Monday, 28 June 2010

Ramble from the secondhand book trade

Another local history book just about out today, Picturesque Excursion to Margate,
Ramsgate and Broadstairs and Their Neighbourhoods, this little guide is the Isle of Thanet part of a larger guide to various resorts in southern England first published in 1839, copies of the original guide are fairly scarce selling at around £100 and therefore inaccessible to many people.

My reprint is priced at £3.99 and will be available online when I get around to it, at the moment it is available in the bookshop.

I was up early yesterday due to the heat and so I went to the a couple of boot fairs, I didn’t do too badly in terms of buying a few unusual books goes although in terms of ordinary modern books go the usefulness of the boot fair is pretty much over for the secondhand bookseller.

This is a situation caused by the supermarkets and I will explain it in some detail as the reasons that bookshops are failing are in the national news again today.

If you take the period that the net book agreement was in force in this country 1900 to about 1995, I think it would be fair to say that this country had both pretty much the cheapest and the greatest diversity of books.

What the net book agreement did was to fix the minimum price for each book, something that meant that the supermarkets and big chains couldn’t undercut the independent bookshop.

Each bookshop in the UK had a different stock, chosen by the people running it and the whole thing was essentially financed by the profits on the few bestsellers.

During most of the last century my family owned bookshops in various parts of the UK mostly Hertfordshire, for some time I traded in the town of Hitchin where there were three bookshops, one specialising in academic books – also supplying local schools and collages, one specialising in military and transport books and the one I was running specialising in the arts and literature.

Sometime in the 1990s the net book agreement collapsed, this was for the most part due to two large chains of bookshops Dillons and Waterstones and pressure from the large supermarkets mostly Asda.

Between about 1995 and 1999 about 500 independent bookshops closed and by now 2010 pretty much all of them have closed, Albion Bookshops in Canterbury, Broadstairs and Cliftonville are examples.

This has lead to a situation where most books seem to be sold now in the supermarket at prices that appear to be special offers, although there is now no set price for books, with the demise of the agreement, prices presumably fictitious are still printed on books and the whole business of new bookselling seems to rotate around discounts from these fictitious prices.

Looking at the new book world, as I do now from the secondhand book world, what is bought, promoted and ultimately sold by the supermarkets, seems to be based around the trade discount more than either quality of value for money.

A problem though from the secondhand booksellers point of view, is that the majority of the people at the boot fairs now all have the same few titles, by this I mean the ones that were sold by the big chain supermarkets on special offer during the last few years.
I am not saying here that I didn’t do ok at the boot fairs, in fact I did very well indeed, stocking up on some basic non fiction, some bread and butter classics, from Winnie the Poo to Julian of Norwich, some basic reference and informative non-fiction from The Penguin Dictionary of Saints an essential item in many libraries that will go out on the shelf priced between £2 and £3, Albert Schweitzer’s biography of J.S. Bach a 1940s two volume A &C Black edition still in dustwrappers, not an expensive item but very much a copy that looks the part. Bread and butter fiction like, The Power and the Glory and Brideshead Revisited, were part of the batch too. Some collectors items like Ladybird books and Observers books, collectable maybe but the prices are likely to be between 99p and £3, which means that one can still enjoy book collecting without having a serious effect on the budget, the star item was a first edition of The Olive Fairy Book, the closest copy on the internet is listed at £660.
This brings up the problems that the internet puts to the secondhand bookseller, I consider a proper and reasonable price for this book in a condition that I would describe as near fine to be about £200 however the internet has made a mockery of such professional judgement.

This means that I will list it to start with at about £600 and reduce the price every few months until it sells, frankly the eventual selling price could be anywhere between £50 and £600.
Another star buy was Louis Wain: the Man Who Drew Cats by Rodney Dale this is the revised 2000 edition and should reasonably sell for about £30, it is listed on Amazon for £117, not a realistic price, but this sort of thing is very difficult if someone has a copy that they want to sell to me and have looked it up on the internet.
What one says in these circumstances is a bit beyond me, but somewhere in the reply is perhaps the reason why people are still going to want a collection of books in years to come. The problem stems from the fact that anyone can put any piece of information on the internet, however misleading and however badly researched and the gullible will always take it as fact.

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