How to Price Used Books as a Dealer
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.
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.
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.
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.
To Learn More
1. Search the Internet World Wide Web on:
how to identify first editions
first edition identification by publisher
books points of issue
2. When visiting the shops of fellow used book dealers, ask what reference books on identifying first editions are in their working libraries and then obtain your own copies of the ones pertinent to your used book business.
3. I recommend Bill McBride's 2012 "Pocket Guide to First Editions" and "Points of Issue". They're handy pocket size.
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?
An alternative to searching at a books for sale website is to search the site via Google using the site: instruction. For instance:
Anderson Winesburg Ohio site:abebooks.com
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:
- Go to the homepage of the website of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA). In the right area of the first screen, under "Find Books for Sale", enter the author, title, and other pertinent information from the book you are researching, and click Search to search the current online catalogs of ABAA members.
ABAA members are at the top of the unofficial hierarchy of antiquarian booksellers. They have the experience, expertise, and capital to buy and sell uncommon, scarce, and rare books in the areas in which they specialize. A significant source of the books that they purchase for their stocks is from used book dealers who have a general stock of the most common and a few uncommon books and who every so often obtain a scarce or rare book.
If one or more ABAA member is offering for sale a copy of the book you have in hand and suspect is uncommon, scarce, or rare, compare copies as to edition, impression, points of issue, special circumstances (such as signed or inscribed by the author), completeness (such as does it have a slipcase as issued), and condition. In deciding the retail asking price of your copy, take into account differences in those factors and take into account that an ABAA member offering a book in his/her area of expertise probably has book collecting customers willing to pay premium prices (within the range of what seems fair and reasonable) for the premium service of relatively often being offered what they are seeking.
For instance, back on the day that I drafted this paragraph, I searched the ABAA website for the 1947 first edition of Walt Disney's Uncle Remus Stories (Song of the South) by Joel Chandler Harris, a book that was common when my parents gave it to my brother or me new for Christmas. Three members were offering later printings of the first edition, priced at $55, $90, and $125 and dated respectively 1971, 1986, and 1968. I then did a Google search and found a rebound copy of the first edition first printing for $395 at Biblio. A first edition first printing copy in the original pictorial cover in very good or better condition might, I surmise, be worth much more. If I owned a copy, I would continue my research in hopes of learning more.
* From 1895 to, as best I can figure, 2004, by different publishers during its history, American Book Prices Current was a compilation of prices realized at the major American book auctions, issued annually in book form, with an index issued every five years. This article gives the ABPC publication history in detail.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was living and book dealing in the Illinois village Winthrop Harbor, on the uncommon occasions that I had a scarce or rare book to price, I would drive forty miles, to Evanston, to get to the nearest library that had ABPC in its reference section. I would comb back through a number of years of auction results and, when I was lucky, find one or more copies of the book I was researching and, from the auction prices realized, glean what my copy might be worth.
Dealers specializing in rare books subscribed.
Since 1995, American Book Prices Current has been an online publication. The first year of a subscription for a book dealer, book appraiser, or librarian is $595 ($800 for everyone else) and $175 per year thereafter. If that is outside your budget, use WorldCat, specifying Format: Online content and media, to find a library in your area that subscribes. Or perhaps (but don't count on it) you can make an occasional access deal with a rare books dealer near you who subscribes and with whom you are on good terms.
Keep in mind when using auction records to estimate the value of a scarce or rare book that while, on the plus side, you can learn what someone was actually willing to pay for a copy, on the minus side, what you don't know is if there were unusual circumstances, such as if two or more book collectors got into a bidding war, with one of them paying far more than he/she would have but for the heat of passion to possess that auctioned copy, or if the auction was not well attended and there was no competition and the opening bid was the only bid. Much such information is available when you research prices realized on the auction of a book at an online auction site such as eBay. It's probably available when using the American Book Prices Current online database, which I have not used.
Of course pay attention to the condition, edition, and points of issue when comparing an auctioned copy with your copy.
* The website Rare Book Hub has a wealth of information and resources about the market for rare books and book auction activity.
