06 September 2010

The Great Book Glut of 2010

We are being offered far too many books. We still buy and are still keen on interesting and unusual books and great collections, but are having to turn away offers of many good books that formerly we would have bought. It is painful to turn books down but generally we have far too many and advise people to give them to charity or try Ebay or, at a pinch, a local dealer. This is a business where dealers will carry on buying even if they can't get into their garages, storage unit or warehouses any more -- accountants are perplexed, if we were selling fridges or footballs we would stop when we had bought enough for current demand. Only lack of money or space will stop most dealers and if you have money you can buy more space.

There has been an over supply for some years now but it has become a palpable glut in 2010. Occasionally people offer to let us have them for free, even to deliver them gratis. This can sometimes be a good plan but as the great Moe of Berkeley said--'...if you let bad books into a shop pretty soon the place fills up with them.' I sometimes wonder what happens to the books we turn down and worry that books will fill up every charity shop, flea market and junk shop and become as hard to sell as old VHR Videos (in one North London shop they have good videos at 10 for £1.) The comparison with the transition from LPs to CDs is more apt and certainly at that time huge collections of albums were sold off. A few observations on the glut:

1. Auction houses have become much more choosy. Some will not look at a book worth less than £500 and cannot raise a smile for anything worth less than £5000. Few now sell big lots and if they do they tend to make pathetic sums (with a few exceptions.)

2. An older more bookish generation is dying off or downsizing to homes and flats. Their heirs tend to keep very little and sell off the collections almost intact. Books are often regarded as a nuisance and some heirs are amazed that any money is offered at all. In the case of bland book club books, dull biographies, 'doublet and hose' history and fat dated remainders there are no offers forthcoming and owners resort to pulping, burning or the municipal dump. Even charity shops can be choosy.

3. Ebooks are having an impact, not at present vast but buyers and sellers are confused and see books in the main as a declining asset - we are undergoing what they call in California 'a paradigm shift.'

4. Certain categories of book are holding their own and even improving in value and desirability. Books that are uncommon on the internet or command high prices there are much wanted-expensively published scholarly works, abstruse books and those printed in small quantities. Collectables, signed books, limited editions, fine condition antiquarian books, modern firsts, rarities and trendy art books are all eagerly traded.

5. Meanwhile, ironically, the seller has become more knowledgeable about prices through the net and has higher expectations. Unless the seller is possessed of really good books he finds that no one wants them or offers are ridiculously low and he is condemned to wander the earth with the books looking for the prices seen on the internet.

6. Some glut reactions. Is the glut a bad thing? For the seller it is a problem. The buyer must be choosier, more wary and more careful with his or her money. Will it get worse? Undoubtedly. Will it ever end? Unlikely. Is it just you or are some dealers having trouble finding stock? Dealers are always complaining and many specialists are not overrun with the books that their hearts desire. However, I would be interested to hear of dealers who can't find enough decent stock for a second hand bookshop. They would have to be singularly charmless, mean or obtuse. Great stock is another matter.

7. Evidence? Personal experience, a ridiculous profusion of email offers, some quite tempting, some even leading to buys. Phone calls all day, lists and letters, anecdotal evidence, tales of bankruptcy, madness and mayhem. The lead indicator came in February 2009 with the great Bristol Book Barn free book debacle. Also a telling comment on library sales on this very site 3 days ago from a woman dealer, almost certainly Stateside (thanks Teresa) :'... book sales drive me crazy. I am always torn between going and not going though at the moment with the shop stuffed to the rafters and two storage lockers stuffed to the rafters and my house, well, dripping books out of the windows the offspring have threatened death and dismemberment if I go near any book sales.' It takes forbearance to stop buying books. One day at a time...

8. Lastly there are those riding the glut by listing 100s of thousands of cheap books and making money even on books listed at one penny (it's the postage--they like light books). These are mainly ISBN ( I Sell By Numbers) sellers who catalogue with a barcode reader and buy books by the pallet at breathtakingly low prices. These are held in vast warehouses ( the 'fulfillment' sheds are near Luton.) A long way from the rambling old second hand bookshop.
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