The two most memorable conversations of 2010 were with people who held views that were very different than my own:
Early on I spoke with Bruce McKinney the publisher of AE Monthly and the AE auction data base. He is a celebrated book collector of the first order, and has recently held two very large and successful auctions of items from his own holdings.
What was so intriguing about our talk was the realization that the world of books looks very different through the eyes of a collector who is usually a buyer than it does through the eyes of a dealer who is usually a seller. He itemized the reasons why auction data is a more reliable index of value than dealer sales.
That was news to me, because of course; I see it exactly the other way. In my view bookselling is a noble occupation with a long and distinguished history and the dealer a better judge of value than the auctioneer. To me booksellers are a group of passionate people with specialized knowledge. It’s the knowledge you pay for – and it doesn’t always come cheap. But his comments did bring home to me that the buyer’s desires, fears and inclinations, are quite different than what we on the sellers’ side perceive.
Another discussion that stands out in my mind was with Paul Drake, who heads the antiquarian department of Better World Books. BWB is a multi-million dollar on-line corporate book selling operation. We spoke at their Indiana warehouse where about 100,000 mostly donated books a day were coming unloaded out of containers. This was used bookselling on a scale I previously had only dimly imagined.
He knew very little about books, but he knew a great deal about computers, pricing models, algorithm and Amazon rankings. He was very different than any of the other book people I have encountered over the years. I had a strong hunch his view of bookselling has more in common with the shape of the future than mine.
I was also much taken with the way he got into the trade. Here was a person who found himself in the book business much in the same way Jack found himself entwined with the beanstalk. He hadn’t looked for it, it just grew up under him one night and it was growing mighty fast. It was all that he could do to keep up.
That was not the way it happened to me.
I've been a solo dealer for more than 30 years, following in the footsteps of my parents who ran their antiquarian shop for more than 50 years. I started in this trade when the state of the art technology was a mimeograph machine and I’ve been working at it in some form ever since. I’m one of literally thousands of small dealers, all trying to make a living as booksellers, at the same time the trade is changing at an unprecedented rate.
By the end of 2010 with the increasing popularity of Kindles and Nooks, ipads, and free online access to most of what’s been printed in the last 500 years, I found myself wondering if there will actually be a book trade as we know it now in the next ten years?
In 2010 the glut of ordinary post-ISBN books continued. They were cheap, common, losing value rapidly. At the other extreme were the rare, scarce, important, valuable and/or unusual items – many of them pre-ISBN, which now command prices that seem as outrageously high as the other end seems low. For the top end the buyers were insanely picky about condition to the point of absurdity. Mirroring our present economy, the middle seemed as if it had fallen out.