7. How badly do you want to keep the book for your own personal pleasure?
Going by my experience, infrequently but sometimes a used book dealer will fall so in love with a book bought for stock that there is a price below which the pleasure of owning it outweighs the pleasure and advantages of making money from its sale.
Say, for instance, that you have acquired a book that your research shows that comparable copies are being offered by other dealers in the range of $30 to $60; that you would come out well ahead if you sold it for as low as $29, and that you think you have a good chance of selling it for as much as $45 at a book fair. Ordinarily you would pencil "45—" on the front free endsheet of the book and pack the book for the fair.
But suppose that the book is so beautifully and movingly written, so beautifully and stunningly illustrated, and so nicely designed that you love it and would be loath to part with it for under $60 retail or $48 at dealer discount. You would price it at $60 and make a mental note that you would rather keep it than sell it for less than $48 even if it never sells.
In my experience, for a used book dealer there is a gray area between books for stock and personal library.
Decide the price below which you would rather keep the book in hand for your own enjoyment and price it at or above that price.
Of course this is a subjective factor and you are free to change your mind at any time.
8. Do you intend to offer the book soon at a book fair or in a catalog?
A book fair is where antiquarian booksellers offer for sale the cream of their stock—their rare, scarce, and uncommon books in very good or better condition; their most desirable, most collectible books. Oftentimes a dealer at a fair won't offer his/her usual fellow dealer discount on recently acquired books during set up time and during the first hour of the fair, because the latter is when a collector is most likely to happily pay the asking price—which might be at or near top dollar in that setting—for a long desired book. (Those exceptions aside, a lot of buying and selling goes on among the dealers when they have gotten set up and are waiting for the fair to start. What was a happenstance purchase for one dealer will be a specialty of another.) Oftentimes a dealer at a book fair will offer everyone a significant discount on all or much of her/his books on display during the last hour, so as to have fewer books to pack and haul.
When an antiquarian bookseller issues a catalog or sales list, whether printed and mailed to regular customers or published online, commonly no discount will be available to fellow dealers, to family and friends, or to favorite customers for a certain number of days, to give those willing to pay full price the first opportunity to buy.
A dealer with a bookshop will generally shelve books going soon to a book fair or into a catalog in a back room or at home, out of sight of browsers of the store's open shelves.
The general concept is that different markets and situations call for different pricing, discounting, and haggling decisions.
How long does pricing used books take?
How long does it take to decide what price to pencil into a book being priced? That will depend on how ordinary or un-ordinary the book is and on whether all of the factors to consider are applicable. I dealt mainly in books of moderate value that were not particularly uncommon, and for most books I could tell at a glance that pricing factors 6, 7, and 8, and sometimes 5, were not applicable.
I learned little by little how the major publishers indicated their first editions and learned how to spot later printings, reprints, and book club editions, so, for a non-collectible book, often I could consider factor 2 with a glance and a few seconds of thought.
I learned by experience that it is not prudent to buy books for stock in less than very good condition. The worse the condition, the less the likelihood of a sale. And the worse the condition, the longer it takes to describe the book when quoting or cataloging it. Another advantage of having only books in very good or better condition is that time need not be spent deciding prices of physically flawed books.
Of course, how much time you put into pricing a book—whether you make quick, at a glance, judgments, or go deeply into the details of price comparing, or choose a middle course—will depend on how valuable the book in hand seems to be. If many people are selling copies for under $3, don't put a lot of minutes into pricing research; if copies are selling in the vicinity of $30, put some time into your research, and be willing to spend an afternoon or more of research time on a book selling in the vicinity of $300.
Deciding the price to pencil in a book
In deciding what price to put on a book, consider your competition and your market. Are you going to display the book in your bookstore, or list it for sale online, or quote it to particular customers?
Having considered all the pertinent factors, use intuition guided by observation and research results and checked by reason to choose the price to pencil on the flyleaf.
Remember that a used book retail asking price is a gamble.
Review of the 8 factors to consider
Prices of comparable copies?
Rather keep it?
Offering in a catalog or at a fair?
