Held in The Piano this was a small select audience of self-confessed book lovers, book accumulators and book collectors. The speakers were Shaun Bythell owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland (and author of novel The diary of a bookseller)and Brian Phillips who has after a long career in publishing in New Zealand now sells collectable New Zealand books.
Shaun, I’m pleased to say, was rocking a “Black Books” Dylan Moran look with a delightfully frayed sports jacket and generally casually disheveled vibe. Excellent. He modestly introduced himself as a general bookseller and someone “generally knowing not very much about everything”.
To warm us up we played a guess the value of some dusty old books game. With seven second hand titles from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations to James Clavell’s Shogun, and with a little Harry Potter and Hone Tuwhare thrown in, the books ranged in value from $10 to $500. I can report that everyone including Shaun Bythell got the valuations wrong showing the vagaries and conundrum of book selling and collecting. The book with the highest value turned out to be Shogun.
The conversation meandered somewhat but generally covered: how to sell your own book collections, what to keep and what to collect.
- Brian’s advice for would-be sellers was to consider selling books with a value over $500 at auction, and lower valued stock yourselves online using Trade Me.
- What to keep was easily answered by what you love, book collecting is about passion.
- Finally, what to collect? Shaun praised Folio Society books for their high production standards, beautifully decorated covers and great illustrations. They are relatively inexpensive to buy but exquisite and would hold their value.
- Brian recommended several New Zealand titles to keep an eye out for including Wash day at the Pa originally published by the Department of Education as a bulletin for schools and later withdrawn because of its unflattering picture of Maori rural life, Man Alone by John Mulgan (the 1939 English edition) and South Island of New Zealand from the Road by Robin Morrison, preferably with dust jacket intact.
There was some discussion on the added value of author signatures on books. Here Shaun took the view that an author signature only added 10% to the value of the book unless the author was very famous or very reclusive. Janet Frame was considered a good example of an author who signed relatively few books and was very collectable. Establishing the provenance of the book, and the authenticity of the signature was also something to consider, and several online sites hosting authenticated author signatures were mentioned.
Featherston got, for me, an unexpected shout-out as New Zealand’s first booktown. With an increasing number of second hand bookshops Featherston is positioning itself to join the likes of Wigtown in Scotland and Hay-on-Wye in Wales as a book buying and book event destination. Shaun visited Featherston this week and described it as “rough and ready, not too polished but worth a visit”. He hopes the book trade will help reverse the area’s economic decline.
On a less positive note Shaun described the activities of megalisters, online sellers of second hand books with more than 100,000 listings. In the UK second hand books can be bought from institutions for as little as 10 pence per kilo. These pallets of books are then processed at huge warehouses with little or no attention paid to the individual titles. Re-sold on Amazon and Abe Books these books often make more money for the supplier from the hiked up postage charges than from the value of the book itself but through economy of scale profits are made, and the sustainability of the independent secondhand bookseller made more tenuous.
Shaun also saved some scorn for librarians, and our irritating habit of covering library books with plastic covers that leak glue, tape and labels that yellow and cancellation stamps that blot endpapers, not to mention RFID tags, barcodes and all the other staff and customer created mayhem that a poor public library book endures over its short, brutal life. When challenged he did mutter something about libraries as cornerstones of democracy and bastions of learning but I might have imagined that.
A bit more Shaun and a little less Brian, affable and knowledgeable though he is, would have created a better balanced and less parochial workshop but overall this was a super interesting insight into the joys and perils of book collecting and book selling.