that everyone involved in the selling of second-hand book is an avaricious soul — I’d have no books at all were that the case — but the few who seem to hold buyers hostage over the many who are sensible about what they ask will always predominate in the mind… The democratisation of bookselling in the age of the interwebs has definitely upped the instances of people being able to ask ridiculous prices, not least because they’re guaranteed a far higher number of potential customers viewing what they’re offering. Still, the rest of us live in hope!

  13. Just a quick bookbuying anecdote. Just missed out on a copy of Dr Goodwood’s Locum by John Rhode – catchy title, no? It’s a late-ish title (i.e. a bit crap, probably), it’s not the only copy I’ve seen for sale, there is a dodgy ebook version on the Internet Archive and copies of Nothing But The Truth and The Telephone Call from the same publication series went my way for less than £15 each. How much did it go for? £54 quid!!!

  14. Pingback: “Someone’s going to want that some day”: Book scouting, part 2 | Noah's Archives

  15. I spent some time searching all the serious used bookstores around for Carrs a couple years ago, and filled some gaps. But it was a slog. Then I walked into the small mass market used shop half a mile from my house. You know, Dan Brown, and more Dan Brown. They had 54 different titles of Carr/Dickson, none for over $2. My advice JJ is, be lucky 🙂

    Alas the Green Capsule was in the worst shape of any book I have ever seen, and Til Death and Punch&Judy were not among the 54, but gift horses, mouths.

    • Yeah, my copy of Green Capsule — being very secondhand — is possibly in the worst shape of all my Carr books. I’d love to find a better copy, and hold out hope that one day, one day…

      In the meantime, there’s always those last six Crofts books I need to track down… 🙂

        • Not one I’ve read yet, but I’ll be there soonish. I’m going chronologically now, so it’s Pit Prop, Groote Park, Greatest Case, and then Starvel. Okay, maybe soonish-ish.

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