At this point in time the collector has more information at his finger tips than ever before. The internet has made visible just about all the available copies of books in the world, certainly the English speaking world. And that has made pricing much easier for common books. It has reduced the price of common collectible books from the last three or four decades; and increased the prices of collectible books that are far scarcer than we had thought. So first editions and other collectible books that we used to sell for $50 to $150 dollars may now sell for $10 to $50. While books that used to sell for $500 to $1,000 may sell for $1,000 to $3,000.
But what of the books where there are no copies on the net or are unique?
There was a comedian named Brother Dave Gardner. You'd have to have been around in the 1950s to remember him. When someone said, "Let's do that again." Brother Dave would say, "You can't do anything again. You can do something similar." Well, if a book or manuscript is truly rare or unique, you won't be able to find anything exactly comparable to base a price on, so you have to find something similar.
In order to provide a complete picture of the process of pricing, we must consult all the sources, though some of these may not be helpful in many cases. It is relatively easy to arrive at a price, or at least, a price range, for most collected books, because copies are bought and sold fairly regularly throughout the year. It does, however, become much more difficult to arrive at a price as one explores the pricing of a unique item, such as a great association copy of a book, a unique manuscript, or even a perfect copy of a relatively common book.
The prices paid by dealers and, in turn, the prices they set on the books or manuscripts they sell are a product of the individual dealers' sense of the real market price based on their own knowledge and readings of the auction records and other dealers' catalogs and price guides.
There are three types of published value guides that are used to determine prices.
1. The Internet
The Internet sites are the most useful sources for finding or getting a sense of prices for relatively common collected books. However, one may also find wide ranging differences in prices for what appear to be first editions in about the same condition
2. Auction records
In the United States, the American Book Prices Current is published annually. The last thirty plus years are also available on a CD-Rom. There are similar publications in Europe and elsewhere. The chances of finding a price for a comparable rare book, association copy, or manuscript in the auction records would be greater than finding it on line at any given time, but the prices for the same title in the auction records will vary greatly, which may reflect the condition of each book, or, more probably, who bid that day. It should be understood that many dealers buy books for stock at auctions; therefore, many auction prices may represent wholesale rather than retail prices. In some cases, auction prices may represent forced sales and low prices, while in other cases, when the auction has received high visibility, prices paid may be significantly higher than retail.
Auction prices, therefore, require the knowledge of a dealer or collector of the particular author to be interpreted properly. As we get practically all the book auction catalog and results, as well as most of the dealer catalogs issued in the English speaking world, we have a knowledge of the circumstances surrounding many of the individual auctions.
The problems with auction records is that they can report only what is put at auction; the prices, therefore, may be out of date. Their advantage is that you know the auction prices were actually paid. Remember, auction houses charge a premium to the buyer and seller, so you need to know if the price included the premium(s), to determine the total price paid for an item.
3. Our Price Guides-Collected Books & Author Price Guides
Our price guides reflect our opinions, which we hope are informed. The prices are based on our experience buying and selling books, as well as our interpretation of auction prices and other dealer catalog prices. The Author Price Guides, which we compile, include all the American and English first editions by a particular author, with points for identification of the first edition and values. One of the reasons for the popularity of these guides is that they contain bibliographical information useful in determining if a particular book in hand is a first edition (or a first state or issue within the first edition).
But there are problems in compiling these guides The tendency is to price relatively common books high and scarce or rare books low. This is reasonable as common books are cataloged often and the expense of cataloging makes it difficult to price a book at under $25. Also, if the book was published at $25, it is hard to value it at, say $5, which, in fact, is the price you might find it at your local used-book store or on the Net. On the other hand, if one is attempting to price a fine copy of Faulkner's Soldier's Pay in a dust jacket, and no copy in this condition has been on the market for ten years--at least none that the author is aware of--what price do you put in the guide? You list a price based on the last price you can find, perhaps ten years old, tempered by the prices that you know a few inferior copies have brought on the market in recent years. This may or may not be a reasonable estimate, but the odds are that it will be low, particularly if there is a pent-up demand for the book.
A standard comment on price guides is that they are out-of-date as soon as they are published; actually, we don't find this to be true. Most collected books tend to stay at a certain level for a year or two, and most prices do not become really out of date for three or four years. The comment relates mostly to the current "hot" authors or books that many have heard so much about and for which they find the price guides are low compared with current prices. Did anyone foresee Cormac McCarthy's The Orchard Keeper being worth $3,000 or more before All the Pretty Horses was published? Was it obvious in 2000 that relatively common Hemingway first editions such as For Whom the Bell Tolls (80,000 copy first printing and 150,00 copies with the "A" for the Book of the Month Club) and The Old Man and the Sea (100,000 copy first printing) would be selling for $1,500 to $3,000 or more in 2006?
No one could have known The Orchard Keeper would reach such price heights. As to Hemingway, if one had been astute enough in 1990 to realize that after the October 1987 stock market crash the prices of "high spots" of collected books would rise faster than those of other collected books, you might have foreseen that For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea would go up from about $100 to $150 in 1990 to $2,000 or $3,000 in 2006, while Across the River and into the Trees would only go up from $100 to $200 or $300 or $400. Incidentally, the prices of other post-1930 Hemingway titles have followed the latter trend.
"High spots" are hot, and if you are trying to price a beautiful copy of one that hasn't appeared in dealer catalogs or at auction in years, you will not find any help anywhere, because there are new price records set whenever one appears, and many of these sales are not recorded.
Individual dealer "experience"
We remember a very knowledgeable dealer seeing a second edition, albeit the first illustrated edition, of a very famous book. He told the dealer who owned it that it was nicely bound but only a second edition, after all, and perhaps worth no more than $300. The other dealer, who had not priced the book yet, listened to the sage advice of the first dealer and priced it at $750. The first dealer bought the book immediately and returned to his shop. After some deliberation, he priced it at $1,250. A third dealer came in and asked how anyone could price a second edition of this book at over $1,000! After much discussion, the third dealer bought the book. This dealer went to some lengths to check on previous prices and found nothing useful in any of the price guides available. He then checked all the major libraries in the United States, England, and France, and he discovered that none of them had a copy of the book. He then priced the book at $10,000, and ultimately sold it at a figure approaching this amount. As a footnote, the second dealer proclaimed that the third dealer and his customer were both fools.
We do not want to sell a customer a book at a high price. The problem is that if we get a unique book, what is comparable? If it is a great association copy inscribed by Ernest Hemingway, what prices have other Hemingway association copies brought? If it is a manuscript by a prominent author, what prices have other manuscripts by that author brought? If none has been sold, what prices have the manuscripts of authors with comparable reputations sold for? There is usually some comparison that can be made, but many times these comparisons are tenuous.
The truly rare or unique item, if demand is high, can be priced as high as one wants, but we still have to find a buyer in order to legitimize the price. Even the fact that a book sells for a certain amount does not necessarily mean another copy will also sell for the same amount. The first book may have found the only buyer in the marketplace willing to pay that much. Also, a high price on one copy may bring other copies into the market, thus increasing the supply and lowering the price. The collector must take advantage of all the materials and expertise available in making a purchasing decision.