Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Drilling down on why I’m considering becoming an antique books anarchist


Recently my wife, BethAnn, and I were up in Ann Arbor, Michigan to visit her daughter, Mallory, a doctoral student at U of M. Our visit coincided with the 36th annual Ann Arbor Antiquarian Book Fair, so we decided to check it out.

There was a $5 cover charge to get in, so the experience, from the outset, was totally unlike browsing through books at a thrift store, or even in a Barnes & Noble.

The “ballroom” in which the fair was staged was not large and was crammed with 40 or so “booths” bearing books, comics, posters, prints, and other related items.

At one booth, I was stunned to see a copy of John Updike’s book, Rabbit Run, sitting there nonchalantly with an $850 price tag laying on it.

While not a scholar, I am an Updike fan, and own nearly all of his books, many of them as first editions.

Rabbit Run was originally published in 1960. However, my copy is an old, worn pocket paperback version. It cost me 95 cents and bore the 1970 movie tie-in cover. The movie -- which starred James Caan, Carrie Snodgress, Anjanette Comer, and Jack Albertson -- was semi-loathed by Updike.

Updike, who died in 2009, is considered a notable contemporary American author and all but a couple of his books are still in print and widely available.

It was a little jarring to see one of his titles commanding such a high price.

Why does that doggy in the window cost so much?

“What makes it worth $850?” I asked the man manning the booth, interrupting his banter with a chum.

“It’s a first edition, in good condition, unmarked...Updike is an important author...this is probably his most notable book.”

“Well, duh,” I thought to myself.

All of this I knew or assumed.

But still, eight hundred and fifty clams?

I pressed him gently, asking if there was more about the book that merited the XXXL pricing.

He explained, somewhat impatiently, that he’d sold copies in better condition for more money, and in slightly less good condition for less money, and that this copy was clearly worth the $850.

So there.

“But,” I teased, “it isn’t even signed!”

He replied dryly, and with finality, “I could sign it for you if you want.” And his friend, sitting next to him, chimed in, chuckling, “And I’ll sign it, too.”

Okay then.

Needless to say, I didn’t buy the book. I’m content with the copy I own.

I chatted with another proprietor about my fondness for Updike, and mentioned that, once I discovered him, I always tried to obtain first editions of his new books as they came out. His response was, “You mean you bought them in a store?”

Well, yes!

Unless they were available on Amazon, of course.

I momentarily did seriously consider buying a copy of Buchanan Dying by Updike that another seller had in his booth.

It was, also, in good condition, etc., etc., a hardcover, originally priced at $6.95, and now available for a mere $60.

Buchanan Dying is a play by Updike, originally published in book form in 1974. Being as this was a smaller print-run title than most of Updike’s books, and one I don’t own, I was a little interested. I was able to talk the buyer down to $48, but still couldn’t bring myself to make the purchase.

After all, I could find a perfectly good copy online for around $10, including shipping.

The high cost of book publishing

Valuing books is a tricky business.

When first published and released into the wild, as described in the $1.99 e-book, The Battle of $9.99: How Apple, Amazon, and the Big Six Publishers Changed the E-Book Business Overnight by Andrew Richard Albanese, here is the typical way books are priced:
“Publishers set the list prices of their books (the price printed on the cover, and, theoretically, the price to the consumer) and sell copies to retailers at a discount off the list price. The standard discount is usually about 50% for most popular consumer fiction and nonfiction. Retailers then sell their copies to the consumer at whatever price they deem reasonable. And they can return unsold stock to the publishers for credit.”
That hardcover copy of Rabbit Run originally had a list price of $4 in 1960. That means the publisher actually sold it for only $2, and from that $2 John Updike probably earned less than 10 cents.

Talk about your freakonomics!

Today, a brand new trade paper copy of Rabbit Run runs around $16, list.

Once a book is sold once, the author never sees any more money from its resale. And unsold, overstocked copies of Rabbit Run, or any book, then and now, are remaindered by the publisher for pennies on the dollar.

Authors seldom make any money on remainders even though remainders get resold.

You can tell a book that’s been remaindered as it will be marked by the publisher, usually with a wide felt marker stroke on the bottom edge. This makes them non-returnable.

It also generally renders the book uncollectible or at least minimizes its collectible value.

Often, too, the pages and covers of remainders, while touted as “like new” in some resell stores, will bear some yellowing or other tell-tale signs of age or slight wear.

While you may be paying “half price” for a “like new” book in a discount store, you’re really paying more.

“I write to be collected, not read,” said no author ever.

I visited the website of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America to learn a little more about the trade. They have an 8-part mission statement explaining their raison d’être.

While there’s a stated intent to foster good relations among its membership and the expressed desire to increase interest in collecting and preserving old books and associated materials, something was missing.

Annie Dillard wrote, “The mind -- the culture -- has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel. With these we bluster about continents and do all the world’s work. With these we try to save our very lives.”

And, it could be said, with these we fill books and from the books we read and fill our minds, and this cycle continues the earth turning, continues lives being lived.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Or, rather, read, read again, read more, and write on.

As I’ve mulled my visit to the book fair, I’ve wondered who the buyers of collectible books are.

Certainly not, at least primarily, readers?

The great irony is that, apparently, many get into the trade because of their love for reading books, but then the books they buy and sell are not for reading.

A well-read book does not a collectible make.

The copies of Updike’s books I own, while many are first editions, are not unmarked, but bear the loving bruises of having been handled, hauled around, and engagingly read.

Meaning I tend to underline passages and jot notes in the margins of nearly every book I touch. That’s one reason I’m not a fan of libraries. They don’t like when you do that to their books.

And I guess that’s why I could never be a collector of antique or rare books.

Collecting means you obtain and display, and perhaps resell. But you don’t use.

While I guess it would be flattering somehow to have authored a collectible book, I cannot imagine any author thinking as they labored in their writing, “I can’t wait to see this book sitting unread, in pristine condition, on someone’s bookshelf!”

Let loose the cracked tomes!

As I’ve thought about the books trapped in those fair booths, I’ve daydreamed about becoming an antique book anarchist, stealthily traversing the country, bound in leather mask, rechargeable power drill in hand, breaking into antique book fairs at night, drilling holes in the books, rendering them uncollectable and fit only for the thrift stores, but not unreadable.

Kind of like breaking into a zoo and letting out the animals, which could be less dangerous than freeing books to be read.

That one thing missing from the mission statement of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, and something that not one of the proprietors at the fair said about what made the books valuable is, “This one is a great read. The story is priceless. The writing is rich. This book is a treasure trove of ideas.”

Solomon lamented “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

I don’t believe he was complaining that there are too many books, but rather that keeping up with all the knowledge that was fit to print can be exhausting.

Perhaps it was he who coined the phrase, “So many books to read, yet so little time.”

While a collectible book may command a high price, the real value isn’t in the book as an object, but in the words inside them getting inside you.

After we wearied ourselves at the Ann Arbor Antiquarian Book Fair, we refreshed ourselves with a visit, first to a gelato shop, and then to a nearby used-book store where, for about $12, I obtained two books to add to my abundant collection of well-read and soon-to-be well-read treasures of sweet, tasty grammar and lexicon.

Now, does anyone have a rechargeable power drill I could borrow, indefinitely, no questions asked?

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If money were no object, would you collect rare and old books? Something else? How many books do you own? How many ebooks? Which do you prefer, ebooks or print books? 

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