Medium Rare – The Value of Scarcity in the age where Everything is Available

I got into collecting books when I was 17 – I had a very engaging English professor my senior year in high school who introduced me to classics like Of Human Bondage and The Brothers Karamazov, and my first foray into collecting was to spend more time at Borders or Barnes and Noble than was necessary to buy books for school, reading the summaries on the backs of all these other famous books, trying to see what else might actually be as good as advertised.  Books underwent a transformation from “chore” and “homework” to “hobby,” and the bookstore was the site of this newfound hobby… and, since I have an obsessive personality, I spent a lot of time in bookstores.  Once I got bored of the local new-book stores, my then-girlfriend’s father gave me a guide to used bookstores in the area.  (He also gave me one for Southern California as a gift before I left to attend college in Los Angeles… as relics of the pre-internet age in book collecting, I doubt these books are even in print anymore.)  The first place I went was the famous labyrinthine shop Bookman’s Alley in Evanston, IL.  There, I found a copy of The Brothers Karamazov published by the Heritage Press, handsomely presented in a slipcase and illustrated throughout the text with full-page woodcuts.  This was my first experience liking a book as a physical object as much as the text inside.  I paid $25 for it, which I eventually learned was a bad deal, but to me it seemed like a bargain, given that a new copy in hardcover cost the same amount and was much more boring.  From that point forward, I was hooked, and my relationship with books as things to keep, things that enriched my life simply by sitting on shelves, began.

By book collector standards, I’m a little sapling at the ruddy-cheeked age of 29.  At least I have the luxury of being prematurely bald (a process that started a full ten years ago now), which gives me the credibility of a 40-year old when I’m poking around in rare book stores.  So, one of the things that has always been part of my reality is using the internet to support my hobby.  I can’t imagine buying a book without checking its price on Abebooks.com first, unless I’m buying it from a dealer I trust or I already have an innate sense of what it is worth without having to go online.  Rather than having to pore over auction results or other missives sent out to the trade, I can keep a pretty good handle on how well the market for the authors in whom I’m interested is doing based on my daily eBay updates.  The first book I bought from Abebooks – a collection of Oscar Wilde short stories published by the Limited Editions Club – was a revelation… here was something I had seen in a local bookstore for $200, but I could have it for $60 from someone selling it online (and in better condition, it turned out).

Much has been made, especially by older book dealers, of the havoc wreaked on the trade by the internet.  I don’t disagree that it upended their business model, but I definitely don’t think what it has done is all bad.  By providing a level of transparency previously unheard-of in the trade, the internet exposed what was really rare, and what just seemed rare because dealers said it was rare and charged an appropriately high price for it.  But, and this is the main thing I’m interested in in this post (after what I’m sure has been another gripping rambling preamble) the question of what “rare” is is as ambiguous as it has ever been.  At first, the books whose value suffered the most were the modern fiction first editions.  It turns out that, as publishers began using better materials to print books, modern first editions in fine condition are pretty common and not worth the premium dealers were hanging on them.  Thus began the great race to the bottom on Abebooks, where many dealers tried to position their books as the cheapest copy available, while others kept their prices high, hoping their status as premium bookmen would keep the customers buying from them.  (An aside about condition: many collectors grouse about the confusing way books are graded: “fine” means like new; “very good” means anywhere from pretty crappy to pretty good; “good” means bad; “acceptable” means horrible.  But, if you imagine these terms describing a book published in 1880, they’re probably pretty accurate.  A book in “good” condition that is 130 years old probably is pretty messed up, but it still looks good, given its age.  Now, though, in the age of acid free paper, quality adhesives, sophisticated binding machines, and heavyweight stock for dustjackets, books just aren’t falling apart… and so a book in “good” condition looks really ratty given the quality of its binding and its young age.)

