Monday, March 4, 2013

PublishAmerica Willem Meiners on the Price of Antique Books

As a collector of antiques, I can tell you with certainty that the man who wrote this known very little about them.

Subject: The price of (very) used books

Good morning:

I know a thing or two about very old books. Late 1500s through mid

There are people who know a thing or hundred about such books. I'm
not one of them. But price, value, what sells, what doesn't sell: ask
me, and I can probably tell you.

These are the kinds of books that are known as antiquarian or

I have no affinity with antiques. Never had. The world is a history
of progress, not of retrogress. Old chairs, cabinets, bedpans, desks,
kitchen appliances are generally uncomfortable. I have never
understood the appeal of surrounding yourself with anything less
comfortable than a La-Z-Boy.

Collectibles: I don't hoard, squirrel, pile, or collect. My dad
collected stamps, cigar boxes, postcards, seashells, matchboxes,
sugar bags, taxidermied birds, newspapers and much more. It stuffed
the house. I collect nothing.

So when I inherited a pile of old books two decades ago, I knew I was
not going to keep them. I have thousands of books in my library (nah,
that's not a collection, it's a library). I'm attached to them. I
bought them, selected them, chose them. I'm not attached to books
that I didn't choose. Therefore one day the old books were going to

Where do you sell antique books? And for how much?

Well, there's an antique answer to that, and a modern one. In the old
days you'd either have to find an antiquarian bookseller (there's
even an association for such guys, to separate the chaff from the
wheat, I guess), or you'd find yourself an auctioneer.

Today there's eBay.

Interestingly, antiquarian booksellers don't sit and wait in their
antiquarian bookstore until you walk in to see if they're interested
in buying your grandfather's book. They used to, or they went to an
auction a few times per year. Not anymore, or at least not solely.
They now congregate at eBay and buy your grandfather's book there
from you. You'll sell it there at the best price you can get for it
on that particular day.

I live in Maryland. I have sold old books to experts as far away as
California, Belgium, and Australia. They pay for the shipping. Do I
sell below market value? I don't think so. If the sales price were
too low, the bookseller around the corner in New York or Washington
DC would have scooped it up for a dollar higher. They're all there
too, watching the bidding on my book.

What else did I learn? That it doesn't make a difference if moisture
has stained the old book pages. It's an indication of age. Scratches
on the cover: no problem. Pages have discolored: it's a good sign, it
proves the age. The ink has become somewhat brownish: don't worry,
it's expected. People wrote in the book, left pen or pencil marks:
nice, it adds to the value, and the older the penned words are, the

And here's another one: I always thought that original leather
binding, 300 or 400 years old, would be more valuable than what's
called vellum, a milky-white or yellowish calfskin. Not necessarily
so. There's something known as prize books, vellum covers with gilt
(looks like gold) stamped in them, typically including the coat of
arms of a European city. Those covers are usually younger than the
original book, by a few years or a few decades, and they were
especially printed as an award for some smart young man who graduated
first in his class in the city college. The boy's name is
hand-written or printed inside the prize book, and the gift is signed
by his professors. This adds dozens of dollars or more to the value
of an old book.

Special advertisement,
click on this cover,
only $9.95 today!

Some books are more in demand than others. You may have a 1650 book
about some religious conflict (it's hard to overestimate people's
urge to proselytize once they claim to have seen the Light - it's
what the first few centuries of book printing were all about) and
can't seem to find a buyer. Yet that 1750 copy of Cicero's orations
sells within a day, despite being a full century younger. Turns out
it's not rocket science. Celebrity names sell. There's really not
much difference between today's New York Times bestsellers list and
what would have been a similar list three or four centuries ago.
Cicero, Livy, Aesop, Tacitus sell. Johnny VanDyke has a much harder
time finding a buyer.

So how much do those old books sell for?

I researched that before joining eBay (which, by the way, I had never
done before, buy or sell). I saw the results of the old-fashioned
book auctions. I compared them to what I saw happening with other
people's old books on eBay, and I noticed a trend that I have
meanwhile found to be correct. Books from between the late 1500s and
mid-1700s sell within a price range of $100-300.

The rarer they are, the higher the price. The more famous the book or
the author, the better the dollar. And if they're from Europe they're
generally more in demand.

Some of you think: is that all? Aren't books that old worth ten
thousand dollars or more? Answer, with very, very few exceptions: no.
They're old, but they're books. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of
copies were printed. From Harvard to Berkeley, every serious
university tends to already have a copy in their library. So they're
rare but not unique.

Others think: 200 bucks on average: not bad for an old, smelly book.

My dad bought those old books in the 1940s for the equivalent of a
few dollars each. One dollar then is worth fourteen dollars now. So
if he bought an old book for $3 and I now sell it for $200, seventy
years later, that's like turning ($3x14=) $42 into five times its
value. Not bad.

But that same book with 500 pages (thin books is so 20th century..)
cost $70 to print in the year 1650, in today's dollars. Almost four
centuries later its market value is only three times that much.
That's a whole lot less spectacular.

And guess what?

Today PublishAmerica pays an average $6.60 to have a new book printed
and delivered. We list them for $20. Also three times as much.

Not much has changed in 400 years.

I invite you to talk back to me. I don't guarantee a response, but I
do guarantee that we listen. You can reach me by email at  subject Attn Willem . In the subject
line write Attn. Willem.

Have a wonderful day!
--Willem Meiners

If you want to rent space in one of Willem's Letters-from-the-CEO, go
to Have your book portrayed
for tens of thousands of people to see in Willem's letter AND on
You can read this letter also online here: -
 Willem's CEO letter archive is here: -


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