Supply and Demand
In a capitalist market economy, economists say that a commodity is whatever can be bought and sold and that the monetary value of a commodity is determined by the supply of it relative to demand for it. If only one of a doodad exists and zero people want it, it is worth zero cents. If a million doodads exist and a hundred million people want a doodad, the monetary value of a doodad will be quite high.
Used book dealers have that principle in the back of their minds during their daily work of buying, pricing, offering, and selling. They observe factors that affect the demand for a book. More people want a book that is in very fine, as new, pristine condition than want a book that is in poor, falling-apart condition. More people want a book that is in very good condition than want a book that is in merely good condition. More people want a nonfiction book written by an expert than one written by someone comparatively unfamiliar with that topic. More people want a book praised by many than one panned by many. More people want the first printing of the first edition of a book than want a later printing or edition. More people want a beautifully designed book made with high quality materials than want a poorly designed book made with low quality materials. More people want a book that is about a topic or theme that greatly interests them than want a book of little interest. A used book dealer keeps factors affecting demand in mind when considering whether to buy a book for resale, how much to be willing to pay for it, and at what price to offer it for sale. This might be done in a checklist sort of way but more often is a flash impression based on experience, a decision such as the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell describes.
A book dealer will stay alert to particular subjective factors affecting an individual customer's desire for a book. Perhaps a customer already has a collectible copy of a book and wants to also own a reading copy and doesn't care if it is in only good condition or if it is a later printing. Perhaps a customer is a fan of a certain famous person and wants his/her books although he/she is not an expert on the books' topics. Perhaps a customer is interested in a topic that interests few others. (I was located near Zion, Illinois, and had some customers interested in books and ephemera on Zion history. I had a customer who collected fiction books about bunnies.)
A used book dealer needs to be aware of both what most customers and potential customers mostly want and of what particular customers particularly want. That knowledge will affect buying and offering decisions.
I encountered an interesting example of subjective desire one time when I offered at auction on eBay a used book about an obscure 19th century military campaign in a distant part of the world. It was a book my father had bought and that had been in stock for years. I would have been pleased to get $12 for it. The high bid was for over $700. The buyer highly desired to own that copy because a previous owner's bookplate had nostalgic associations for him. My day to day sales were generally in the $3 to $30 range, so that for me was a hit the jackpot sale.
To give an example of low supply and high demand, only 49 complete or substantially complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible (the first major book printed with mass-produced movable metal type and a magnificent example of book design) still exist in the world, and countless persons and institutions would like to own it. A copy sold at auction in 1978 for $2.2 million, and another copy sold at auction in 1987 for $5.4 million. [New York Times 10-23-1987]
Pricing a Used Book for Stock Begins at the Point of Purchase
In my coming soon online article about buying books for stock for a used book business, I tell about helping my parents in their bookshop when I was a young man in the 1960s and of learning from my father the "one-third one-third one-third" rule of thumb—don't buy a book for stock unless the least price at which you hope and expect to sell it is at least three times what you paid for it—one third so you can buy a comparable book for stock to replace it, one third to help pay overhead costs, and one third to help pay your and your dependents costs of living.
To learn the jargon used between book collectors and dealers, search the Internet World Wide Web on: book collecting terminology.
The process of pricing used books for resale entails using guesstimates to make price decisions and to make occasional adjustments based on changing conditions affecting supply and demand and the current market value range in a bookseller's circumstances. This article has described many of the traditional and newly developing rules of thumb, tools, and processes for accomplishing that. The measures of whether a book dealer's pricing of used books for resale is successful overall is if she/he is contentedly making a living buying and selling used books while meeting civic and social responsibilities; if almost all customers almost all of the time are pleased, and if the business is growing at least enough to stay even in size of stock and number of customers.
Learn more at your leisure
In these videos, experienced antiquarian booksellers give advice on determining if a book is a first edition first printing and on evaluating a book's condition.
How to Identify a First Edition Book
How to Identify First Editions
A 2010 Rare Books Auction Preview
© 2019 Brian Leekley