Thursday, February 16, 2012

Samuel R Delany and the Pricing of Books

I have read every word Samuel R Delany has published. This is bold, hyperbolic claim clearly but one which, in the broadest terms I can support. However, I realised the other day that somehow I had missed Delany's 2004 post-modern novella, Phallos. Obviously, I would like to remedy that and so I go to the usual online venues to find a copy of the book and discover to my amazement and horror that this paperback novella, from just eight years ago, now costs a minimum of 40.00 GBP and some chancer is hoping for 120.00 for their copy. And it led me to reflect on the strange business of pricing books online. I've been observing the process now as both customer and bookseller for long enough that I think I have a handle on some of the more arcane mysteries of the craft. So let me try and tell you why an ordinary paperback book ends up on sale for such ridiculous prices.

A bookseller, somewhere in the world, picks up a copy of a book from the top of the boxes of his latest house clearance. It's a paperback but when he (or she) goes to their usual bookselling online venues: amazon, abebooks, addall, ebay etc. they can find no other copy for sale. This book, they reason, must be very scarce and so, supply and demand dictates that there should be a hefty price-tag to emphasise its rarity. Let us say they decide to put 100.00 GBP on their book and they leave it online for six months and it fails to sell (this ignores the possibility of it being a genuine rarity with genuine value, in which case it most likely sells at this point and this whole disquisition is irrelevant). So, most likely, out bookseller forgets about this individual book and gets on with their life buying books and selling them for prices that are comparable to the prices of other copies of the same titles they've found online. What they don't realise is that while they've left this rare paperback on sale, others have come across the same book. They have found our bookseller's 100.00 GBP price and whooped with glee that they too have a copy of this rare and expensive book. So, of course, they price theirs at just under the 100.00GBP mark. Over the six months, a number of others all do the same and suddenly there are a half-dozen copies available ranging from 10-100 GBP, leaving our first bookseller looking pretty stupid at the bottom of the search results, as ranked by price. Of course, at some point, the level of the price becomes such that someone will feel they can buy a copy, perhaps at 10 pounds, perhaps when the 10 pound copy has been sold, someone will buy the one at 20 or even 25 pounds. And then more copies will come along and, eager to have the cheapest copy online, the bookseller concerned will take the price back down to 10 pounds again. And so on...

And this, I'm sure is what has gone on with Phallos, as it does with so many other books. There is an added complication in this case that it is a recent book, probably not published in its thousands. So, once the title went out of print with the publisher, the first bookseller to upload a secondhand copy probably didn't find another one out there, they were too new to have come onto the secondhand market. That doesn't make it worth 120.00GBP! Frankly, it doesn't make it worth 40.00GBP either. The price will eventually adjust itself and the price of this book secondhand will probably come down to roughly what any modern paperback costs secondhand. At which point I will be one step closer to genuinely having read every word published by Samuel R Delany.


Vintagemaison said...

Couldn't have put it better myself!

Jimmy said...

I suppose you could say that the market works - eventually. But the trade in modern firsts or hypermoderns is partiularly prone to this sort of over-pricing and to describing brand new firsts as "scarce" or "rare" just because they happen to now be in their second printing. There are plenty of blogs and websites treating these new books as investments which unless you're lucky enough to cherry-pick a HP & the Philosphers Stone or Dragon Tattoo is very unlikely (and is against ABA best practice).

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