Rare Book Sale Monitor – 2023 Review

by jim on February 5, 2024 · The Book Trade

The rare book trade finished another year of sales and according to the Rare Book Hub, sales of the highest priced items did worse in 2023 compared to 2022. Rare Book Hub compares auction sales from most auction houses and it includes items such as trading cards, in addition to books and ephemera. According to the website post, the trend is a continuation from 2022, when book and paper auction sales totaled $1.06 billion, which was down approximately $100 million from 2021, when a few high-priced items skewed figures upward, but up sharply from sales of $725 million in 2020.  Two important statistics referenced are as follow. Firstly, 12 items sold for prices exceeding $1 million in 2023. In 2022, it was twice that number- 24. Secondly, the average price of sales dropped substantially, from $2,094 in 2022, to $1,863 in 2023; an 11% decline.

Auctions are one important channel through which rare books are traded, but it’s not the only channel. Rare books are also traded through on-line marketplaces and dealer websites, as well as at antiquarian book fairs, and through a diminishing number of remaining brick and mortar bookstores. While we have no way to capture in-person exchanges, we do have a number of on-line marketplaces reporting on their top sales for the year. Sales at auctions include some of the most expensive books offered for sale, but on-line sales carry the majority of books traded. For example, Abebooks alone has over 100 million books for sale. Based on the performance reported by a number of dealers, a realistic estimate of the annual sales volume on Abebooks is approximately 10% annually, or 10 million books. Rare Book Hub captured 658,000 items traded during various auctions in 2023.

On-line marketplaces are selling not only more books than auctions, but are also selling at higher prices from one year to the next. According to Abebooks’  most expensive sales reported at the end of each year, prices increased by 11% from 2021, to 2022. And prices for the most expensive sales reported for 2023, jumped a whopping 71% from the prior year. Our Rare Book Sale Monitor produced the following average sale chart for the years 2021-23 by genre. The genres Modern First Editions, Poetry and Literary Criticism and Science Fiction/Fantasy, led this price increase trend.

Most Expensive Average Sale Price by Year by Genre


The pandemic provided the opportunity to capture an accurate set of figures on how well antiquarian book fairs perform. During the years when ABAA book fairs shifted to remote only participation, we were able to collect data on the actual sales for the top three fairs which took place in Boston, New York and California. The number of books sold at fairs such as these, are negligible compared to what gets sold at on-line marketplaces. For example, most sales in terms of total number sold took place in 2020, at the California book fair, with 1,264 sold. The highest average price for books sold was recorded in 2021, in New York, with $2,716. The most expensive tier at this event scored an average price of $44,000; comparable to the one reported by Abebooks most expensive sales for 2023. Of course, there are multiple book fairs held throughout the world.  The combined sales from all such events are estimated to be close to those sold at auctions, which is significantly less than the number of items sold through the various on-line marketplaces.

The ABAA held a few online events as well as several in-person fairs in 2022. Finally, they are now back to pre-pandemic levels of attendance with just a small decline in the number of participating dealers. Some dealers cannot justify spending close to 5 figures for a booth at one of these events. On the opposite side of the trade, buyers are deterred by the high buyer premium fees; some, close to 30%, charged on top of the high bids at auctions. What does the future hold given these dynamics at play? The most probable trend is more of the same: buyers getting more comfortable buying higher priced rare books at on-line marketplaces, while book fairs and auctions give in to dealer and buyers’ preferences.

About the author

Data scientist, book collector – Jim Sekkes

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