Skip to main content

How to Price Used Books as a Dealer

I helped in the 1960s in my parents' used book business. It specialized in mail-order scholarly and collectible books. I owned it 1978-2005.

Look at the Competition

For every used book dealer, whatever the size and whatever the specialties of his or her stock, pricing each individual book offered for sale is a necessary, time-consuming, endless task, with each book requiring thought and a considered decision. This article describes the basic principles and rules of thumb by which an antiquarian bookseller learns by experience to quickly make pricing decisions that lead to profitable sales.

In this digital age, the most useful action to take in making an optimal pricing decision is to go online and find books for sale on mega websites, such as Bookfinder, or go to a major book-sales site such as Abebooks or Alibris and look at the prices being asked for comparable copies of the book being priced.

'Comparable' pertains mainly to the physical condition and to the edition and impression (printing). Comparing a fine condition copy and a merely good condition copy is less relevant and helpful than comparing copies in similar conditions. Comparing a first printing of the first edition copy and a later printing of a reprint edition is less relevant and helpful than comparing like editions—especially (but not only) if the title is sought by book collectors.

Also important is a sense of the demand for that book, or for such books, among regular and potential customers.

And additional factors which either often or sometimes are helpful to consider include: is the book out-of-print; how scarce is it; how emotionally attached is the bookseller to it, and does the bookseller have any immediate special plans for it.

For a closer look at the factors that professional booksellers consider when choosing the retail price of a used book, read on.

A sampling of used books a bookseller might have waiting to be priced

A sampling of used books a bookseller might have waiting to be priced

Consider These 8 Factors when Pricing a Book

1. What is the condition of the book?

Take a close look at each of its parts and make a mental note of any wear and of any defects and make a judgement whether the book is overall in as new/pristine/very fine, fine, very good, good, fair, or poor condition.

Click here to see my article describing the condition of used books. It explains how antiquarian booksellers use such terms to describe the physical condition of books, tells why the condition is very important when buying, pricing, and selling used books, and includes citations to additional sources on that topic.

Armenian New Testament published in Amsterdam in 1698. British Library copy described as, "Rebacked. In poor condition."

Armenian New Testament published in Amsterdam in 1698. British Library copy described as, "Rebacked. In poor condition."

2. Is it a first edition first printing?

Customarily, saying that a book is the first edition means that it is a first edition first printing (impression) unless a later printing (impression) is mentioned.

The first printing of the first edition of a book is usually more in demand than later printings or reprint or later editions.

My father's explanation of this is that the author is more likely to be interested and involved in the production of the first printing of the first edition, so it is most likely to be closest to the ideal printing of the book that the author wanted to present to the world.

Each publishing firm has its own way to indicate in a book if it is a first edition first printing, and the same firm might have different ways during different years of its history.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Toughnickel

Some books are what book dealers call "first edition thus". A book originally published in the USA might have a first British edition, a first Canadian edition, and so on. A book published in English might have a first Swedish language edition, a first Spanish language edition, and so on. There might be a first illustrated edition, a first edition with a certain Introduction, a first annotated edition, a first paperback edition, and so on.

For most books, a "first edition thus" is of little significance as a selling point, though generally worth mentioning. If a first edition first printing in very good or better condition in the dust jacket if so issued copy of a book is rare, with very few copies available to the many wanting it, then collectors unable to find or afford such a copy might settle for and pay quite a bit for an early printing of the first edition or for a "first edition thus" or for a first edition lacking the dust jacket or in less than very good or better condition.

For example, a copy of the 1st edition 1st printing of Soldiers' Pay by William Faulkner was auctioned by Christie's in 2010 for $37,500. Search Google Shopping on William Faulkner Soldiers' Pay, sorted by price high to low. The last time I did that, an asking price for a signed 1st edition 1st printing without the dust jacket was $6,500; for a signed first English edition in the dust jacket was $6,750; for an unsigned 1st edition without the dust jacket was $1,500, and for a fair condition ex library no dust jacket copy of the first edition was $277.

To give another example, an asking price for the 1851 first edition first issue binding of Moby Dick by Herman Melville was $38,000. There were asking prices of $10,000 and $4,200 for a 1930 limited edition first-edition-thus illustrated by Rockwell Kent.

3. How many comparable copies are being offered for sale by others and in what range of prices?

Before the availability online, this factor was iffy and tenuous and depended on remembering or keeping notes about what you saw when you visited the shops of other antiquarian booksellers, read their catalogs, or read their classified ads in AB Bookman's Weekly. There were a few pricing guides to certain sorts of collectible books that gave an inkling of their value, but they were far from exhaustive, soon outdated, and usually gave only top-dollar prices for copies in collectible condition. These days, book prices can be compared online on a global scale in minutes.

One approach to doing this is to use one or more of the find books for sale mega websites—AddAll Used and Out of Print Search, Bookfinder, BookFinder4U, or Used Book Search Net. Specify a used book search.

When searching for a used book at one of these sites, it is easy to overestimate the number of copies available, because oftentimes a dealer will offer the same copy of the same book at a number of different used bookselling sites. Take care not to count such books more than once.

To avoid that problem, instead, search one or more of the main online used bookselling sites. Amazon dominates, but AbeBooks, Alibris, BetterWorldBooks, Biblio, Books A Million, and Powell's Books are also huge.

