“Someone’s going to want that some day”: Book scouting, part 2

Charity shop booksA few weeks ago I published part 1 of this … let’s call it a “how-to”, as in How to Become a Book Scout. As I look back, there were two halves to it. One half talked about what books to buy, with instructive examples from my recent foray to a charity shop, and the other half talked about what to do with the books once you had them.

The half about what books to buy — that part was solid. I think there’s a market for the books I buy, and in the intervening weeks I’ve given more thought to giving my readers some rules of thumb to use in order to profitably buy books. Those few strictures, I’ll pass along in a minute.

Venetian bookstoreBut first I wanted to comment on what I had to say about what to do with your scouted books once you buy them. As frequently happens these days, I’m going to have to walk all that back; that would have been a good guide to how to be a book scout if the year were, say, immediately before the invention of Amazon and eBay — call it 1993. All I can say is, I didn’t realize I was so out of date when I was writing it. At that point in time I was a veteran book scout; I can’t say I was enormously financially successful at it, but I occupied a useful niche in the bookselling industry. I will add that the ability to frequently come up with a volume for which a particular bookseller had a customer was a popular one among booksellers, and I think it’s reasonable to say I had “most favoured nation” status among a handful of booksellers, many of whom had become friends. I scouted books for them; they scouted books for me.

What I neglected to take into consideration was the massive disintermediation of the book industry that’s become available since the internet. So to make a long story short — yes, you can still be a book scout. All that’s changed in the interim is that, instead of your forming a relationship with a local bricks-and-mortar bookseller or two, and earning a few bucks on the side, you have to go into business for yourself selling the books through eBay or some other website.

The murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, John Dickson Carr

Dolphin C 369, 1962, 95-cent cover state

In part 1 I used the example of a paperback copy of The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey by John Dickson Carr, a 1936 retelling of a 1678 murder case (so sometimes filed as “true crime”).  It’s a scarce volume that should only appeal to serious students of John Dickson Carr or detective fiction in general, or historians. 30 years ago, if I did occasionally happen upon that scarce paperback copy (Dolphin, 1962, shown here) I might have been able to get $50 for it; no other reading copies could be found unless you bought books by mail, a sometimes chancy process.

Today I can get a copy of the IPL reissue from 1989 from ABE shipped to me in Canada for as little as, seriously, $3.98 plus $3.98 shipping. eBay is a little different; its cheapest offering is $5.23 with free international shipping. That means if you’re competing on price, you just about have to pay zero for the book, since any profit will be eaten up by shipping. That’s not a great business model.

So in order to compete, you have to offer something that “coasbooks” of eBay, they of the $5.23 with international shipping, apparently does not; and that, frankly, is the most important of the strictures I mentioned above with reference to buying books to resell.  The most important quality you can bring to this effort is knowledge.

the murder of sir Edmund Godfrey, John Dickson Carr, 1936

The International Polygonics edition, cover art by Edward Gorey

If I did have a copy of Sir Edmund Godfrey, which I don’t believe I do at the moment, and I wanted to sell it, here’s what I’d do; I’d read it carefully and write a piece on my blog about it, discussing where it fell in Carr’s oeuvre and how it measured up to his other historical works, and at the end offer my personal copy at such-and-such price to the first person who asked for it in the comments. And such-and-such price would be, to be honest, twice what I’d actually paid for it plus shipping.  I wouldn’t compete on eBay. Unlike coasbooks, I don’t need to sell dozens of copies of anything, or thousands of titles a day; I only need to interest one person in taking my copy off my hands at what actually is a fair price. Because my customer would be buying not only the book but the knowledge that goes with it.

the bride of Newgate, John Dickson Carrcoasbooks is not prepared to tell you that John Dickson Carr was a pioneer of historical mysteries, or the names of the others he wrote and where to find more information about them if you’re curious. It’s VERY unlikely to know that there are at least two cover states for the Dolphin and thus if yours says $1.25 you have a second printing or later; and that the IPL edition has an introduction by Douglas Greene, and here’s who Douglas Greene is (he wrote the book on Carr, literally). (See comments; I made an error the first time around on this.) And as far as your personal opinion of the book in question — that’s what brings the boys to the yard, as it were. Be an expert, and share your expertise, and the book-buying public will learn to trust you and prefer you.

