“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!!





Battleship (2012)


Title: Battleship

Year: 2012

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Brooklyn Decker, Liam Neeson, Alexander Skarsgård, Rihanna

Themes: Alien Invasion, Combat Action

Generally speaking, I try to go and see films like this in a theatre, where I can.  This is one of the few types of films that really demands to be seen in a theatre with a huge screen, Dolby surround sound, all that good stuff, and in the company of the popcorn-munching hoi polloi.  (Otherwise, how would you know when something was meant to be funny?)  But for some reason I missed this last summer and just got a DVD of it the other day.

I mean, okay, let’s be clear.  This is the kind of film where you walk out of the theatre, as I am wont to say, humming the special effects.  The SFX are the star of this show, no question, and the actors play a decided second fiddle.  Everything about this film is oriented towards building towards SFX set-pieces, displaying them dramatically, and then moving on to the next.  There are entire films (Tron: Legacy comes to mind) where the film is about the SFX and wouldn’t be meaningful without them.

That being said, this film has some interesting moments.  To start with, as most of you already know, it’s based on a game.  Not a video-game-to-video translation like Doom or Lara Croft, but a game that you play in your home without the intermediation of a computer or a video screen.  So there’s a delicate balance that goes on in a situation like this.  Obviously it cannot be a transliteration of the game, with two people each trying to sink the other’s battleships.  At the same time, battleships must be sunk, as it were.  You need ships, sailors, and a situation that requires combat.

In order to solve this problem and bring some sort of coherent baseline to the script, the producers grafted the good old “Alien Invasion” theme in, so as to anchor everything.  So there are no racial or cultural tensions (the script feebly tries to graft in a US vs. Japan element but renounces it so that the “unlikely buddies” theme becomes more prominent as “all the humans work together to defeat the soulless aliens”).  But the alien invasion theme actually worked for me.

In fact, the script is quite clever, as these things go.  Look at what you’re starting with — the requirement that at least once during the movie the audience should hear, “You sank my battleship!” or equivalent.  There are no characters, no plot events, nothing but the requirement to have battleships firing at each other for some reason.  So I have to say that the script goes to a great deal of trouble to add interesting plot events and characters.  I’m not saying this is a triumph of characterization — Brooklyn Decker does a really good job at being “the girl who bounces when she runs” where Nicole Kidman would not — but it’s better than it has to be.  Indeed, this is almost a good story and these are characters whom one cares about ever so slightly.

A couple of minor characters, indeed, steal the show; a red-headed ensign/sidekick who is an amusing doofus, and some sort of sailor played by Rihanna, who cusses and is tough.  Both these actors deserve our praise and future attention.  I honestly didn’t recognize Rihanna for a moment, until she had the benefit of some amazing lighting in a shot that looked accidentally designed to make her look gorgeous.  She too is better than she has to be.  I’m not saying she transcends the entire oeuvre of “semi-famous musicians who are plunked into small roles in big movies” but, frankly, she doesn’t suck.  She appears to have listened to the director and has some natural acting talent — and the courage to be restrained and moderately believable, rather than wearing three feet of eyelashes and a push-em-up.

The final third of the film is devoted to the type of activity I think of as “things blow up good”, which in this case is mostly sea-going vessels.  There is an amusing bit where the survivors of one sinking must commandeer a drydocked relic from WWII, complete with elderly sailors.  The aliens have technology that lets them blow things up decisively and manage to kill off Alexander Skarsgard at about the midpoint of Act II, but not before he manages to remove his shirt in an early scene (this is, after all, a summer blockbuster).  Taylor Kitsch survives, which is good, and does not manage to remove his shirt, which is bad.  Perhaps he felt his excellent physique was too much on view in John Carter earlier in the year.

I was interested in a bit of technology run by the aliens — a kind of spinning wheel of teeth that is projected onto an enemy vessel, or land-based installation, and simply rolls around at high speed crunching whatever is in its path into splinters.  It reminded me a little of Stephen King’s The Langoliers, but much more explosive.  I was also curious about a small point of their tech.  Numerous times during the film, alien tech looks at a screen, map or live input and puts a green line around non-threatening things and a red line around threatening ones.  The aliens in person then, for instance, slap the “red lined” rifle out of the “green lined” human’s hands, disarming him without killing him.  What I was wondering was, “why not just kill them?  Did you have a use for them later?”  And, perhaps less importantly, where did the aliens get the idea that green means safe and red means dangerous?  A little bit anthropocentric, to my mind.  And perhaps I am looking for logic where none need exist, because the film is perfectly enjoyable without the requirement of conscious thought.  Still, it did pique me a bit.

All things considered, I was very pleasantly surprised.  I felt I had received more than I’d signed up for and still had an enjoyable couple of hours.  Mind you, I was expecting absolute rubbish — I mean, come on, a movie based on a child’s board game.  I’m aware that cross-platforming from children’s consumer products/media into feature films doesn’t always work (Rocky & Bullwinkle, The Flintstones) and sometimes does (The Dark Knight, Watchmen).  This one, based on the most slender of threads, actually worked.  Go figure.  I expect this will be available in various forms of television by 2013 and, if you like this sort of thing, you will certainly like this one.