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Reselling old books can be tricky business

By JERRY SAMPSON

Personal Effects

Question: Help Jerry! I need some help with some of my dad’s books. I’d give anything to be closer to you so you could see and handle them. Dad is in a memory care facility now. He loved to read and collect books. I have bookshelves full of them. Many are very old from the early 1900s and a lot of modern novels. I started to look up the values online through several book sites. It seemed that most of mine were in similar condition.

I priced them and went to several booksellers here in my region. I got no offers and sold none of them. I reduced them 10 percent and one book dealer with a very nice shop said they were way too high for him to resell.

I’m stumped, I thought I was being professional in looking things up and things just went sideways. I guess that I’ll just give them to the public library for their spring fundraiser. What can I do? And thanks in advance.

Answer: You know, I was just talking to a woman the other day, and she was selling some of her husband’s books. As a book dealer, I hate to hear the phrase, “Well, I looked these up online,” come from the mouth of a someone selling something. Not that I’m hoping to pull one over on them, but I know they are likely over informed and have grand expectations. We live in a global world today and I use online book sites all the time, but you have to take them with a grain of salt.

You’ve heard me talk about markets before, and all of the online listings, whether it’s for books, silver, furniture or Pyrex, are all represented by different markets, times and locations.

This is one reason why there can be so many different prices for something, in all intents and purposes, is for the same book.

A book dealer in a gorgeous brownstone in Boston, paying BIG bucks for a mortgage and utilities every month, will offer higher prices, than a bookseller in a micro-sized town in South Dakota for the same book.

Values strongly depend on when and where you are.

Condition? I could go all day about condition. Some dealers think that if a book has ever been touched by humans that it’s been damaged. Impossible you think? Many don’t. What a mere mortal will think is insignificant, will wrack a book dealer or collector with spasms. Things like scuffs to covers, mashed or bumped corners, fading, tiny chips to the dust jacket, fly specks and gift inscriptions all affect the value of a book. Sometimes in a huge way. Even if the book is still tight and pretty.

Non-bookies, if you think your book is in mint condition, it’s likely only in good condition. Condition is a real tricky and necessary ground.

Now, we come to desirability. You can have a super rare book, in fabulous condition, with all the bells and whistles, but if no one wants it, its value is a mute point. Many times — and dealers are very guilty of this — people put an impressive price on a book in order to generate interest and attempt to create a market for an object. In other words, they hope that by putting a high price on a piece that other people will try to mimic. You’ll find a lot of people do this with a “pet” project or a regional work.

Look on eBay, under completed auctions, and you’ll see some auctions that are listed over and over and over with the same big asking prices.

Modern novels are, 99 percent of the time, pretty common in the secondary market, excluding fancy author editions, an author’s first work or ownership by a famous person. Sure, in a retail book store or a big box retailer, a book might be retailed for say $35. But after it leaves the store, it’s a used book. Look on Amazon for examples of that same book, and you’ll find it selling second-hand for $3 give or take. And today, big authors like King, Steel, Grisham and the like have first editions that printed by the millions. These will rarely be worth anything.

Looking at the photos of the books that you emailed me, I think that unless you want to greatly lower your prices, it might be best to donate your books to your library. Book pricing is a tricky and delicate art. I hope that all this helps. However, don’t let this deter you from reading and collecting. Thanks for a great question.