Murder without Icing, Emma LathenIn bricks-and-mortar bookselling, there’s a process called “hand-selling”. Give me two minutes and I can find out SOMETHING about you to which I can tie a specific murder mystery … if you work in a law office or you like ice hockey or baking or cats. The place you’re from, your favourite TV show, whatever. “You’re a legal secretary?  Here’s a book where a legal secretary finds a skeleton in a deed box.” (Half of you know the answer to that one without looking — go ahead, tell me in the comments LOL.) I sell you the book by hand, because I have the knowledge to do that.

These days, given the disintermediation of the book industry, I would take a different tack — I’d hand-sell a specific book to a wide faceless audience by giving away my knowledge. And if I get an urgent and potentially lucrative demand for four or five copies of The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey through having written an article about it, well, I know where to find them and apparently they don’t.

So here’s my three rules of 2018 book-scouting.

  1. Knowledge. Know everything you possibly can about the book and
    Christie, Cards on the Table, Tom Adamsall its editions and the author and the rest of the author’s books and the authors that are like this author. If your area of expertise is very narrow — for instance, you know everything there is to know about Janet Evanovich novels, or the editions of Agatha Christie with the covers by Tom Adams, but not much else — great.  Just buy and sell those particular books and tell people what you know about them in the process.  You’ll learn more about Agatha Christie without Adams covers, or the edition of Raymond Chandler with the Adams covers, and start to branch out …
  2. Condition, condition, condition. And here you need to be
    roughly-handled Penguinsruthless. If you see a scarce book that a toddler has used for colouring practice, pass it by. A book with loose pages or equivalent damage is worthless. Some people admit the possibility of “reading copies”, which are trashed copies of books you want to read. I don’t sell trashed copies, nor do I buy them, but I’ll give them away. The corollary is that a book in perfect unread condition is worth more than its well-thumbed cousin and should be priced accordingly. Here is an article on how to describe books for sale; very sensibly put, and if you follow it, you can link to it. But as far as I’m concerned, selling beaten-up books at anything but bargain prices is like leaving the house without combing your hair; that’s not how you want the public to know you.
  3. Buy low, sell high, and work to sell. The first part of that is a
    Book hoardertruism, but there’s a well-trodden path to wasting your time concealed within it. If book scouting is going to be work for you, make it work. If you know you can’t re-sell a book for twice what you paid for it — don’t buy it in the first place. And doing nothing but buying books and never selling any is not, after a certain point, “building up inventory” or anything like that. It’s a few dozen boxes of books away from “a very special episode of Hoarders“. There’s nothing in the slightest wrong with collecting books; in fact I recommend it.  But if you’re going to buy five copies of Sir Edmund Godfrey I suggest you should have at least three customers for it. Collect if you want, but try not to kid yourself that you’re going to sell all your books “some day” if you’d rather die than let that happen. (And, important note: at least in Canada, you have to have a “reasonable expectation of profit” within seven years, I think, to write off book purchases on your income tax. Consult a professional, but don’t hold your breath.)

mind blownMy good friend and perceptive critic JJ at The Invisible Event recently published this gloss upon part 1; since he notes he’s not ranting I will gladly agree ;-). Yes, many times charity shops and Amazon sellers and even garage sale proprietors try to sell books for more than they’re worth, and that is sincerely regrettable and drives me crazy, especially when they won’t accept a reasonable offer for the damn thing. Of course we all want to find a crisp copy of Death of Jezebel in the “Buck a book barrel” instead of the far more appropriate £120 that some lucky bookseller in Lancashire wants as of today. on ABE. What it boils down to is knowledge, point #1 above. It’s absolutely infuriating to see a book in a charity shop that is priced at twice what it should be, I completely agree. But that’s a side effect of the knowledge of what the price should be in the first place. And when it’s half what it should be, I buy it and get the other half for myself.