The plight of the modern first edition was made evident this February, when I worked for a British dealer at a book fair in San Francisco.  Over the course of the weekend, I watched him sell probably close to $15,000 worth of books.  Meanwhile, nearby dealers came by to chat and all noted how awfully the fair was going for them – one dealer whose stand was across from mine even complained of not making a single sale.  The thing I noticed at this fair was that ultra-modern was all the rage… a first edition of Infinite Jest or House of Leaves was de rigeur at nearly every booth.  By contrast, my stand had a very eclectic mix of books, most of which were very old, and all of which were priced a little bit below market.  Instead of trying to “float” the market for Danilewski, Foster-Wallace, Eggers, Chabon, and friends by obstinately sticking at high pricepoints even the face of a clear lack of consumer demand, my employer sold books that were actually rare, and at reasonable prices too.  (He did most of his business to other dealers, suggesting what I had already been told before meeting him – that he is “not to be trifled with” when it comes to sourcing books that other people want to buy and resell.)  Fair patrons were looking for something unique, something you don’t see in bookstores – not just a nicer copy of a book that came out 10 – 15 years ago that they already owned in paperback.

So what does “rare” mean, and how important is it that a book be rare?  Of course, basic supply and demand dictates that fewer copies will be more expensive than too many copies, but when a casual book collector browses listings on eBay, just about everything is “RARE” – I’ve even seen this term used to describe books with print runs of 20,000.  I’ve written a lot about this regarding the Codex Seraphinianus – a book that is ALWAYS described as rare, even though – at the time I’m writing this post – there are three copies available on eBay, and over 10 on Abebooks.  Are there different levels of scarcity?  Sure, the Codex is rare if you’re looking for it in bookstores… in fact, I’ve only ever seen two copies of it in bookstores, and I spend a lot of time in bookstores.  Second-Life addicts describe non-Second-Life time as “meatspace,” so does that mean that a book like the Codex is “meatrare” (rare meat, meaty rare, medium rare, OH PUNS!)?  Actually, this isn’t a bad term – “medium rare” is a book that you’re unlikely to find in meatspace, but that a credit card number and 5 minutes online will have sitting on your doorstep in a week’s time.

Then, there are books that are easy to buy on the internet, provided that you find them first.  Sticking with Serafini, let’s look at Storie Naturali, his latest book.  Now, if you search for it, a bunch of people in the US are selling it on Abebooks.  Back when I bought it, this wasn’t the case.  (Farbeit from humble me to claim credit for introducing this book to the US market, but until I posted a blog about it, there was NOTHING about it in English, except for a bullet point on Serafini’s Wikipedia page.  No pictures, no articles, no nothing.  Then I posted about it, and the Abebooks blog brought the story to a wider audience (they could have done a better job crediting me, but the dates of the posts speak for themselves), and all of a sudden I was getting 50 hits a day for a few days, and then another few weeks later, a handful of dealers is advertising the ULTRA RARE new Serafini book in their stock.)  I happened to find it from Deastore.com – the Italian Amazon – during a routine search for Serafini stuff that I do every couple months, because I want to make sure I have as much of his work as I can get my paws on.  Now, was this book rare when I bought it?  Or medium rare?  It was right there for the taking, but not one US bookstore, nor Abebooks, nor eBay had it for sale.  Is a book still rare if an intrepid book hunter unearths it?

This question in turn brings us to the size of the edition – Storie Naturali at 660 copies is statistically more scarce than the first edition of the Codex at 4000 copies, but the latter is decidedly rarer.  Now, it makes sense for it to be rarer, since it is older, but it was always a deluxe book, meant to be treasured and not merely read and tossed off.  So where did all the 4000 copies go?  It’s not as if it’s even that old – not even 30 years yet.  Maybe in 10 years, after Storie Naturali has sold out, it will become the new “lost” Serafini work, generally unavailable to all but the most well-monied collectors.  And money does play a significant part – let’s switch gears and consider the other “lost” Serafini book, Pulcinellopedia (Piccola), a book that had a healthy first (and only) printing of 5000 copies.  Online listings dub this the “lost second book by the author of the Codex Seraphinianus,” although it’s hard to say how it really got lost, unless there is some backstory I don’t know about, whereby the publisher lost half the boxes in a fire or something.  This book is another “medium rare” title – I have never seen a copy in bookstores, but there are three available online currently.  However, the prices are awfully high – $800, $1200, and a not entirely unreasonable $1850 for a beautiful inscribed copy (see my next-most-recent post for more on this copy).  In my opinion, the book isn’t worth this much.  I bought my copy for $250 from a bookseller who at one point had multiple copies, and I have bought copies as low as $95 (bad eBay listings in foreign languages are your friend, apparently) and sold them as high as $400.  In my insurance documents, I have this book listed at $500, and the true value of it is probably between $300 and $500.  The problem is that the Abebooks sellers who are listing it are effectively holding it hostage, floating the market for it in hopes that the demand for the book eventually catches up to their price.

Demand, then, is the other key here.  Before I started writing this post, I was thinking about rarity, scarcity, and trying to figure out what was the flat-out rarest book in my collection.  This is kind of like finding the smallest grain of sand – is it the book with the smallest limitation?  I have tons of books with limitations under 100, and some with limitations as low as 10.  Then, I have books that are rare not because of the limitation, but because they are very unique – for example, I have a number of Black Sparrow Press publisher’s copies.  These copies match the “lettered” limitations of 26 that were only offered to collectors, but only one of each title was produced.  My copy of John Yau’s My Heart is the Eternal Rose Tattoo even has the original invitation to the Author’s wedding (sent to the publisher) laid in under the front cover.  That’s rare – I know that not one other collector has a copy like this.  Same with my copy of Kramers Ergot 7, which I wrote about (and photographed) a couple years ago.  I have signatures from (I think) 20 contributors, as well as two letterpress prints (also with multiple signatures), one of which is numbered out of 200, and another that is numbered “A.P.”  Because of the signatures and the two prints, I know my copy is very unique.  I’m sure the publisher’s personal copy is more desirable, but I can venture a guess that my copy is in the 5 or 10 best copies of this title.  Likewise, many of my comic anthologies and art anthologies are signed by multiple contributors, and I know that these books are truly rare, meaning that if they were lost, they would not be replaceable.

But… how much do people really care about these books?  In the age where everything is available, how much does it really matter to have a really exquisitely unique book by John Yau?  Who cares about John Yau, or having a book that rare in the first place?  What separates that book from a potato chip that looks like the Virgin Mary balancing a beach ball on the nose of a trained seal?  This cuts to the heart of how the internet has affected the book trade… it’s not just that online book sites drove prices down, or that ebooks are going to replace print books eventually or somesuch hobgoblin of the technophobe.  It’s that the internet has turned collectors into overexposed film by bombarding them with collectibles.  There’s just SO MUCH OUT THERE, how do you collect just books?  Or, more accurately, how do you land on books?  It takes a certain type of personality to become a collector of anything in the first place, and the internet is an impossible-to-navigate bazaar of things to collect, and even worse, it has made all its collectibles sickeningly available to the point where, with a decent credit limit, you could have 10 respectable collections in just a few hours of browsing.

So, it’s no wonder why the term “rare” gets used so frequently – books are not only vying with each other for supremacy, but with everything else available on a site like eBay, trying to grab the attention of the type of person that cares if something is rare in the first place.  It’s like an antenna ball in a crowded parking lot – and now all the cars have the same one.  (I’m going to do my best to propagate the term “medium rare,” since I think it’s clever, and I’m hoping that the Abebooks blog publishes a blog post about it while only obliquely crediting me as the person who coined it.)

What, then, is the value of having something “rare,” besides simply owning something that announces its own opposition to the overwhelming abundance that collectors confront when buying online?  It has to start with the book itself – if it’s a book no one wanted in the first place, being rare matters very little.  Let’s say I decided to sell my John Yau publisher’s copy on eBay and in a separate auction sold a paperback reading copy – my guess is that the publisher’s copy would sell for $20, and the reading copy for $3.  Clearly, being rare does not innately create value.  Now, let’s take a book of mine that is medium rare and repeat the same experiment… a signed first edition of Bukowski’s War all the Time.  I bought it for $200 after looking around for a long time for a nice signed copy.  It isn’t the signed, limited edition (which is actually less rare, since all 400 of the signed, limited edition sold to collectors, while much of the 500-copy first trade edition was sold to libraries, and very few were actually kept by collectors, signed incidentally, and preserved in fine condition), but it is a nice copy of a book that didn’t have a very big print run in hardcover when it was published.  If I put it up on eBay, given the crappy economy, I could probably expect $200 – $250, while maybe getting $5 – 10 for a paperback reading copy of the same book.  If it was the signed, limited edition, I could probably get $300 – $350 for it (more when the economy finally rebounds).  Yau vs. Bukowski – one is a little known art critic and poet who writes incredibly beautiful abstracts, and one is a folk hero and American icon, beloved by millions around the world.

