Rare Book Sale Monitor update – 1st Quarter, 2021

by jim on April 19, 2021 · Book Fairs, The Book Trade

As the pandemic spread and live book fair events shut down around the world, Virtual Book Fairs (VBF) offered a new way to buy and sell books online. At last count, there have been at least a couple dozen virtual fairs organized by IOBA, PBFA, Getman, ABAA, ABA (“Firsts”), SLAM and others. Judging from the variations in the organization of the different fairs, it is quite clear that there is a great deal of experimentation taking place, in the quest to find the optimal setup configuration. Dealers and organizers shuffled around with the number and type of books offered, adjusted the duration of the sale, permitted the addition of new items and so forth. These are the key, adjustable ingredients for a successful show, however, the optimal combination is not necessarily the best option for all three interested parties: organizers, dealers and collectors.

In theory, organizers are interested in two outcomes. First, to maximize earnings by allowing as many dealers as possible to participate, and secondly, to build up interest in attendance by keeping both the dealers and the collectors wanting to come back again and again. These two goals are in fact in conflict with each other. The first is directly related to the number of dealers participating, as well as the fee charged for attendance, while the second stands to benefit from having as small number of sellers selling to a large number of buyers (for the dealers), or a large number of books for sale available to a small number of buyers (for the collectors). While these theoretical scenarios consider only the quantity elements of supply and demand, the more optimal alternative must also consider the elements of quality, scarcity and pricing of the books available for sale. The latter are actually more important in attracting the buyers’ interests.

In practice, our Rare Book Sales Monitor (RBSM) has collected valuable information on the pricing of the offerings, as well as the sale prices of the items that sold. Participating dealers have had almost a year now to fine tune their exhibit approaches to these events, in regards to the selection, uniqueness, visual appeal of pictures and the written descriptions which should express a good story on the importance of the book. However, what the RBSM was able to determine, is that the most important factor to having a good show is pricing. This should come as no surprise since all collectors use pricing comparative information during these shows, which is readily available just a few clicks away.

The more upscale fairs such as those offered by the ABAA, have on average a higher price per item. As a result, the sell-through rates during these events tend to be below average. When comparing the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair, for example, which was in November of last year, to the corresponding California International Antiquarian from the first quarter of this year, we see a close to 17% increase in sell-through rates. In fact, the California ABAA show was a much more successful show overall. More items for sale sold at a higher average price, with a higher sell-through rate overall.

The 13.55% sell-through rate is still below the sell-through rates exhibited during other events, such as in those held on Getman’s platform. Shows that are shorter in duration, (day or so,) with less items for sale, do better on average for the participating dealers than those in shows that run for 3-4 days with the option to add more items during the last day of the show. Still, sell-through rates ranging from 50% to 75% are hard to reach for the majority of sellers.

Again, excluded from this analysis is a measure of the quality and uniqueness of the items offered for sale. However, it is safe to assume that while the quality and uniqueness varies from one item to the next, on average this variance is normalized without having significant impact on these comparisons of different configurations held on the same platform.

In conclusion, it seems that physical book fairs allow exhibitors to put hundreds of books on display for sale, while virtual book fairs have a limited display setting. When comparing the performance of standard virtual events with varied durations, numbers of items offered and average pricing, and using sell-through rate as the key measure of event effectiveness, the score is in the dealers’ favor in events with fewer days, less numbers of items, and lower prices. Upscale shows are outliers to this observation as shown by the two shows held by ABAA, where more items at a higher price performed better. Speculatively, the difference was not due to the quality or uniqueness of the books offered, but rather, the result of more collectors joining in the VBF trend after a longer than expected shutdown due to Covid-19.

About the author

Data scientist, book collector – Jim Sekkes

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