messy bookshelvesI think JJ puts it very well when he says, “… I want to support the people who work to make them available and the bookshops that sell them. I support second-hand bookshops that actually seem interested in selling the books for affordable prices for the same reason …”. I think if you restrict yourself to taking twice what you paid for something and expenses, you will limit yourself to passing along bargains and people would support you, even when coasbooks is a click away. But the real thing that’s going to get your books sold is knowledge.

In upcoming posts I’ll try to share more of the things I look for when I’m out buying books for resale. And I’m sure there’s going to be a very special episode of Hoarders about me in the not too distant future 😉



“Someone’s going to want that some day”: Book scouting, part 1

the red widow murders, carter DicksonI suspect that many of my readers are already well along the path to becoming book scouts. If you own a lot of books, as I do, you are almost certainly “in a relationship” with at least one bookseller and probably others. They probably don’t know you by name; you’re “that guy who reads John Dickson Carr” or “the lady who collects those old puzzle mysteries”. And so when you make your way to their bookstore, they may have set aside a copy of He Wouldn’t Kill Patience or The Red Widow Murders for you, if you’ve mentioned that that’s something you’ve been looking for. That’s book scouting — they’re scouting for you.

He Wouldn't Kill Patience, Carter DicksonHere’s a conversation you may have had at some point that takes you further down the path. The bookseller says, “Oh, by the way, I have a customer who wants a copy of He Wouldn’t Kill Patience,” and you say, “By golly, I happen to have a spare one that I rescued from a thrift shop.” Next time you come in, you bring in your battered copy; your bookseller thanks you and might make it very much worth your trouble — or perhaps not, depending upon the book and its associated economics.  (I’ll get into this below.) Perhaps you paid $2.50, she gives you $5, and sells it to her customer for $10.  Congratulations! You’ve just had your first taste of book scouting heroin LOL.

The murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, John Dickson Carr
Your favourite bookseller will almost always have some kind of record of what her customers are looking for (the “want list”). Did you mention you wanted a copy of The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey? She wrote it in the book, along with your contact information, and keeps it in her mind. When she sees one, she’ll pick it up for you. But there’s a group of people — and you can be one of them! — to whom she gives copies of the want list (minus the contact information). Five of her customers are looking for eight different John Dickson Carr titles; you and a couple of other book scouts are aware of those titles and know that if you can find an inexpensive copy, you can make a little money on the deal.

Sue Grafton, "A" is for AlibiWhy only a little money? That’s because of the economics of the situation. It’s far too complicated to get into deeply, but the rule of thumb is that if you buy a book for X, you have to sell it for 2X in order to make a living and keep the lights on in your store. So if I’m a book scout, I have to buy books very, very cheaply. If someone needs a reading copy of A is for Alibi, they’re capable of getting it via the internet for, say, $5 plus-or-minus postage. If a bookstore manager can phone her client and say, “I have a copy I’ll sell you for $4,” the client has saved a little money and has had a convenient transaction, so they’re likely to be back to that bookstore. But for the manager to sell it for $4, she has to have paid $2 or less for it — and that means that I have to have paid $1 to sell it to her for $2.

Rim of the Pit, Hake TalbotSometimes the manager will do you a favour. If you’re a good customer or just a nice person, and you really want a copy of Rim of the Pit, the manager may buy a copy from a book scout or another bookstore for $8 and sell it to you for — $8. That’s because truly what it’s all about is getting good books to good people, and occasionally you have to just break even. This is especially, these days, if the manager knows you can go to the Internet and pay $12 and have one within 48 hours, or whatever.

