By Chris Owen.
"Digital marketplaces such as Amazon have disrupted -- some might say ruined -- the traditional publishing industry. And following a flurry of launches in the last year, e-readers look set to appear in Christmas stockings everywhere. But what does all of this mean for the trade in antiquarian books?
"Decades ago, the antiquarian book market was dominated by specialist sellers sitting in dusty shops stacked to the ceiling with first editions, signed copies, manuscripts, and rare folios. Then came the internet. With the advent of global access to information, (and stock), came the opportunity to reach out to a broader audience, and stores were battling with the new boys in the form of Abebooks (one of the very first sites on the web), and of course Amazon, which, lest we forget, started as an online book store.
"Looking back, in 1997, there were around a million books available on the web -- at the time a seemingly huge number, but a fraction of the 140 million estimated books available online today. Books still form a massive volume of online retail trade; research has suggested that 41 percent of people who shop online have bought a book through the web.
"Sam Missingham, co-founder of Future Book, agrees, "Amazon's second hand market has revolutionised the way people buy second hand books. There's almost no book I can't buy now if I want a copy -- 10 years ago I people could have taken a year scouting through second hand shops and still not have found what I want. Now one five-second search on Amazon and you can have it delivered to your door."
"However, this marketplace brought with it opportunity and also threats -- according to Julian Wilson, Books Specialist at Christie's in London, 'There's never been a better time for people to buy such a wide range of rare books at low prices. A culture of price under cutting is causing prices to fall dramatically in the low to mid end market. For instance, 17th-century county maps of England are selling at about 30-40 percent of their value 20 years ago.'
"Missingham agrees to an extent, but suggests the mid-market is perhaps just 'shrinking slightly'. She adds, 'the mid-market for ebooks on Kindle store is being overloaded with self-published books of varying quality -- indeed oft described as a tsunami of shit.'
"At the top end however, the market is booming. Antiquarian literature has seen consistent growth, and the likes EEBO (Early English Books Online) is allowing collectors to compare rare items and verify their credentials, while Abebooks and the records kept by resellers and auction houses has allows them to price items effectively. Indeed, the likes of EEBO and other collectables sites are proving invaluable in the battle against forgeries, and in clearing up subjective opinion on veracity of rare books.
"Wilson cites a recent example where he was unconvinced that a Harry Potter first edition hardback, potentially worth £10,000, was bona fide. On examining the title page closely, he discovered it was taken from a paperback and had been almost perfectly inserted into a second edition hardback, itself worth only £200.
"Similarly he remembers a faked frontispiece in a copy of Shakespeare's First Folio, an almost legendarily rare item in the antiquarian book market. Convinced there was something amiss, he and his colleagues spent hours at the British Library comparing it to verified copies of the First Folio, as well as other online resources, and ultimately were able to put their finger on the problem: the chain lines in the paper (a distinct book "fingerprint" as it were), were different to confirmed editions.
"Ironically, the market was also affected by the dotcom boom itself and the boom of the modern digital age -- not through the surge of online retail, but by the entrepreneurs behind the multi-million dollar sites which emerged, who drove a spike in the antiquarian book market, one previously driven by 45-65-year-old collectors which have (and still do) dominate the scene.
"These new collectors wanted the flagship books; the likes of Darwin's The Origin of the Species. What this meant for the market was that individual books shot up in price (and have remained high) -- a first edition of Darwin's 'Origin' was worth perhaps £20,000 in 1994, but by 1999 had shot up to around £80,000 and remains around there today, nudging toward £100,000 for very fine copies.
"However, first editions of the rest of Darwin's leading work, such as The Descent of Man remain static at around £5,000, while his other lesser known works can be found still for prices in the hundreds of pounds. This skew is true for 'Origin…' as it is for many other seminal works -- Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations being a prime example, which Christie's sold for a record-breaking £157,250 in 2010.
"Interestingly, it is around this time that the collectables market started to witness a change in marketing strategy. Previously auction house brochures detailed the items' condition and quality; from the mid-nineties, explanations of the importance started to emerge and dominate in order that potential buyers (who had no collectables history, nor academic insight into the literary world), could understand what they were buying.
"It's natural to think that such a drive in the top end might push the collectable books market the same way as philately, where rare stamps are now holding their value better than anything aside from gold, and indeed are proving to be a highly lucrative investment strategy. However, a statute binding all members of the Antiquarian Book Sellers Association strictly forbids this: sellers cannot position rare books as investment opportunities. It's an intriguing polarity, and one that could be affected by an additional factor, the proliferation of the e-reader.
"The democracy that cheap, easily-downloadable books brings could be seen as a threat to the sector, and indeed there has been concern that it too will drive a race to the bottom and devalue the printed page. However, Wilson thinks this could in fact bring with it a great opportunity to put value back into the publishing sector, through initial discovery of books, and the subsequent creation of ultra-limited, beautifully-made original products.
"While this may drive a collectables market, it may not drive the sales figures (and revenue) that investors will demand. However, it does open up the debate about whether publishers should also take a longer term market responsibility as well as the shorter term financial one.
"Missingham suggests that there are other issues to heed, namely the community aspect of any web-based marketplace, 'the main issue is how to find and discover the quality books online. Talk in the industry is of reliable gatekeepers reducing in number, the surge of dubious, untrustworthy online reviews being the main issue'.
"There's much talk of similarities between the second hand book industry and that of the humble independent record shop. While the likes of Rough Trade, itself a British icon, are prospering, the number of small private stores across the country has plummeted in the last decade -- predominantly as a result of the digital music boom, and the devaluing of music amid the clamour for "free" content. Let's hope the books trade can learn from music's mistakes."