April 23, 2013

Personal essay: Regarding the realities of book collecting and the delicious sadness of 'Market Warriors.'

The CCLaP Rare Book Library

So what was it that got me into collecting rare books for the first time a few years ago? Well, mostly financial reasons, to tell you the truth; specifically, since my goal is to get a physical Chicago location for CCLaP up and running by 2020, undoubtedly I will be seeking a small loan from my bank around that same time, and since I don't drive or plan on buying a home anytime soon, I have to come up with some other way to build up collateral over the next decade to use against such a loan. And rare books are a particularly good option for me, because all the reading and research I already do at the blog helps me become a better expert at what to collect; plus I can occasionally sell such books through CCLaP for a little extra cash in my pocket right now; plus doing so gives me an excuse to do a write-up of each title for the blog, and I'm always looking for excuses to generate more content for the blog; plus once I do get a Chicago location for CCLaP open in 2020, it can also serve as a retail location for such books, which many times is difficult for a rare-book dealer to afford, and will guarantee a lot more sales once it's open.

And then what I've discovered over the last several years is that this is simply an enjoyable hobby for me as well; because since I can't afford to significantly invest in books that are already worth a lot of money, I'm playing the long game and am trying to pick up a lot of relatively new books (well, 1960s through 2000s) that I hope will be worth a lot of money twenty or thirty or forty years from now, but that can be picked up super-cheap these days simply because hardly anyone is seriously collecting them yet. And so that takes me to a lot of garage sales and used bookstores, in the hopes of filling out my collections of such Postmodernist authors as Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Philip Roth, John Updike, E.L. Doctorow, John Irving, T.C. Boyle, Saul Bellow and more, and unsurprisingly enough it turns out that hunting through back stacks of used bookstores for overlooked gems is something I find quite pleasurable. (Best deal I've found so far this way -- a first-edition copy of Sinclair Lewis' 1929 Dodsworth, purchased for $3 and sold for 100.)

Philip Roth's 'The Breast,' first-edition copy

But I've discovered something important about this process, that's since had me really thinking about the entire subject of collecting and collectors, and what makes a system like this work; for the discovery is that there's actually a multi-tiered system for deciding what the price of a given rare book is, depending on what situation you're in and how fast you need to flip that book. See, when most of us think of the value of a particular rare book, what we're usually thinking of is the price quoted by a full-time professional dealer, within their cute little retail store on the edge of the artsy shopping district; that's essentially the same price that an insurance adjustor would use when making an appraisal, which is what's used to determine its worth against a small loan, which is why I interchangeably use the terms 'dealer price' and 'insurance value,' although of course I'm simplifying it all here for the sake of clarity. But if you want the book to have a good chance of actually selling soon, so that you have actual cash in your pocket instead of just a theoretical fortune, you have to drop that price dramatically, in many cases as much as half of what the dealer's price is; and then if you want to guarantee that the book will be sold by the end of, say, a week, by auctioning it off at eBay and accepting whatever the highest bid happened to be, you can reasonably expect only half of even that, and count yourself extremely lucky if you get even one dollar more. So to use an easy example from my own collection which I'm not planning on selling anytime soon, which lets me talk about the price frankly, my first-edition copy of Philip Roth's 1972 The Breast in fantastic condition (especially valuable here because so few first-edition copies were printed) is currently being sold by several dealers at industry website ABEbooks.com for $100; but if I had a booth at a book fair and really wanted it to move, I'd price it more at $50; while if I wanted to have actual cash in my hand a week from now via eBay, I'd be lucky to get $25. (But given that I found this on a side shelf at last year's Newberry Library Book Fair for just $3, pretty much any of these amounts would constitute a big win in this particular case.) And the reason it works this way is because a retail dealer often has a collection of 50,000 titles or more, so can set each one at the ultra-highest "magic price" that you might only get from one specific customer on one specific day when they're looking for that one specific book perhaps only once in a decade or two (and in fact that store might very well wait twenty years before that particular book is sold). A store or a full-time dealer can reasonably expect to have X amount of "magic customers" like this per week, as long as they keep a big enough stock and nice enough shop, a luxury not afforded to those with smaller collections or who need the sale guaranteed sooner.

