10 Things I Learned About the Antiquarian Book Trade

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It was a book-obsessed person’s dream: five+ days dedicated to the world of books and ephemera. And I got to live it.

In mid-July, I had the opportunity to go to the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (CABS) in Colorado Springs. In its 42nd year, CABS is open to novice and experienced booksellers, collectors, and archivists/librarians who are interested in learning about the book trade. It’s meant to be a comprehensive look at everything a bookseller would need to know for their first year in business. Lectures cover everything from using bibliographies to identify a book, to how to sell a book to a customer, all the way to how to collect.

People came from all over the U.S. and around the world to attend the seminar. It was an intensive seminar; we began at 8:30 in the morning and went until about 6:00 at night, but the conversations didn’t stop there. We discussed everything under the moon about books (and not), even talking about the best way to display books on a table (do you lay them flat or do you prop them up?).

I’ve put together the top ten things that I learned during this week. So here goes:

Study your book. Note condition.

In order to sell books and ephemera, it’s important to correctly describe the book or catalogue. The catalogue will include basic information like who the author is, when it was published, as well as the importance of the book and the condition. We were repeatedly told to carefully study the book itself, looking at the condition of the covers (or boards), dust jacket (if applicable), etc. Is there damage or writing in the book? What about a signature or book plate? Then you should write it all down to accurately describe the book so a collector can know about the book.

Trust, but verify.

You may get information about the book when you obtain it, either written or by word of mouth. You need to trust, but verify. Research might be really helpful in confirming information or helping to explain what you have. I’ve written about the importance of bibliographies and doing your research here.

I had the experience of cataloging a book at CABS where I discovered the translator was being marked down as the author by a lot of entries online.

Bookselling is a business. So treat it like one.

While many people come into the book business because they love books, it’s important to remember that you need to run it like a business. You need to keep records of everything—your customers, your inventory, your sales, your cost of goods sold. You should especially track your turnover rate, which is your total inventory divided by the items sold or total sales revenue and total value of your inventory. This will help you figure out how healthy your business is. It helps to keep track the value of your inventory and how long it takes to sell. It will impact how much you can spend on books, help you figure out how you can make more money, and so much more.

Be mindful of price.

When determining a price for a book, remember that you need a customer who is willing to buy it. You might have the most unique book in the world, but there has to be someone who wants to buy it, and buy it at that price. That isn’t to say you should sell a book at low cost or undercut competitors, but a book needs a market to be sold.

Condition is important, except when it isn’t.

For many collectors, condition is a big deal. This is especially true for modern books—like those with dust jackets. A first edition with a torn cover or missing cover won’t be worth as much as one that has an intact cover. However, when you go back far enough with books, notably centuries, the condition can become less important since there aren’t as many books that have survived. Granted, you might want to avoid books covered in mold.

Be kind to your colleagues.

One thing that was stressed over and over was the importance of being nice to people. It’s just good sense as a human, of course. You should be nice to your fellow colleagues in the trade, customers, and people selling you stuff.

Your colleagues, however, are an important part of the business. Your colleagues can also help you out if you have questions. You can form partnerships; maybe a book is too expensive to buy yourself but you can go in on it with a colleague. Get to know them when you go to book fairs, their bookstores, etc.

Everything is marketing.

Every interaction with the customer is a marketing opportunity. What is your brand? What do you want people to think about your shop? Every customer touchpoint is a marketing opportunity. Even things like packaging and how your catalogue looks are a part of that. If you have a social media presence, make sure to keep it up-to-date. (Granted, this is generally good marketing advice, but it was neat to think of it in the context of the antiquarian book trade.)

Spend your resources carefully.

Most likely when you are starting out, your biggest resource will be time. So to build an inventory you can spend time going to estate sales, library sales, etc., looking for good items. Crawling under tables and into boxes might yield some great things for you to sell. But then you will hopefully build your business and have cash to buy great things that people bring you so you’ll have more money than time.

Institutions can be great customers.

We had some awesome talks from librarians/archivists at institutions. Institutions are looking to enhance their collections. For them, the rarity of the book may be less of an issue in comparison to the research value. But if you reach out to an institution, like a library, make sure to do your homework—notably, look up in their catalogue to see if they have the item you wish to sell them, etc.

Have parameters on your collection.

For those of you who are collectors, it’s important to focus your collection to make it better as well as save your pocket. A complete collection, such as all the issues of a publication, is great. But I also learned that people can be creative with collections—some people may focus on health pamphlets from a certain era or something seemingly mundane like take out menus over 20 years in a neighborhood—it seems mundane, but can tell you about the shifting landscape of the neighborhood.

If you are in the trade or interested in learning more about the antiquarian book trade, I highly recommend that you attend CABS in the future. There are scholarships available for students to attend.

Learn more about being a rare book collector or learn more about where rare books live.

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