Friday, November 16, 2018

Why the net is not a good guide to book prices

Readers who spend any time in charity bookshops will quite often hear the manager or volunteers explain, when a customer queries a price, that they “value” their collectible books “using the internet”. In practice, this probably means consulting one or more of two or three well-known listing sites.

This is usually presented as if it were a serious, reasonable practice and a clinching argument. And of course it's understandable that busy volunteers will turn to what seems to be a handy ready reckoner. But it always makes me groan inwardly and I've seen or heard other collectors express similar dismay. Because it doesn’t take very much thought to see that this approach doesn’t work at all.

Let’s first dismiss any argument that the books should be cheaper because they’ve been donated. No: people gave the books to help the charity and it’s the charity’s job to make as much money as they can from them for their cause. (Conversely however, the charity shouldn’t expect readers to pay more for a book just because they are a charity. If people want to donate, they donate. That’s a separate matter.)

It equally doesn’t work to argue that the books in a charity shop should be cheaper because the charity gets certain privileges—lower business rates, tax relief etc. Again, these policies are designed to make the most of the income for their worthy cause and are entirely separate to the question of book pricing.

We’ll also set aside the question of the condition of books. It is true that many amateur booksellers, and this includes charity shop volunteers, don’t seem to grasp the great difference this makes to the value of a book. They see, for example, a book in Very Good condition priced at £25 and think they can ask the same for it in Good or even Fair or Poor condition. Or they just don’t look closely enough and miss defects, such as missing pages, which make the book virtually valueless.

This is indeed one good reason why some charity bookshop pricing can be what is euphemistically described as “ambitious”, but we will suppose generously for the present that the volunteer “valuer” is indeed comparing a book in front of them and a book on the internet of similar quality.

No, the real reasons that charity bookshops (or indeed anyone else) should not price books using the internet (or at least not without a lot of discernment) are all strictly business-related. We might identify at least four reasons why this approach doesn’t work.

The first is that if I can buy a book from the internet at a similar price to yours, why should I get it from you? Yes, I’ve got to pay postage on an internet book, but I’ve also got costs in coming to your shop – petrol and parking fees, or train or bus fares. So your shop is not offering me any enticement. What’s your added value, your selling point?

The second, and strongest, reason ought to be obvious, but apparently isn’t. Any book listed on the internet is an unsold book. All right, yes, it might have been only recently listed, but that’s a marginal point. The fact is that this is a book that has not sold at that price. So if you want your copy to sell, you’ve got to go below it.

Some might argue that actually you’ve got to go quite a way below it. If no-one will buy a book at £20, will they at £19 or £18? Maybe, but probably not. You might have to go to, say, £16 before you see a difference. The market price of any book listed for a while on the net is, we might reasonably argue, at least 15-20% below that internet price.

A third reason not to rely on internet book prices is that some of them appear to be highly speculative. Indeed, it’s even been suggested (possibly a bit tongue-in-cheek) that some money laundering is done in this way. A book is listed at a ludicrous price: a buyer pays it; shady money is transferred in a seemingly innocuous transaction. Who could possibly suspect second-hand bookselling of involvement with dark money? It’s also been explained that certain algorithms may push book prices up to vast amounts, with some well-publicised examples of not especially collectible works soaring into four figures solely owing to the inner workings of these calculations.

But the fourth reason is a more subtle point that shouldn’t be dismissed because of that. It’s about mood and ambience and customer behaviour. Internet book-buying is largely impersonal. Click, click, click, wait for the book. May never use that bookseller again. Wouldn’t know them if I saw them. But a physical bookshop is a different experience. I might be local, and you might want me to pop in often. Or I might be a visitor and you might want me to tell everyone about the lovely bookshop I found. So, do you want me to think “sheesh, these prices are high, what a rip-off” or “ooh, these are very fair prices”?

And indeed I may not actually spend any less if your prices are lower. Why? Well, if I go into a bookshop and the prices are all quite high, I am straightaway put on my guard and not in a mood to buy. I might grudgingly get one, if I really want it. Whereas if the prices are moderate, I lower my guard and start assembling a pile. I might actually end up spending more than if I’d just bought one expensive book. But even if I spend the same, the point is that I’m happier, and I’ll come back.

