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    Adventures of a rare book dealer (and former small bookshop owner).

Over-Pursuing: On Paying Too Much For Books

Written on January 8, 2010

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It happens. You miscalculate scarcity or demand. Or a widow asks you, tears in her eyes, “Is that all?” A dealer charms you with a book’s virtues. Or assures you “The only one on the internet right now.” You get overexcited at an auction. Or you drool over some choice item at a book fair. Could be as simple as waiting too long to catalogue an acquisition. But no matter the cause, if you are a book dealer sooner or later: you will overpay for stock.

Now there’s an argument to be made that the best dealers are those who do this the least. And while to a certain extent this is true, no dealer can avoid it entirely, and I’ve come to find that the best dealers are more often the one’s who know what to do when the dreaded happens. As I’ve been cataloguing an uncomfortable amount of material I have – ahem – “over-pursued,” it’s a subject that’s been on my mind of late.

Though it’s taken me several years, and some days I do this better than others, I’ve found the following helps lessen the sting somewhat:

1) Catalogue the material immediately. For me, this is the hardest part. It’s easier to ignore that pile of margin-challenged books. After all, to process it is to admit – to put in cold hard numbers – how little you will make (or conversely, how much you will lose) on your new acquisitions. It’s also to admit that your judgement was wrong. Very wrong. Wrongity-wrong. Better to set aside and hope the market improves. Better to just sweep them under the proverbial rug. *Fingers in ears* NANANANANAN – I don’t know you’re there!

Not that *I* ever did anything like that. But the bottom line is this: the market is very unlikely to get any better and the sooner the books get on the market, the sooner you are likely to get back (at least some of) your capital and the sooner that capital can be put towards better purchases. That is assuming you…

2) Examine why it happened and learn from the mistake. Was I feeling flush? Did I let my emotions get the better of me? Has a market that I thought I knew well changed? Did I ignore my gut instincts? Did I listen to my gut instincts? Did I not stick to my budget? Did I buy something I didn’t fully understand? The more I recognize how it happened, the better l can avoid repeating the error in the future.

3) Think more creatively. Bad buys make me think about how I can turn them over as quickly as possible. They make me dig deeper into who might be a potential customer for the material and consider more fully how I might reach them. Maybe I can’t make much money but I can use some of the material to acquire potential new clients. In other words, bad buys can (sometimes) make me a better seller.

And I also find it useful to remember the words of my colleague Garrett Scott, who recently tweeted me on this topic: “But remember Einstein’s general theory of bookselling: As the speed of turnover increases, margins appear larger.”

Now, I’m off to look at a collection of music books. I will not let their siren song lure me to the rocky shores of over-paying…

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One Comment

  1. Comment by W.J. Elvin:

    Thank you for not using the word “stupid,” perhaps now I can cease to use it in reference to my own little mistakes. Peculiar though it may seem, my spirits were lifted in noting that even the pros have regrets. I don’t operate at your level of the game but can modify your advice to suit my circumstances. Great blog and links, I’ll add to my favorites.

    March 1, 2010 @ 3:04 pm