DIY

Every now and then, the Book Fair sees a trend in donations. It’s nothing that would shake Wall Street, and you won’t see it reported on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. It’s just that for a while, donors think alike.

We’ve had about four big donations of cookbooks in the past six or seven days. Two different people brought me cast iron bookends, as well as one set of marble ones. (“Let’s toss in something heavy” was the trend here.) A sushi mat, a pair of salt and pepper shakers, a Santa Claus cake pan…they’re keeping us supplied with culinary trivia.

And five different callers have asked, “Can you tell me what my books are worth before I decide whether to donate them?”

The answer to this is, “Let me tell you how to look them up for yourself.”

I’ve mentioned this before: there are several good websites where you can look up book prices. These websites are not in business for their health: they are sites where people put up books for sale. But they are a good place to find out what the pros are charging for the book you have in your hot little hands.

You can check out abebooks, Amazon, alibris, eBay, viaLibri, or any other site that turns up. The tools are a little different on each one, but you basically type in the title or the author to begin. (Some of these sites have pages you can click to where you can type both of these at the same time, but let’s not go leaping too far.)

Having done this, you get a list of books. But are these YOUR book? On some sites you can eliminate the irrelevant ones by clicking on various options. On others, you can put the books in order by year, so you can scroll through to the year your copy was published. Eventually, you will learn to recognize the print-on-demand copies (the publication date of 2013 should tip you off.) and ignore those. If your copy has a dust jacket, you can skip the ones that don’t. If yours is not autographed, pass by the ones that say SIGNED.

Once you’ve identified the listings that match, you will find that different sellers have put different prices on it. What are they up to: trying to make it more difficult for you? No, rum ragout, they’re trying to make it difficult for each other. Pity you’re not buying: this bloke wants a dollar for his copy. On the other hand, this dealer is asking a hundred thousand. This gives you quite a range: do you just split the difference between the high and the low?

Take it easy. If there are any hints about condition to help out (hinges broken, dust jacket torn in half), those will help. Your best bet is if you happen to have twenty or more listings. If, on scrolling through these, you find that there’s a one dollar copy, a five dollar copy, a hundred thousand dollar copy, and seventeen copies priced between twenty and twenty-two dollars, you can be pretty sure a reasonable price for your book is around twenty-one dollars. (But double check what the seller said about that hundred thousand dollar copy. It MIGHT…no, probably not, but check one more time to be sure.)

What if you have only the two copies, the one and the hundred grand? This is your cue to check one of the other websites and see what’s going on there. Remember that a lot of booksellers list their books on more than one site, so if all you find is the expensive copy, look for the name of the dealer. If it’s the same person as on the other site, you have learned nothing. Keep searching the sites, and branch out to library catalogs online. You’re bound to learn something to tip your price one way or the other.

What if your book doesn’t turn up at all? Well, in the olden days, this meant either that the book was worth nothing at all or so rare nobody had a copy for sale. But in the days of the grand web of cyberinformation, there are no books too common to list. If your book turns up nowhere at all, you have either misspelled something or you have a book that is genuinely rare. Of course “rare” does not guarantee “valuable”.

So what should you do, Neapolitan gravy? You have two choices. You can list it for sale online at any price you want, since there are no copies to compete against yours. (I have done this; somebody else lists a cheaper copy right after I list mine.) Or you can donate it to a friendly local book fair and let it be MY problem. (Not to influence your decision or anything, but that is less work for you. I don’t mind helping you out that way.)

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