The practice, incidentally, is by no means confined to charity bookshops. I've had several experiences in ordinary secondhand bookshops when a book was unpriced (and even once or twice when it was!) when the proprietor has turned to the net to “value” a book.

But for the reasons given above, the net should only be used as the broadest sort of guide for valuing a book, and will never be a substitute for judgement, experience and commercial acumen.

Mark Valentine


  1. You're also paying bookseller's for their knowledge and your trust in that knowledge. A recent Oxfam listing for Elizabeth Taylor's A Game of Hide and Seek included the following:
    This is a novel by Elizabeth Taylor. I can't find any reference to the actress. It must have been written by an author with the same name.
    Suggesting that not all the 'catalogers' are allowed access to Google.
    I have emailed Oxfam several times to say that a book listed as a first edition is not, to suggest that the date '1981' visible on the copyright page means that it couldn't be the 1932 edition as stated, and to say that the 'signed copy' of the first edition of 'The Diary of A Nobody' they are offering in fact includes the same facsimile signatures as all other copies. The fact that they are a charity doesn't excuse them from the usual laws against misdescription of goods does it?
    On the flip side I got a nice 1st of Russell's History of Western Philosophy for a tenner, so swings and roundabouts...

  2. These are all fine points, ones that I have seen many times in action. I would also argue for another point, that there is more value on the whole for books to be sold than for high-priced books to be sold. I make a point of reading older, obscure books, and in shopping for them I've seen an effect in play (more online than in store) where a copy is priced too high for a standard reader to buy the book, and every other seller prices it higher. This might be more due to the algorithms you talked about than actual seller decisions, but it does nothing for getting the books into readers' hands. The value of art is an act of collective imagination, and so with any book you have to assume that, to the buyer, it is initially worth whatever average price the buyer carries inside themselves for a standard book. There are a few books that I'll splurge on in a given year, but I usually won't buy a book unless it's $10 or less, or whereabouts. And sometimes going for more obscure books has allowed me to snag some true bargains - it's remarkable how many autographed first editions of poetry books I've snagged for clearance rack prices. Whenever a seller sets a price significantly lower than other sellers, they're taking a gamble on what they think they could get for the book, and sometimes they could have ended up getting more - the important thing in the long run is that the book is sold, they get something for it rather than nothing, and a reader is connected with a book they wanted. Good books wither away on shelves every day because of a lack of readers, and if more booksellers took an appropriately altruistic approach to their trade we might have a richer culture for it.

  3. You raise good points, Mark. In a secondhand bookshop recently I asked the proprietor for the price of a book, which was still in print. He spent quite some time scrolling on his device, then quoted me a price higher than that charged by the big retailers for a new copy. That, surely, is economics turned on its head.

  4. I've never seen the words "booksellers" and "altruistic" in the same sentence before. Lol.

  5. Excellent piece, well-argued. Another point for me is that I feel somehow I should be rewarded with a bargain for braving the mothballed socks and Jeremy Clarkson books when I trawl through a charity shop. It's a different story when the charity runs a separate bookshop of course, but what's the likelihood that somebody willing to pay the "internet price" for some obscure tome is going to come stumble across it in their local Sue Ryder just on the day they happen to be feeling rich?

  6. In a charity Op shop near Melbourne Australia last year I found 3 Ash Tree Press books for 50 cents each. I did buy them and also gave a bigger donation as I left. I did go back every day I was in the area in case anymore appeared. They had not googled at all

  7. I guess the key points are

    Look the book up as though you are trying to buy it as cheaply as you can, or use some simple method to determine prices like weight or size.

    Date code the book when you price it, a letter for the year and a number for the month, we are coding Z18 at the moment and as this is the second time I have got to Z, started working in a bookshop on Saturdays in 1966.

    Put most of your efforts into getting donations of books which you make space for by reducing the prices of the ones with the oldest codes on them and sending the ones you reduced last time off for recycling.

  8. I don’t care how many times I’ve done both types of buying, the store experience has always been more satisfying. I can talk to the bookseller about price without recourse to the internet and actually handle and view the item to assess it's true condition. I’m fussy about certain types of defects and many online sellers simply don’t know or won’t assess the true condition about a book.