As every rare book seller knows, pricing a book to market is often one of the most difficult tasks performed in the trade. Prices set too low may mean that there is additional revenue that could be earned if the potential collector is willing to spend more to acquire the book. On the contrary, prices set too high can also impact revenue as it prevents interested buyers from purchasing the book. Setting the right price level often takes considerable market knowledge and, especially with rare books, strategy.
Price is commonly confused with the notion of value. Value is the perception of a book’s worth and can vary from one individual or group to another. It is simply a relative measure of cost Vs gain measured in terms of monetary value or non-monetary means such as degree of excellence, usefulness, importance, sentiment, Intellect and so forth. So a book can be considered to be under-priced by an individual or a group if its price relative to the perceived value or worth is low. Over the last 10 years, books in general have been considered to be seriously under-valued for a number of reasons:
- Compared to other popular collectible items such as art, coins, and baseball cards, pricing for rare books in general has not increased that much.
- A great deal of value added services that have the potential to increase pricing are still underutilized or remain undiscovered.
- The supply of rare books or the discovery of rare books is declining.
Included in the second reason above, is the research and discovery that is currently conducted by a relatively small number of dealers looking to add value to a particular possession. For example, a dealer friend owns a fairly recent book by the name Mosquito: A Natural History of Man’s Most Persistent and Deadly Foe, written and inscribed by Dr. Andrew Spielman, a medical entomologist at Harvard. The book potentially carries an additional value since it is inscribed. Here is where the second reason above comes in: after doing the research on the inscription to Thomas Huckle Weller and wife Kathleen; it leads to none other than Nobel Prize winner in Physiology, Dr. Weller. Now the book carries an additional value as it is an association copy.
The pricing decision is a critical one. In the rare book selling industry there are no financial tools that are widely used to assist in setting a fair price. Marketers must consider many other factors when arriving at the price for which their product will sell. Used books have the additional attribute of “condition” to incorporate into the price equation. The industry is utilizing a less than perfect, non-uniform description to assess a book’s condition. Organizations such as the Independent Online Booksellers Association (IOBA) have published guidelines to assist booksellers and ultimately book buyers by standardizing somehow the description on the condition of a book. However, it is merely what it was created to be: a reference guide rather than a formal practice. The Comic book marketplace is in fact more successful in standardization through the common use of a third-party grading service – Certified Guaranty Company (CGC).
Price adjustments as part of sales promotions that lower price for a short period of time to stimulate interest in a particular group of books is often used by brick-and-mortar booksellers or on-line sellers that are carrying more common editions in their inventory. The factor of uniqueness and thus scarcity is not so prevalent in this scenario, and promotional price reductions may be a beneficial competitive tool. On the other hand, any attempts to raise an initially low priced product to a higher price may be met by buyer resistance as they may feel that they are being taken advantage of.
It should be noted that not all dealers view price as a key selling feature. Some dealers, for example those seeking to be viewed as prominent members among their colleagues, will deemphasize price and concentrate on a strategy that highlights collegiality. Such relationships are significant in establishing a connected circle of expertise that facilitates not only the exchange of information and knowledge, but also a pricing strategy in a business that carries a great deal of private treaties and transactions.
It comes as no surprise then, that any number of available copies of the “same” rare book available range widely in price. Besides being a heterogeneous item after incorporating factors such as condition and attributes such as unique history and background, the seller’s pricing strategy is not always the same. Let’s also not forget that in this industry of large numbers of small sole-proprietors, the resource dedicated towards a pricing strategy is sometimes minimal or non-existent. That is where the opportunistic collector comes in, but that is a discussion on another topic post.