A Guide to Pricing Books without Losing Your Soul

Jessica Amanda Salmonson


Bookstand Pricing a book is one of the major sources of angst for a bookseller. I want my bookselling to be fun for me & for my clients, not an expense & a hassle with a "me versus them" mentality.

If I'm charging so much that it pains the client to write me out a check, then no one's totally happy. On the other hand, if I underprice books, other booksellers are the first ones to leap upon the top end of my stock, & our shared customer base ends up getting a broom up the bum when the price is tripled elsewhere.

What I've tried to do is find a happy medium below what the priciest specialist attempts to get for a book (relatively few of them really get these prices, you should know) but at the same time high enough that when I'm out scouting for books, I can be confident of obtaining good stock to resell profitably.

By trying to locate this happy medium -- below what might be construed as a rip-off, but high enough that I am not simply preying upon other booksellers' ignorance of a subject -- one runs the risk of pleasing nobody. Suppose I locate a book in a shop while travelling, & it cost me a surprisingly low $5.00, & I value it in my catalog for $25.00. There is always going to be some yahoo perfectly aware that if he had been looking for that book in a hundred places for three years, he might've found it for $5.00, & he wonders, "Where does this greedy bitch get off quadrupling the price?" On the other hand, there are many dealers who would think nothing of cataloging that same book for $100; & their response might well be, "Where does she get off undermining the value of my stock by treating these titles like crackerjack prizes Cheap While They Last?"

Ultimately, of course, I'm not out to please anyone but my immediate client list, with whom I believe I've built confidence & mutual fondness over time. These are the folks I address as My Sweet Chums in my catalog editorials, who know I'm not the bargain basement (which are after all places rather thin on anything worthwhile), but my prices are nevertheless reasonable to all but the most insufferable cheapskate whose shelves harbor only marked-on library discards.

It is nevertheless a source of angst for me to price a book, & I'll tell you the real underlying reason for this.

I am not at heart a dealer. I'm a booklover. & I have seen, in other people, that bookselling has the capacity to diminish the pure unadulterated joy of books. I began dealing in modern & antiquarian supernatural literature originally as a method of underwriting my own addiction to rare books, which on my authorly income I could not otherwise afford. & I soon learned I have a very real knack for uncovering good books & rarities, especially in the area of the weird tale, to which I am drawn as a bee to a flower. It grew into a profitable aside with four to six catalogs a year.

But here's the danger. Imagine a young stamp collector for whom the greatest pleasure in the world is finding a beautiful old stamp, a miniature engraving that has circled the globe at least once in the course of its existence. It evokes a Romance of distant lands. That little piece of paper enlarges the aesthetic spirit that is capable of love & imagination. But what if that kid grows up to become a stamp dealer? What used to be symbolic of joy becomes, instead, dollar signs rolling in the eyes.

A stamp dealer is all too often someone who once loved stamps but long ago rifled the personal collection to obtain the highest profit for the best items. The slogan is no longer, "What a beautiful stamp!" but "So-and-so will pay a hundred dollars for that!" & with each once-beloved treasure sent away in preference of cash, the soul is diminished in equal measure.

This happens to booksellers too; & I sometimes feel the need to guard against it in myself. I'll give you a bookish example. I've a signed copy of W. C. Morrow's The Ape the Idiot & Other People, a stunning collection from the San Francisco branch of the Yellow Nineties Decadence; that's my personal copy for viewing in the art nouveau ghosts gallery. This book includes some spectacular horror stories. You would be shocked what I've been offered for this book by visitors who could not resist looking at what I do not sell. I obtained it long ago for an inexplicably low sum. I remember the day I found it, as clean & bright a copy as you can imagine. I was on a high ladder & nearly slipped because my knees went rubbery. My fingers were actually shaking as I reached my arm higher, higher, unable to believe I was really seeing that splendid book. Then to realize it was marked just $10 during a half-price sale; & that, my god, it was a signed copy! All this for a five dollar bill!

That book epitomizes to me the thrill of personally discovering something wonderful, the pleasure of reading excellent stories, the beauty of a well-made book with its gorgeously embossed gold dragon on red cloth. It is everything that's best about antiquarian books, in my estimation. Yet I could certainly find another copy someday, & not too expensively since it was worn & without signature. So it is perhaps foolish to have turned down an alarming sum of money from a collector who can afford to make astounding offers.

But if I ever start thinking of my books as items of profit rather than of joy, pleasure, & beauty, I am lost, as so many booksellers have become lost. Here's one big step toward losing one's soul: Say a bookseller finds a worthwhile book in the dark corner of an ill-arranged shop. It's been hidden back there for years, priced at a pittance when the elderly shop owner was young. The discoverer immediately thinks, "I could make a tidy little profit selling this for $50., but I have a customer who'll gladly pay $125., but first I'll try to get $200 since Lloyd Curry once listed it for that." Such thinking was invariably preceded by an earlier step on the low road to Sheol, when the last echo of innocence passed out of that calculating bookseller forever: "I've had this dustwrappered Edgar Rice Burroughs first edition since I was ten years old & paid a dime for it at my great-uncle's yard sale, & I loved it then; but it's now worth $3,000, so screw my uncle, screw my having loved that book, & screw some customer up the darkside! I'm making me a gawdamn killing off this flapping bustard!"

In my own case, I have occasionally been forced by impoverishment to sell parts of my collection I wished I could have kept forever. I once convinced myself I didn't really need my Mary E. Wilkins Freeman first editions because most of them had no ghost stories in them, & all but a couple of the ghost stories were in any case available in an Arkham House volume which took up less room. So I sold Victorian firsts for rent, & still miss them, having replaced only a few of them since.

Such choices have never occurred out of greed but only when there was really a chance I'd otherwise be living in the street or, worse, be forced back into a secretarial position. I can think of a few other times I sold a beloved book when I shouldn't have done so, but it was, at least, never dictated by greed. I'm thinking of a small paperback by Cornell Woolrich that I quite like called Beyond the Night. A mutual bookhunting friend who had found for me many books that became my favorites had asked me to find him this book because it had a vampire story he needed for his personal collection. I looked everywhere, & finally traded him my own copy, as I couldn't bear that he be without it, & felt I owed him a dozen favors. It took me several years to find a replacement, during which time I was frequently the second person to ask after a copy out of a catalog. When I finally found a replacement, it was mint, & it was priced below value though still not cheap. It felt like good karma after all.

I've talked about these issues with booksellers more successful than I aspire ever to be. I have been told it is no wonder I live an anchoritic existence always fretting about rent & the price of groceries. To succeed at this game, one has to be cutthroat & cynical, I'm told.

So I guess I will have to forever chalk up my bookselling as a avocation, which leaves my writing & editing as my only actual profession. But even there, I find myself often enough writing things for limited edition letterpress publishers because I love handmade books, whereas, by contrast, you'll find me bathing in a sewer before I appear in a shared world anthology just because the pay can be good. Perhaps this means I have no profession of any kind; for to repeat the Rene Daumal quote I placed in my 1992 novel Anthony Shriek, "I'm perfectly aware I can't think. I'm a poet."


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