Speculations on the future of the rare book market analyze the dynamics behind both the demand and the supply quite extensively. Demand for rare books in the United States and arguably the rest of western civilization is largely consumed by some long-standing cultural behaviors. Generalizations that are based on collector stereotypes that are broken up by today’s six living generations are quite interesting to ponder about. For the most part, supply has remained quite stationary, unaffected across generational segments while buyer motives are more dynamic.
The oldest living generation in America today is the GI Generation and it includes those born between the years of 1901 and 1926. The children of the WWI generation and fighters during WWII grew up during the deprivation of the Great Depression. They as a result developed a strong sense of personal civic duty, loyalty, hard work, patriotism, respect for authority and self-reliance. This is the generation that gave rise to the comic strip of Superman, first appearing in 1939. At a very young age they may have tuned in to F. Scott Fitzgerald and his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby. Book collecting was not a very popular activity at the time, but some very famous collections such as the one accumulated by Frank T. Siebert, which concentrated on American Indians and the American frontier, stood out nevertheless.
A stronger economy changed the mood of the market to optimistic and pumped some interest into the then depressed rare book market. The Mature/Silents, born between 1927 and 1945, demonstrated a disciplined, focused and cautious approach to book collecting enlisting some of the richest, most free-spending retirees in history. It includes avid readers of ephemera and intensive collectors that put energy into collecting a single author’s complete works. This is the generation of famous civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. JFK and Robert F. Kennedy; and writers/artists like Gloria Steinem and Andy Warhol. This is the generation that popularized the works of the Beat Generation that include William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959) and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957).
The combined force of the Silents and the 77 million Baby Boomers (1946-1964), brought about the changes to the rare book market observed during the 70’s. Up until the mid 60’s, it was predominantly considered a buyer’s market which changed to a seller’s market as the supply of rare books available for sale dropped significantly. The Boomers brought a care-free purchasing, lacking any serious time investment, “buy it now and use credit” type of attitude to the market. These practices boosted the demand for high spots that in turn caused a tremendous increase in pricing of the most sought after volumes of the late 70’s and 80’s.
The less passionate, less dedicated collector became more obvious as Generation X (1965-1980) formed. Short on loyalty and wary of commitment while being extremely conscious of market comparative values, they originally showed to have urgent wants but struggled to buy. A generation that is still attracted to labels and brand names, they also have been focusing on the high end of the market with a flamboyant excess to collecting.
The new frontier in book collecting fueled by the Internet brings a new generation along with it – Y/Millennium (1981-2000). Growing up in a digital environment with unlimited access to information, this generation emphasizes digital literacy and broadens the market beyond the collection of high spots. The technological advancement revitalized the ability to search and compare offerings from a number of sellers worldwide from the convenience of the home or the office within minutes. Technology savvy Millenniums bring back the well-informed intensive collector that first appeared back during the Silent generation. More recently, social media offers significantly better levels of collaboration, knowledge sharing and market efficiency to the rare book market.
And that is where we are today, standing at the edge of the new frontier with new opportunities for the next generation – Z/Boomlets (born after 2001), our youngest generation. This is a generation that has never known a world without computers or cell phones. They are geared to be a larger generation in sheer numbers than even the Baby Boomers! As to what kind of books they will collect, only “time” will tell.