If you think about it, you’re never going to retire on the proceeds of being a book scout. In fact, many people who do it lose money on it but dabble in it anyway, just because they like to feel as if they’re part of the book business. It’s fun, it improves your eye, and it gives you a reason to go to a lot of different bookstores and feed your own addiction.

So to make a long story short — too late, as usual! — that’s why I was at the door of the local thrift shop this morning as it opened, for a “50 percent off” sale. It’s because I’ve been a book scout and I’ve bought from book scouts and I’ve encouraged people to become book scouts. The words “50 percent off” are to me like the starting gun is to an elderly race horse in the paddock; I toss my head and trot like a yearling to the gate as I’ve done a thousand times before.

One Coffee With, Margaret MaronThe best way to start is by having a chat with your favourite independent bookseller who sells used / vintage / antiquarian books, and ask that person what they think are books that are easy to find that they could sell, but haven’t got the time to go and get. That could be — perhaps something like Hardy Boys books, or all the Miss Seeton mysteries, or that one paperback of Margaret Maron that nobody could ever find.  (In fact One Coffee With used to earn me a quick five bucks whenever I found one — the market was inexhaustible. The book depicted is the first edition of her first book and sells for $20 today.) You make a list and you start hitting garage sales and charity shops and used bookstores — it’s occasionally possible to buy from one bookstore and sell to another, although the profit margins are slim.

But the more knowledge you bring, the better you’ll do. What I thought might interest people is an occasional series about what an experienced book scout buys — not for immediate sale, but because decades in the book business have taught me my mantra:

“Someone’s going to want that some day.”

And so this is what I bought this morning, and why.

Pendleton, Executioner #1War Against the Mafia, The Executioner #1, by Don Pendleton. First edition Pinnacle, 1969; mine is the 18th printing from 1978 and features a new introduction by the author. This originally sold for $1.50 — I think I paid about that in Canadian dollars this morning and would expect to get $3 for it or even more. A nice crisp copy.

I also picked up the following entries in that series, but from the Gold Eagle imprint (a sub-sub-subsidiary of Harlequin):

  • #58 Ambush on Blood River
  • #62 Day of Mourning
  • #65 Cambodia Clash

Don Pendleton, The Executioner #56, Ambush on Blood RiverThese were in beautiful condition so I decided to pick them up for the same $1.50, thinking I’ll get $2 or more for them. I won’t get to double my money for these higher numbers, probably, but I buy these whenever I see them in excellent condition, and I may get a benefit someday through having a box of them available, or through having just the one specific number that someone wants.

Who wants these? Well, middle-aged guys who are undemanding in their literary tastes but who like to read a lot. One crucial factor in my decision to pick these up was that they have a number on them. There’s something about numbered series of books … when you see someone come into your bookstore with a little handwritten notebook or bundle or lists, you may be about to meet someone who will pay extra for #58 if they don’t have it and you have it right at hand, and they will be happy to do so and recommend you to their fellow collectors.

Lee Goldberg, The Waking Nightmare, Diagnosis MurderThe Waking Nightmare, by Lee Goldberg: #4 in the Diagnosis: Murder series based on the 1990s TV show. This is a first edition (no hardcover) from Signet from 2005 with a photo of a smiling Dick Van Dyke on the cover. The copy I bought is absolutely mint, essentially unread and unopened, and I paid about $2 for it and fully expect to get $4 someday.

Why did I buy it? A combination of reasons. One important reason is the perfect condition; I don’t think I’ve ever lost money on such a crisp book. Another is that it’s a “TV tie-in” novel that was strong enough to be published four years after the end of the series; people wanted this book in 2005 and that makes them a little more likely to want it later. There are all kinds of collectors and aficionados of tie-in novels, added to which there are people who collect things that have to do with Dick Van Dyke.