When you are comparing the copy of a book you have in hand with what is available for sale online, be sure that you are comparing copies that are the same edition and impression and are in the same condition. Take into consideration anything special about your copy, such as if it is signed by the author.

Ignore online books for sale postings by dealers who don't bother to describe individual books but rather use a generic description such as that a book "may" have certain defects.

Search eBay not only for scarce, collectible books. Many people offer common, ordinary books on eBay. A big advantage of using eBay for pricing research is that if you log in and so request, it shows prices realized—the price someone actually paid for a copy that sold. And if a copy didn't sell, that is also useful to know.

From your research results, ascertain the range of prices and the high, low, and median price that other dealers are asking for comparable copies of the book in hand. Decide: Is your best bet to underprice everyone else? To underprice all but one or two or a few sellers whose prices for that item are ridiculously low? (Many of those will be being offered by individuals who want to make a little extra money on books purchased for their own use and no longer wanted and who can under-price booksellers because they aren't making their living selling books.)

To put your retail asking price somewhere between the low and the median going prices, because your circumstances warrant that—like, perhaps your customers would rather pay you a little above what they could find elsewhere because they are too busy making money to bother with comparison shopping? Is your best bet to set your asking price above the median average because of special circumstances, such as that yours is an association copy and so unique or such as that there are too few copies available for a meaningful comparison to be possible?

4. Do you have one or more customers looking for that title, author, genre, or topic?

A sense of the degree of interest among her/his customer and potential customer contacts helps a used book dealer decide the price to put on a book being added to stock. An antiquarian book dealer considers supply and demand at both macro and micro levels—both the worldwide situation and as regards the scope of supply and demand within the marketing reach of his/her own business. The ideal just right price of a book is tempting enough that an interested customer will buy it and high enough that it will cover its share of replacement and overhead costs and contribute its share to the dealer's livelihood.

Since the coming of the World Wide Web and of online bookselling, a two-minute search will find dozens of copies for sale of most titles. Even after filtering to include only, for instance, hardcover in the dust jacket first printings in very good or better condition, more often than not there are multiple copies to compare as to price. So to attract repeat customers, a used book dealer must buy selectively, avoiding too common titles, and must demonstrate that a customer who does not wish to bother to do their own online comparison-shopping can rely on their favorite neighborhood antiquarian book dealer to again and again supply her/him with a just-right copy of an appealing book at a fair and competitive price. That is the context within which a dealer pricing a book being added to stock considers the factor of what customers would be interested in it.

5. Is the book in print or out of print?

An in-print book is available from its publisher; an out-of-print book is no longer available from its publisher. In the case of a print-on-demand book, it is out-of-print when that publisher will no longer print it on demand.

A simple way to find out if a book is in print is to go to the publisher's website to see if that book is still listed among its current publications.

What this probably won't tell you is whether another publisher has a reprint edition, a paperback edition, a British (or another foreign country) edition, or some other edition or form of the book in print. One way to find out is to search WorldCat (or AddAll or Bookfinder) on the title and author and then look at the website of the publisher of any recent edition.

When I was bookselling, every year I bought the annual update of the reference works Books in Print and Subject Guide to Books in Print, published by Bowker—as did pretty much every used book dealer and every podunk public library. If a book wasn't listed, I'd jot "OP" in pencil above my price. If a book was listed, I'd jot "BIP $" and the price of a new copy, draw a line through that, and make my price much lower.

Books in Print is still published by Bowker as an annual book with a midyear update, and as an online database. Each these days is very expensive and, I'm told by a colleague, not affordable by the average used book dealer or local library. To see if a subscription would be apt for you, contact Bowker via their website.

When a book is out of print, so that the publisher is no longer producing copies to fill orders, only remaindered and used copies are available, and the supply of those will diminish over time as copies are destroyed by wear and tear and accidents, so that IF demand is somewhat or quite high, a squeeze between that and the diminishing supply, and the increased difficulty of finding a copy in acceptable condition, over time will push up the average price. For used book dealers, that a book is out of print is a selling point.

6. Is the book in hand common, uncommon, scarce, or rare?

In his essay A Rare Book: Its Essential Qualifications, included in his book USiana, his pricing guide to collectible Americana, Chicago antiquarian bookseller Wright Howes (1882-1978) wrote that an 'uncommon' book is one priced (in 1978 dollars) by knowledgeable booksellers in the range of $10 to $30, a 'scarce' book is one priced in the range of $30 to $100, and a rare book is one priced at over $100.

The equivalent prices in 2018 dollars are $39 to $116, $116 to $386, and over $386--or I suppose round those figures to $40 to $120, $120 to $400, and over $400.

Read Howes' essay for an in-depth explanation of the basis in the philosophy of economics and in bookselling tradition behind his conclusion. His pragmatic definitions take into account that being low in numbers and difficult to find does not alone make a book uncommon, scarce, or rare from an antiquarian bookseller's perspective; also, a relatively large number of persons must desire to own the relatively few copies available for acquisition. Scarcity and rarity thus defined is reflected in the prices being charged for copies of a book by knowledgeable antiquarian booksellers.

Self-evidently, common books get priced low and rare books get priced high, comparatively.

Here are three online sources at which to look to learn the price range within which scarce and rare books are being offered or are selling: