One of the interesting things about the used book market is how different channels operate seemingly independently of each other. On the one hand, you have the eBay channel, which changes in dynamic sometimes weekly, and on the other hand, there’s the retail/Abebooks channel that operates on its own logic. The lack of cross-talk here is really interesting to me, and it’s the main way I convinced myself I could make money at this little game. It started with a couple FMR books I sold for a profit at Moe’s Books in Berkeley… but first, as you must’ve expected from this blog, 2 long-winded levels of background.
First, a little bit about FMR. The acronym stands for Franco Maria Ricci, the name of the publisher. Ricci famously describes getting his start in publishing after seeing a manual of typefaces by Giambattista Bodoni and having the same reaction that he assumes Stradivarius must’ve had after seeing a handcrafted violin for the first time: he knew immediately that he wanted to be a publisher. His books are really over the top luxury-wise, as is his magazine, the self-proclaimed Most Beautiful Magazine in the World. I first heard of FMR when I became interested in the Codex Seraphinianus, since Ricci “discovered” Serafini and was the first to publish his book. Through researching FMR’s “Signs of Man” series (dedicated to unknown or underappreciated artists), I decided to start collecting them. They are published in Italian, French, and 8 volumes in English… the ones that never made it into English are some of my favorites, including Zotl, a catalog of bizarre paintings of animals by an artist (Aloys Zotl) who was never formally trained and had no stylistic development whatsoever during his career. Or Fini Mundi, a collection of 18th-century paintings of the apocalypse with commentary by Borges. Typically, these books (many are still available new) go for $300-$400. All of them are bound in silk, many are in clamshell library cases, and the covers feature gold-stamped Bodoni type and pastedown color illustrations. They are printed on handmade Italian paper (all FMR books in the series except the Codex feature a distinctive light-blue tint), individually numbered (usually in editions of 2000-4000) and signed by Ricci.
Normally, these books would go for slightly less than their Abebooks prices when they showed up on eBay. $200-$300 was common for the English ones, although you’d often see really beat-up copies of some of them end up selling for $100 or so. Then (now we’re at the 2nd level of background), an interesting thing happened. In June, a woman in Michigan who was primarily a dealer of horse saddles bought an enormous stock of FMR books in an estate sale. And they (and by “they,” I mean the English FMR titles) just started showing up, over and over again. Demand stayed high for a really long time, and they were still selling for over $100 apiece well into the fall. But she just kept selling them and selling them. I’d get outbid at the last second with a high bid of $85, and then I’d win the book 3 weeks later for $60. I ended up buying a lot of them, because I thought their resale potential was high. Moe’s paid out $150 for a copy of Congress of the World by Borges that I got for $50. They planned to sell it for $450, which made it a great deal for both of us (although it’s still on their shelves right now, so I may have come out ahead there). I still have a few, because I like them, and I think that the price will go back up eventually. Maybe.
This brings me to the point of this blog: I watch the eBay market fluctuate independently of the retail market all the time. Things happen (like Porterhouse’s Ryden sale) that flood “rare” product on eBay, and prices go way down, and then that stock dries up, and prices come back up. For one reason or another, the same thing happened with Bukowski books last summer. But this FMR business is starting to spill over, due to the sheer volume of product released into the market. The seller has sold some pretty rare items, and those have fetched accordingly high prices, but she has a seemingly endless supply of the English FMR “Signs of Man” titles, as well as a few other random ones. It’s reached the point where everyone who wants one has one, but she’s still selling them, for less and less as time goes on. Now, books that popped up on Abebooks for $400 last summer are showing up from the same booksellers for $125. It has me wondering how long the market for the books is going to take to rebound, or if it ever will. Since I’m fairly new to the business side of this whole thing, I don’t really have any way to gauge it. A temporary glut will drop prices for a month or two, but what about a year-long assault on demand by oversupply? Prices on Abebooks don’t change very quickly, because they sit in a database that probably doesn’t get updated that often, so when they come down, I assume that they stay that way for a while. I’m wondering if in a year or two, the market will have flipped such that the books are actually going for more money on eBay than they’re listed on Abebooks. (You’d think this would be impossible that people would work to pay more for it on eBay than they could just snatch it up on an e-commerce site, but it happens all the time.)
What I find interesting about the FMR price assault is that, more than any other books I have in my collection, these books, at least from an aesthetic perspective, deserve their high prices. It’s not like a cheap paperback that just so happens to be really rare and gets its price that way- it’s clear that these books were not at all cheap to produce (Japanese silk, handmade paper, all the trimmings). Since the art reproductions can’t be printed directly on the paper, all of the illustrations are printed on glossy paper and “hand-tipped” into the books (how long this must’ve taken for each edition of 3000 is pretty staggering). You hold them- even smell them- and it’s clear that they’re expensive books. They’re designed to look luxurious on some rich couple’s $5000 coffee table. And the content is pretty good too. Ricci prided himself on pairing art monographs with interesting texts, and a lot of books have some neat literature in them. There’s the book of Tarot cards, which sounds dumb on the surface, until you learn that it’s actually a book of the oldest surviving deck of medieval Tarots, made back when Tarot was a parlor game, rather than a method of fortune-telling. Alongside the Tarot illustrations is a novella by Italo Calvino that creates mini-narratives based on the cards. Then there’s the book of paintings by Arcimboldo (the Spanish painter who painted heads made up of flowers or vegetables – composite heads, as they’re called), with an essay by Roland Barthes. (Even though I’m not in grad school anymore and don’t really read literary criticism, there’s something about Barthes that I still get a kick out of. No one can make something seem as interesting as Barthes… I never really cared one way or the other for Arcimboldo until I read Barthes’s essay on him, and now I think he’s incredible.) For Justine, I picked up a collection of photos of children by Lewis Carroll, accompanied by his letters to them (it’s very strange, to say the least).
I bought a bunch of them at one point when the seller contacted me privately about a bulk purchase, and I managed to turn a good profit on them, although I’ve still got a couple left and I’ve exhausted the resources I have to sell them (which often happens when eBay is off limits). I guess I’ll just have to wait a few years and see if the prices ever recover from the flood.