Another good reason is — Lee Goldberg is an intelligent writer and a very creative guy; he’s just about king of the tie-ins, but he also does excellent work as a show runner and executive producer. I suspect there are people who collect his work in and of itself, regardless of whether it’s a tie-in or not.

John Dickson Carr, The Three Coffins, Belarski coverIf you have experience and knowledge, you can be a book scout who buys books without having a specific customer for them. I wouldn’t call myself a collector any more; I’ve traded so many books over the years that for the right price you can always have everything and anything in my holdings, especially the gems. These days I buy books where my experience tells me that, for whatever reason, someone’s going to be collecting it in the future (but it won’t be me LOL).  If you truly believe that you are holding a well-written book and that people will continue to read it into the future, then buy it (condition and finance permitting), because “Someone’s going to want that some day.”

John Dickson Carr, Papa La-basThe author’s best book is generally best, but there are two books that will always hold their value — the best (or best-known) book by a good author and the worst (or most obscure) book by a great author. The best, because someone will always want a copy of The Three Coffins; and the worst, because someone will always want to know if Papa La-Bas is as bad as everyone says it is, and it’s been out of print since 1997 AFAIK. I paid $1.50 for a reading copy of Papa La-Bas this morning (Carroll & Graf paperback, second edition from 1997, decent condition) and I’m sure at least one of my readers is thinking, “Gee, I’ve heard about that crappy book for a long time, I wonder if I can find a copy?” Well, ABEbooks.com has 64 for sale, but the cheapest one is an ex-library copy for $3.65 with free shipping within the US. Perhaps in five years someone will pay $5 for mine.

John Sandford, Winter PreyI was delighted to find one book I picked up this morning; I paid $6 for a first edition hardcover of John Sandford’s fifth Lucas Davenport novel, Winter Prey from 1993, in excellent condition, for $5. It’s a particularly-well written entry in this long series and it actually is a decent puzzle mystery as well as being a rather hard-boiled cop novel. This was the novel for me that signalled that Sandford was capable of moving into the first rank of modern thriller writers and he did not disappoint me.

As my friends know, I buy Sandford first editions whenever I see them. I have a little bookcase where I keep a single copy of each of his books; I don’t have a full set of firsts yet, but I should soon. To give you some idea of how good an investment I think this is, this is at least the third copy of Winter Prey I own; some volumes in the series I may have as many as ten copies. I don’t say everyone should rush out and buy up Sandford firsts — I think you should identify a modern author whose work you love and support, and buy every single decent copy of that person’s work that you can find. Because “Someone’s going to want that some day.”

C. J. Cherryh, The Pride of ChanurWhat else did I buy?  A couple of mint/unopened Hard Case Crime novels, including a great Lawrence Block title, A Walk Among the Tombstones — the recent movie tie-in edition with Liam Neeson on the cover. A nice crisp copy of a Zebra reprint of Charlotte Armstrong’s Dream of Fair Woman. A couple of first paperback editions of C. J. Cherryh’s Chanur novels from DAW — DAW books have lots of collectors, Cherryh is an excellent writer, and I suspect the Chanur books are going to be the basis of a great video adaptation some day. And I regretfully passed up an early Pocket paperback edition of Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Lazy Lover because it had loose pages, and it’s not worth buying books with that level of problems.

John Dunning, Booked to DieThe first mystery in John Dunning’s “Cliff Janeway” series, 1992’s Booked To Die, is an excellent mystery — it was a finalist for the Anthony and Macavity awards and won a couple of others — and the only one, to my knowledge, to accurately understand and portray the world of the book scout. So if you’re looking to understand how this little niche industry works, go read the sad tale of “Bobby the book scout” and you’ll understand quite a bit more about this little byway of the book industry than I could tell you in a short time. I hope to continue this kind of post into the future, for the benefit of my bibliomaniacal readership. Sure, collecting is fun. But making money doing something you love that involves getting good books into the hands of readers — that’s worth doing!!