The hosts of PBS's 'Market Warriors'

And I think about all this a lot as well whenever I watch another episode of the new PBS show Market Warriors, which has become a huge guilty pleasure for me this year but not for reasons I think the producers would be happy with. The show basically takes the "finding a deal" aspect of Antiques Roadshow and makes the competitive aspect more overt; four dealers are sent to a different flea market each week with a thousand dollars in their pocket, and being given a series of rules and themes to what they should be purchasing, then afterwards everything is shipped to an auction house halfway across the country and resold, the "winner" of each episode being the one who makes the biggest profit margin from the process. But there's been a surprise about all this in the first season that the producers obviously weren't expecting; that in our post-Recession times, a lot less people are in the mood anymore to buy antiquish doodads, and that most of these dealers in most of the episodes actually end up in the hole by the end, the winner often only having a profit margin of $50 or less. (In fact, I don't think there was a single winner in the entire first season that generated more than a few hundred dollars in profit, obviously a disappointment when they were given a thousand and were reasonably expected to occasionally double or even triple that.) So why don't all the people at the flea market itself adjust their prices to reflect this new reality too? Well, that's the part I find fascinating; because they end up forming this powerful echo chamber when they're all together at a big event like that, where a collective consensus has been formed among this elite group of educated experts that jars badly with what the tens of millions outside their circle believe.

That's why nearly all these beginner guides to collecting books say the same thing, that if you're looking to make a quick and regular profit from the stuff you're collecting, you're better off going with sports memorabilia, comic books, designer dolls and the like; because here the echo chamber is even stronger, so strong that it's just accepted by everyone as fact, featuring a more centralized core of experts and publications that set a much more standardized price for things that everyone can agree on. And that's because these fields contain much less total stock in existence -- if there are only so many baseball cards ever made in human history, for example, the value of each of those cards goes up, and it's much easier to standardize what that value is -- while if you're looking at something like book collecting that has such a wider pool of collectable objects (literally every first printing of every book in human history), or the similarly wide world of antiquing (where every decorative retail object ever made in human history has some sort of value), it suddenly becomes a lot more difficult for everyone to agree at every moment what the expected price of one particular object within those millions and millions should be. And again, this is why the sales part of my rare-book collecting is a fun little experiment right now but nothing that takes up too much time; what's more valuable at this point, to cite one example, is to be trying to collect all nine of Philip Roth's "Zuckerman" novels from over the recent years, something that forty years from now will have a much more agreed-upon high value than any one particular random novel from the 1970s. I've started collecting here in my early forties, so there's no reason not to expect that I won't eventually cash them all out until my eighties, still almost another half-century from now, and so that makes the hunt for great Postmodernist literature (and the game of guessing which will eventually be most valuable) a worthwhile one, even if one that doesn't promise a lot of money right this minute.

Mark Twain's 'The Innocents Abroad,' first-edition copy

So what's the total value of CCLaP's rare book collection as it stands right now, at 118 titles? Well, this is obviously a very rough estimate, and done by me so isn't nearly as reliable as if a true professional appraised them; but at this point I'm estimating that the insurance value as of right now is around $1,600, not bad for only doing this for two years now, and spending mostly only the spare change I have left over at the end of any week. But if I walked into a dealer's tomorrow with the entire collection and wanted to sell all of it at once, I really couldn't expect much more than an $800 offer; and if I put them all on eBay and wanted a guarantee that they'd all be sold by a month from now, I'd consider myself lucky to walk away with $400. Which, again, is still pretty good for a collection of books I mostly paid only a few dollars for apiece, at random garage sales and thrift stores and the like. There's some debate as to what the one most valuable piece in my collection currently is, although in the running and certainly the most impressive is my first-edition, third-printing copy of Mark Twain's 1869 The Innocents Abroad, only the second book of his career and the first to make him famous. If I were a dealer, I'd price this at $350, or at a book fair at $175; but this was a sentimental purchase, bought at last year's Printers Row Book Fair to celebrate the end of a very good year for CCLaP, and the first expensive rare book I ever bought, so I have no plans on selling it anytime soon.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:05 AM, April 23, 2013. Filed under: CCLaP Rare | Literature |