Sunday, June 12, 2011

Why the rare book market online is raising, not lowering prices

Tolkien's Gown and Other Stories of Famous Authors and Rare BooksTolkien's Gown and Other Stories of Famous Authors and Rare Books by R.A. Gekoski

Rick Gekoski is a dealer in rare books, but he's also a natural story-teller and a good gossip. He is happy to talk about money - which makes his accounts of buying and selling books all the more interesting. And he takes an almost philosophical view of what he and his peers in the book trade do for a living.

Tolkien's Gown is a gripping account of the famous writers he's dealt with, both in person, and personified by the first editions of their work that have passed through his hands. I was so enthralled when I read it last summer, that I went to see Gekoski talk at a rare book fair in London last week.

In person he's a slightly unkempt figure with straggly hair and thick glasses. But his mastery of his subject and confidence in his own judgement make him a charismatic speaker, funny, clever and wise. Here's some of what he had to say:

The internet is probably raising rather than lowering the price of his kind of books. As soon as someone has anything they think might be of value, they go online and price it according to the most expensive copies they can see, without the knowledge to realise the differences between copies that determine price. So instead of a dealer like him turning up and telling the seller what their book is worth, he is now second-guessed by his customer, who, in Gekoski's view, usually gets it wrong.

He is fed up with today's obsession with 'fine' copies. Older books should look old, he says. And there's a ridiculous premium paid for books with dustjackets. He cited one he bought with a jacket for £80,000 which would have sold for less than £2000 without the jacket.

His solution to the internet destroying his business is to deal in books that are so rare that they aren't for sale online. That way, his expertise can still play a part in the buying and selling. But it means the average price of books he trades is £8000. It also means that the old 'scouting' tours he used to enjoy, visiting bookshops and collectors in the US and Australia, are largely a thing of the past.

The fun's gone out of it, he said, and that special relationship between collector and dealer has been lost. Where once his customers, like a lawyer's clients, came to him for advice, in a mutually beneficial relationship, today he is at odds with them, sometimes even in competition for books. But there is still a wisdom he brings to the business, seeing the collector as a kind of artist, that surely the best collectors must still value.

Graham Greene told him, he said, as he was visiting him in Antibes, that if he hadn't been a novelist, he would have liked to be a book dealer, because it was a form of treasure hunting. And if I hadn't been a dealer, Gekoski replied, I would have liked to be a novelist.

He brings one quality to his business that the internet can never replace: he is obviously good company - and I suspect that much of his success is down to the fact that people such as Greene and many others he writes about in Tolkien's Gown enjoyed having him around. He appreciates writing as well as books, making him the perfect house guest to distract a writer from getting down to work.

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