Pricing your rare books to market

by Admin on August 5, 2012 · The Book Trade

Pricing rare books

As every rare book seller knows, pricing a book to market is often one of the most difficult tasks performed in the trade. Prices set too low may mean that there is additional revenue that could be earned if the potential collector is willing to spend more to acquire the book. On the contrary, prices set too high can also impact revenue as it prevents interested buyers from purchasing the book. Setting the right price level often takes considerable market knowledge and, especially with rare books, strategy.

Price is commonly confused with the notion of value. Value is the perception of a book’s worth and can vary from one individual or group to another. It is simply a relative measure of cost Vs gain measured in terms of monetary value or non-monetary means such as degree of excellence, usefulness, importance, sentiment, Intellect and so forth. So a book can be considered to be under-priced by an individual or a group if its price relative to the perceived value or worth is low. Over the last 10 years, books in general have been considered to be seriously under-valued for a number of reasons:

  1. Compared to other popular collectible items such as art, coins, and baseball cards, pricing for rare books in general has not increased that much.
  2. A great deal of value added services that have the potential to increase pricing are still underutilized or remain undiscovered.
  3. The supply of rare books or the discovery of rare books is declining.

Included in the second reason above, is the research and discovery that is currently conducted by a relatively small number of dealers looking to add value to a particular possession. For example, a dealer friend owns a fairly recent book by the name Mosquito: A Natural History of Man’s Most Persistent and Deadly Foe, written and inscribed by Dr. Andrew Spielman, a medical entomologist at Harvard. The book potentially carries an additional value since it is inscribed. Here is where the second reason above comes in: after doing the research on the inscription to Thomas Huckle Weller and wife Kathleen; it leads to none other than Nobel Prize winner in Physiology, Dr. Weller.  Now the book carries an additional value as it is an association copy.

The pricing decision is a critical one.  In the rare book selling industry there are no financial tools that are widely used to assist in setting a fair price. Marketers must consider many other factors when arriving at the price for which their product will sell. Used books have the additional attribute of “condition” to incorporate into the price equation. The industry is utilizing a less than perfect, non-uniform description to assess a book’s condition.  Organizations such as the Independent Online Booksellers Association (IOBA) have published guidelines to assist booksellers and ultimately book buyers by standardizing somehow the description on the condition of a book. However, it is merely what it was created to be:  a reference guide rather than a formal practice. The Comic book marketplace is in fact more successful in standardization through the common use of a third-party grading service – Certified Guaranty Company (CGC).

Price adjustments as part of sales promotions that lower price for a short period of time to stimulate interest in a particular group of books is often used by brick-and-mortar booksellers or on-line sellers that are carrying more common editions in their inventory.  The factor of uniqueness and thus scarcity is not so prevalent in this scenario, and promotional price reductions may be a beneficial competitive tool. On the other hand, any attempts to raise an initially low priced product to a higher price may be met by buyer resistance as they may feel that they are being taken advantage of.

It should be noted that not all dealers view price as a key selling feature. Some dealers, for example those seeking to be viewed as prominent members among their colleagues, will deemphasize price and concentrate on a strategy that highlights collegiality. Such relationships are significant in establishing a connected circle of expertise that facilitates not only the exchange of information and knowledge, but also a pricing strategy in a business that carries a great deal of private treaties and transactions.

It comes as no surprise then, that any number of available copies of the “same” rare book available range widely in price. Besides being a heterogeneous item after incorporating factors such as condition and attributes such as unique history and background, the seller’s pricing strategy is not always the same. Let’s also not forget that in this industry of large numbers of small sole-proprietors, the resource dedicated towards a pricing strategy is sometimes minimal or non-existent.  That is where the opportunistic collector comes in, but that is a discussion on another topic post.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Pranab Jyoti Ghosh June 25, 2021 at 7:46 am

I have a Bengali Translation of A N Bakharev’s “I V Michurin: The great remaker of nature”. I have just searched net and found that no bengali Translation of the book is now available. All the books available on net are in English. What can be the possible price?


Booksforever February 24, 2013 at 7:34 am

When it comes down to truly rare books, the simple fact is the copies of those books are not going to increase.
If there are 50 copies worldwide, in 50 years it can only still be 50. But in reality, its less. Over time books are passed down to family members who may not care, or be damaged in flooding, simply lost or damaged in a multiple number of ways. These ‘accidents’ happen, and this again reduces the copies out there.

So rare is rare, and if prices are dictated by rarity, the prices will increase. But demand has 50% to play in a books price, and real the issue here is if the future generations look at a printed book with the same respect of this and past generations. If books are held in less regard in future, and taken back to the mentality of just ‘paper and ink’ book prices will drop badly, even if rare.


Patricia l. Stellwagon August 19, 2012 at 9:13 am

This is one of the best articles I’ve read that counters the “doom and gloom” stories I hear from some well known book dealers, ad nauseaum. Pricing is an art, but for those of us who also live for the challenge of the research behind the book , it is part science. As it pertains to sensory integration,( e.g., visual and tactile sensory relationships), it could be considered pure science. I’ve yet to taste a book but the other four primary senses come in to play each time I pick up a intriguing volume for the first time. That is the start of the experience, the dance, and if lucky, the research brings the culmination of a great new find.


Duncan McLaren August 7, 2012 at 1:46 am

All very interesting information and I think I get your point on the subject of “Pricing your rare books to market” – the prices can be and should have a large spread because of the nature of the item and it’s identified characteristics and the seller’s “added-values” services applied.

All of this is true of course and a valid point(s), however there are more variables and considerations.

The collector, institutional or private, at the end of the day is the one who accepts (or not) the asking price we come up with based on all the above. However, the collector is no longer ignorant of the many other options, added-value information and alternative places to buy. They can by now at retail or the major trend now at an auction (or perhaps a future bookfair). Web sites such a Americana Exchange have taken the internet paradigm changes in our industry to another level. The collector pool now considers comparison shopping and searching online as the standard starting place. Their collecting subject is more than just rare books now. Smart sellers know this and are adjusting their inventory and marketing approach.

When we do rare book values from an appraisal viewpoint (ie: donation with Fair Market Values) and Insurance values for replacing items (ie: retail costs) the process is more defined and pragmatic how at the analysis stage different thinking and thus values can be concluded.

You make the point about supply of rare books declining. I see this as totally opposite. In the next decade more (baby boomers) collectors will be disposing of their collections than ever before and many more institutions will continue to auction off their rare books for the needed money and growing disinterest of their target groups usage. The huge quantity of institutional rare books going off site (the first step) is staggering. Yes, there will be replacement collectors but what they collect will be different. Look at comics today and the growth of the graphic novel to name some major collecting changes that have already taken place.

So Rare book pricing is still an art but with much more “scientific” factors to consider. I do think this will continue to have a more leveling effect on the major swings. The too-high asking priced added values will spend more time on the shelves than ever before.



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