Above, I define rare by how physically common the book is.  The Yau is extremely rare – it is a unique copy of which there is only one.  The Bukowski is medium rare – not common to see in bookstores, pretty limited, but available online.  But, in the context of the internet as the all-consuming and all-consumable bazaar, the Bukowski is more rare.  What I mean is, the Bukowski book connects the owner to a major event in American literary history.  It is one of the most desirable copies of a very well-regarded collection of poems by the man who many argue turned American letters on its head.  It is hand-signed by Bukowski, and he was probably drunk when he did it.  It is a piece of history.  This book, then, is so much more rare than the simply unique Yau book, or any number of singular items that go unsold in late-night auctions.  It is truly a rare find on the internet – it’s something of substance, for once!  Something the collector can latch on to and pull out of the fetid morass of commerce, porn, and boneheaded comments on news stories, something with more history and longevity than the tangled mass of wires that comprises the worldwide web.

Obviously, scarcity only matters when there’s demand for the work in the first place, although the point I’m trying to make goes deeper.  A book may be rare or medium rare, but the real value of scarcity in the internet age is when the very feature that makes the book scarce ties it back to history.  This could mean a signature, an uncommon copy of an edition that was suppressed or censored, a pristine copy of a poorly bound book most of whose copies have since fallen apart, a key association or inscription, and so on.  Collecting books means keeping literary history front and center in one’s life, and the truly rare books are the ones the have a tangible grasp on that history that other books just can’t duplicate.

***

So, as an epilogue, I thought I would describe what I finally decided was the rarest book in my collection, keeping all of the above in mind.  The book I chose is a Presentation Copy of There’s no Business by Bukowski and illustrated by R. Crumb.  This book was published by Black Sparrow press as a showcase of the Bukowski/Crumb collaboration (the second such book, after Bring me your Love), and it contains the titular story as well as several full-page illustrations by Crumb.  There was a limited edition of around 475 copies (a numbered edition of 400, plus a lettered edition of 26, plus presentation copies, publisher’s copies, printer’s copies, etc.), meaning that Crumb signed 475 individual pages, sent them to Bukowski who also signed them and then sent them back to the publisher to have them bound into the books.  A presentation copy is already a pretty rare variant to own (around 10 were designated as such), but this one is special… as the story (which was relayed to me by the dealer from whom I bought the book, who heard it from John Martin, the publisher) goes, Crumb grew bored signing his name on sheet after sheet, so on one sheet, he signed Bukowski’s name in his distinctive thin-line rapidograph script.  Bukowski, receiving the page, then proceeded to sign Crumb’s name in his rough, angular felt-tip pen scrawl.  Martin received the page and designated it a presentation copy, since it didn’t really fit any of the other designations, although it remained in his collection until it was sold fairly recently.  Bukowski’s official bibliography by Aaron Krumhansl confirms that there is only one copy with the “double forged signature.”  The reason this book is so rare is that Bukowski and Crumb signatures are both common as signatures go – both authors have countless “signed, limited” editions available, and it isn’t unrealistic to think that between the two of them, there are thousands upon thousands of signed books floating around.  But, I am reasonably certain that there is only one book that has ever been published in which either of them signed another author’s name.  The father of underground comix and the main inspiration for pretty much every cartoonist that I admire, and the greatest American poet of the 20th Century signing each other’s names in one book, one time, among all the books the two of them ever published.  And I have it.

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2 Responses to “Medium Rare – The Value of Scarcity in the age where Everything is Available”


  1. 1 steve in minneapolis October 1, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    Thank you for this very thoughtful post. While the bookstore that I work at deals mostly with quite routine used books, we do, of course, have some collectibles, and we do, of course, use Abebooks, Alibris and similar sites to get an idea of the going price for things. As you note, the offered price online can vary widely (in either direction) from what we can expect to get from walk-in trade. I intend to share your well expressed article with my co-workers.

  2. 2 Adam February 20, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    I got the original book of the brothers Karamazov 1st published book in 1979-80 in old russian.


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